How Women Are Taking Centre Stage

Lack of female representation has always been an issue in British Theatre.

Now, the situation is starting to change. Since 2012, when Josie Rourke was appointed artistic director of the  Donmar Warehouse as the first female head of a major theatre in London, a new wave of women have been taking the lead. In 2013, Vicky Featherstone became the first woman to run the Royal Court Theatre. The following year, Erica Whyman was appointed deputy director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Finally, in 2016 Emma Rice took charge of the Shakespeare’s Globe and, in 2018, she will be replaced by Michelle Terry.

This change at boardroom level comes after decades of stark imbalance, both onstage and behind the scenes. In 2012, Pentabus Theatre’s artistic director Elizabeth Freestone teamed up with the Guardian to research the representation of women in the 10 theatres receiving most subsidies from the public. At the core of the findings there was a two-to-one ratio in favour of men.

This change at boardroom level comes after decades of stark imbalance, both onstage and behind the scenes. In 2012, Pentabus Theatre’s artistic director Elizabeth Freestone teamed up with the Guardian to research the representation of women in the 10 theatres receiving most subsidies from the public. At the core of the findings, there was a two-to-one ratio in favour of men.

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An average of 33% women sat on the boards of these institutions. Only 36% of the artistic directors, 38% of the actors and 24% of directors were female. In addition, no more than 35% of the new plays produced were written by women.

This disparity is also reflected by the public acknowledgement of talent in the business. Only three female directors won the Olivier Award — Deborah Warner in 1988, Marianne Elliott in 2013, Lyndsey Turner in 2015 — and just four playwrights — Caryl Churchill in 1987, Timberlake Wertenbaker in 1988, Pam Gems in 1997, Katori Hall in 2010, Lucy Kirkwood in 2014 — have ever scored a win for Best New Play.

The imbalance seems even more striking when compared to audience statistics. In the year of the Freestone/Guardian survey, figures indicated that most theatre-goers were female (68%). According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, women also represent the majority of drama students (70%).

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In 2014, Tonic Theatre’s director Lucy Kerbel held the Advance Symposium, part of an ongoing project set up to encourage gender balance in the industry. According to data presented during the event, of 179 theatre organisations in the Arts Council of England’s national portfolio, 63% were held by male artistic directors, while their female counterparts accounted for only 37%. Across the institutions benefitting from more than £500,000 of Arts Council subsidies that year, the percentage of women at the top position fell to 24%.

The roots of inequality go back to the 16th century. Shakespeare, who massively contributed to establishing the traditional canon, wrote female roles performed by male actors. Furthermore, his very works reveal signs of the gap. Five astonishing facts about women in Shakespeare, a blog post by Oxford University Press, shows that of 981 characters, 826 are men and only 155 are ‘women’ (less than 16% of the total). Female characters are also given fewer lines: Rosalind from As You Like It, the main female role in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, has 730 lines. Hamlet, in contrast, speaks 1,506 lines.

To give this inheritance a breath of fresh air, in 2012 director Phillyda Lloyd embarked on a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions. The project was a collaboration with Clean Break, a theatre company working with female prisoners. The first production, Julius Caesar, premiered in 2012 at the Donmar Warehouse, followed by Henry IV in 2014 and The Tempest in 2016.

Harriett Walter, who acted in every play of the successful trilogy, told the Guardian that Lloyd was “driven by anger at the exclusion of women from history and from the narrative of our culture”.

The glass ceiling is still in place overseas, too. In 2015, the Hollywood Reporter pointed out that the Roundabout Theatre Company’s adaptation of Thérèse Raquin, starring Keira Knightley and penned by Helen Edmundson, and Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, headlined by Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and staged at the Golden Theatre were the only plays of that year’s Broadway season written by women. The previous two years had seen a complete lack of new works by female playwrights. In 2017, Lynn Nottage’s Indecent and Paula Vogel’s Sweat also joined a male-dominated programme.

Figures show that attendance is mostly composed of the same demographics as in the UK. According to the Broadway League, in 2016 the audience was 67% female.

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Recently, the allegations of sexual assault against Hollywood top producer Harvey Weinstein have sparked outrage among and outside the industry. Last week, Vicky Featherstone, director of The Royal Court Theatre, organised No Grey Area, a day of action that saw more than 150 accounts of sexual harassment read out onstage, over more than five hours.

She also decided to issue a new code of behaviour for the Royal Court, containing guidelines that she hopes will be taken into account by other professionals and institutions.

Speaking with the Guardian, Featherstone said: “Theatre reflects the world as it is but it also reflects the world as we want it to be. Therefore if we imagine the world that we want and put that on our stage, then things can change”.

“All the world’s a stage”, wrote Shakespeare in As You Like It. Now, women are taking the spotlight.

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