No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Winter hibernations

Apologies for the silence around here. I’ve been in a state of hibernation the past few weeks and Adelaide’s also been quiet on the theatre front which, of course, doesn’t help matters much for this blog. I saw a handful of shows in the Cabaret Festival, but I find that genre has its own particular challenges when it comes to reviewing, and with a confluence of factors I never quite got around to writing about any. I’ve got a few projects I’m working on at the moment – both blog and non-blog related, but hopefully I’ll be able to get back into the habit of posting on here a bit more.

Some links from me: A few reviews of Next Wave have been posted on RealTime – the Day Pass and an overview of a few works. A piece in the current Adelaide Review on the lack of rehearsal space in Adelaide. From way back when, the audio of the panel on criticism I did at the AFC, from which I quite possibly disagree with everything I said. Saying things out loud and having to rethink over that really forces you to question your thoughts.

A quick note: Actors’ Equity in the UK has sent a letter to 43 subsidised theatre companies questioning their lack of employment of female actors. I think this is exactly the sort of action which needs to be happening across the sector: change is entirely an action of people drawing things to attention and making questions heard. I don’t, however, agree, with playwright Stella Duffy saying we need to avoid male-dominated plays [UPDATE: Her full argument is here, and much broader than the Guardian’s summary]. Perhaps there is something to be said about making more of an effort to see plays where women take a central role, but the fact I want to see more women represented in theatre doesn’t take away from the fact that their are many brilliant plays which are male dominated. Looking at theatre seasons in Australia this year, there is more than a little deja vu in London critic Matt Truman’s tweet: “If Equity’s gender campaign leads to book-balancing productions of Top Girls & Daisy Pulls It Off etc it will have failed massively.”

And to just join every feminist on the internet this week, some words from Nora Ephron:

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.

Restoring the balance

This article was originally published in the June Adelaide Review. 

A recent report has found that women are underrepresented in key Australian theatre company roles such as writing and directing. But why?

Not one of the eight plays the State Theatre Company of South Australia (STCSA) announced for their 2011 season – in late 2010 – was written by a woman. Indeed, from 2001 to 2011, women have written less than a quarter of the plays the company has mounted.

Come their 2012 program, there is now a female writer or co-writer on five of the eight productions. While outgoing Artistic Director Adam Cook told The Adelaide Review(‘Bright Future on the Stage’, October, 2011) this programming was a “coincidence”, the shift speaks to a much wider national acknowledgment of the underrepresentation of women in the key creative roles of writers and directors in our funded theatre companies.

While conversations about this misrepresentation have been occurring for years, they reached tipping point in late 2009, when several high profile theatre companies announced seasons of work with exceedingly few women. When Company B (now Belvoir) in Sydney released a season of works with only one female playwright and one female director, the first significant waves of awareness occurred in the debate.

First reported on the blog of Sydney playwright Joanna Erskine, who called it an “unacceptable gap in statistics”, the debate quickly spread through theatrical blogs, and began to focus on the underrepresentation of women in many of the country’s highest funded organisations.

This April, the debate came to a crux with the release of the Women in Theatre report from the Australia Council for the Arts. Compiled by academics Elaine Lally and Sarah Miller, the report casts an unflattering light on the theatre sector.

The report looks at the qualitative statistics to get an overview of the true position of women in funded theatre companies; and takes quantitative data through a series of interviews to try and shine better light on the causes of the issues.

One of the key findings of the report focused on the major performing arts companies in the period between 2001 and 2011. These eight theatre companies, of which the STCSA is a member, are the highest funded theatre organisations in Australia. The report showed women make up only 21 percent of the playwrights and 25 percent of the directors working for these companies. At 36 percent, the proportion of productions with at least one woman in the key roles of writer or director is no less dire.

Below the funding levels of the MPA companies, the Theatre Board Key Organisations are a collection of companies funded by the Australia Council with multi-year funding. Typically classified as in the ‘small-to-medium’ sector, Key Organisations represent a larger number of companies than the MPA companies, but each with typically lower outputs of work.

While the report showed greater representation of women in these companies, the proportions are still significantly below parity, with women writing 37 percent of the productions, and directing another 37 percent.

Raised in interviews Lally and Miller held with artists and stakeholders, the reasons for this continuing disparity between gender representations are complex.

While some of these reasons will be familiar to women in many industries, including the structure of employment pathways and the challenges of balancing a career and family, some are unique to the nature of the arts. As one interview respondent told the report, “all new work is risky but women’s work is perceived to be riskier”.

In 1984 the Council endorsed the paper Women in the Arts: A Strategy for Action, which was the first comprehensive look by the Council at the underrepresentation of women in the sectors they fund. While many strategies were implemented, the current statistics paint a concerning picture for how little things have changed.

That same year, Vitalstatistix Women’s Theatre Company was founded by artists Margie Fisher, Roxxy Bent and Ollie Black to champion the work and stories of women in theatre. While the Port Adelaide company has undergone many incarnations over the years, no longer presenting with the word women in their title, gender-aware programming is still a core part of their mission.

In response to this new report, current Creative Producer of Vitalstatistix, Emma Webb, said while the face of the industry is changing, “both statistical and anecdotal evidence shows there continues to be barriers and cultural issues that affect the career advancement of women in the arts”.

“Changes comes in stops and starts, peaks and troughs; the national debate around women’s leadership in theatre over the last few years, and reports like this, ensure the discussion around women in theatre is not some kind of historical survey but rather are in the here and now,” she said.

While the long-term effects of any response to the new report are yet to be seen, radically fast changes in programming at major companies like the STCSA gives hope for a changing industry face. Hopefully, the 2013 seasons will show us the only way is up.