Top Girls

Tanika Gupta

Filed under: Drama

Women are increasingly taking lead roles in the theatre, but there’s still a long way to go. Tanika Gupta examines the glass ceiling

I get asked on a regular basis to speak about ‘women in the theatre’. Questions on this issue range widely: Are women discriminated against in the theatre? Do women writers get overlooked? How about female roles for actors – are there enough? Do theatres employ enough women behind the stage, such as stage managers, designers, directors? It’s a vast and thorny subject and one which inevitably can lead to much ringing of hands and, dare I say it, whingeing. I have spoken at conferences and with journalists on this and underlying every line of inquiry is the question ‘Is there a glass ceiling for women playwrights?’

I have to admit that, in my personal experience, I would say ‘no’. I have been lucky enough to have had plays on in many theatres, from the rsc, the Young Vic, the National, the Globe, Birmingham Rep to the Theatre Royal Stratford East. I don’t like to be called a woman playwright, any more than I would want to be called an Asian playwright. After all, who calls Tom Stoppard a male writer of Czech origins? Or Harold Pinter, a Jewish male playwright? Why should we be defined by our ethnicity and gender?

Moira Buffini, whose plays have been staged at the rsc, the National and the Almeida and who was awarded the 2014 Olivier Award for outstanding achievement, says: ‘I have only ever seen myself as a playwright, not a so-called female playwright, and it dismays me deeply that my gender is a subject of interest. I only want my plays to be the subject of interest. And I don’t know if I’m typical of “female” playwrights, I don’t think there is such a thing.’ I agree with Buffini. But equally I do acknowledge that, when one looks at statistics, the theatre world reflects our very patriarchal society. Men dominate as writers, directors and actors. It does have to change!

A 1983 report by the Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators for Sphinx Theatre Company showed that, of 1,024 productions surveyed, just 11 per cent were written by women – most by Agatha Christie. Although a more encouraging 2015 report found 36 per cent of casting was of women and 39 per cent of plays were directed by women, only 28 per cent of the plays produced were actually written by women.

More recently, the gender equality campaigning group Waking The Feminists found that less than a fifth of writers at top Irish theatres since 2006 have been women. The theatres included were the Abbey Theatre, the Gate Theatre and Dublin Theatre Festival. We are clearly still a long way from gender equality in theatre.

Sue Parrish, of Sphinx Theatre Company, has said: ‘The moment we stop noticing that women are taking centre stage is the moment we have succeeded.’ Lyn Gardiner in the Guardian asked: ‘Why keep going to the theatre if you seldom see yourself reflected there? Given that women make up just over half of the population and buy more theatre tickets than men, the industry is shooting itself in the foot if it fails to commit to real change. In the end, we women will simply vote with our feet.’

Dame Harriet Walter has called for artistic directors and playwrights to stage more plays with lead female characters, saying the lack of strong parts is driving her and others towards performing male roles.

Phyllida Lloyd, the Director of Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, admitted that the initiative had begun ‘unashamedly as a jobs-for-the-girls project. There were no bones about it: jobs for the girls and representation for girls in the audience, who I thought should at least see 50 per cent of their number whenever they went to the theatre. Then we thought: “To hell with that, let’s go for 100 per cent.”’

I rather like the Bechdel test, a blunt but enduring tool used in feminist film criticism and analysis for 30 years to check for the representation of women on screen. To pass, a film must contain two female characters (preferably named), who must talk to each other about something other than men. It’s also a very useful tool to look at stage plays.

Of course things have changed and we are moving forward. The gate-keepers are changing, with more and more female artistic directors being appointed at major theatre companies: Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle, Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, Josie Rourke at the Donmar, Sarah Frankcom at Manchester Royal Exchange, Gemma Bodinetz at Liverpool Everyman and Roxana Silbert at Birmingham Rep, to name but a few. All are outstanding directors with a real vision for their theatres and the work they put on.

But, as I said before, theatre reflects our patriarchal society and whilst we have another female Prime Minister, it would be a real stretch to say this is a victory for feminism. Look at how many female politicians there are, how many chief executives of ftse100 companies, how many heads of government bodies, banks, prisons, police forces or hospitals. Women in positions of power still stand out and are still too often judged based on their gender, mistrusted, ridiculed or objectified. Let’s not forget the recent misogyny of the elections in the us. Clearly we can never take progress for granted!

Having worked with Emma Rice, the artistic director at the Globe, very recently, where I was the dramaturg on her version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I saw first hand how much pressure artistic directors are placed under. She has recently decided to leave the Globe, thankfully eighteen months from now, but after just six months in the job. Why? Because she wasn’t supported in her extraordinary work by the Globe’s board – even though her productions broke box-office records and aimed for more diversity and gender parity than ever before. I can’t help feeling that Rice was particularly badly treated because she is a woman. The hasty justifications around ‘shared lighting’ cannot hide a stench of misogyny coming from the Globe’s board which I find hard to ignore.

Asked by an audience member at a recent talk for Tonic Theatre whether she thought loud and opinionated women attracted more criticism, Rice said: ‘I don’t think I am loud. I think I have led an incredibly private life. What do you mean opinionated and loud? I’m not, I’m doing my job. And I’m doing it really well. And I’ve worked really hard. I haven’t been fast-tracked, I’m nearly 50. I’ve spent my life making work that’s incredibly complex, in a way that’s very complex as well – in a traditionally female way. It’s collaborative and surprising and unafraid. So I don’t think I’m either of those things.’ Rice also questioned whether being loud was a criticism that would be levelled against a male director.

So, yes, there’s still a long way to go to achieve genuine gender equality in theatre. But it’s important to look back and see how far we’ve travelled and this should be a source of hope for the future. As a playwright, I want to write good parts for men and women, black and white, able bodied and disabled, but ultimately I want to be free to tell good, dramatic stories which are universal in their appeal, regardless of my sex.

Tanika Gupta is a prize-winning playwright and RSL Fellow.

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Tanika Gupta 2016