Restoring the balance

by Jane

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.

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