Let’s talk about women…

Fifth Word think about The Stage’s “Leading theatres commit to gender equality measures”

In December last year we were in our first production meeting with our new show Amateur Girl. The coffees were being poured and the pastries devoured. There were murmurings from the room next door and as a couple of men drained their tea and left the building, one of them stopped and with a look of genuine surprise commented on the number of women sat around our table. It was only at that moment that I really paid attention to what was happening and considered the gender balance of our team. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know that we had employed mainly women on this show but it made us think – was it a conscious decision? And more to the point, why would this warrant a befuddled look anyway?
We are two females running Fifth Word Theatre Company and we had recruited some of the best established and upcoming talent in theatre.
Our team consisted of the playwright Amanda Whittington, Actor Lucy Speed, Director Kate Chapman, Lighting designer Alexandra Stafford and Set/costume designer Eleanor Field. We had two men working on the show including Adam McCready on sound design and Darrell Bracegirdle as our production manager. This means 78% of our creative team was made up of women.
Recently we commissioned Jane Upton to write us a new one act play “All the Little Lights’. Throughout this process of writing, dramaturgical support, workshop weeks with actors and rehearsed readings we worked with 13 artists with 85 % of our team being female.
However these statistics are not typical of the national picture so we welcomed an article in The Stage in September addressing the gender balance on our stages. (The Stage ‘Leading theatre’s commit to gender equality measures’) It outlines how leading theatres have committed to providing more roles and jobs for women in theatre.
Tonic Theatre (a gender equality organisation) carried out some of the research, shining a light into just how deep this issue runs across the UK. They reported that in 24 productions staged across the top 20 theatres in receipt of the most Arts Council England core funding, women accounted for just 8% of writers, 37% of performers and 38% of directors. Women made up 17% of sound designers, 22% of lighting designers and 57% of set designers.
We set up Fifth Word Theatre in 2007. A year that felt very supportive for start-ups in the booming labour government and becoming an ‘entrepreneur’ didn’t seem too ridiculous an idea at all. Up to this point, University and academia had been a cloak for the inequalities of the outside world. We had just graduated from a course full of women. In fact women outweighed men by about 2:1 so it begs the question where do all these women go? Why aren’t we seeing more of these women finding their way through to the professional industry?
The nuances of our industry can make for rocky terrain and the theatre is undoubtedly a hard place to sustain a freelance career with no pension, no maternity leave, unsociable hours and an unpredictable schedule.
Could it be that Sheryl Sandberg’s famously coined ‘lean in’ approach extends beyond the high rises of the city, peppering theatre and performing arts courses across the nation and world?
In 2012 Elizabeth Freeman teamed up with The Guardian to extend her research into women in theatre discovering that only 33% of board members across the top 10 subsidised theatres in England were women.
One of the most shocking figures in Tonics recent research is the fact that in the 24 productions across 20 theatres, female writers only accounted for 8%! Actor Janet Suzman talked of a “really frustrating” career where there “aren’t bloody well enough parts for women”. We have been privileged to work alongside Amanda Whittington who crafts such compelling characters for the female performer and to think that statistically these voices/stories have less chance of being heard is alarming. There has been a flourish of exciting female voices in the last few years Anna Jordan, Polly Stenham, Ella Hickson and Clara Brennan to name few. We know that women out there are writing its now the responsibility of the theatres ensure they bring them to our stages. As Tonic’s Lucy Kerbel put it “No theatre can confidently say it’s offering its audiences the broadest, most exciting range of work if it’s systematically failing to showcase the ideas, stories, and creativity of half the population.”
Through the research conducted by Tonic, 11 theatres have explored their working practices and explored how to improve career paths for women with action plans being drawn up to increase the number of women working as actors, writers, directors and designers of set, sound and lighting.
We at Fifth Word want to personally congratulate and salute all the companies and theatres who are tackling this problem head on and doing what they can to redress the balance and instil positive change: these include Sheffield Theatres, Chichester Festival Theatre, The Tricycle Theatre, The Gate Theatre, Headlong, English Touring Theatre. A big thank you to Lucy Kerbel and the team at Tonic Theatre for bringing this issue to the forefront where it should remain.
The criteria for us when recruiting our creative team is quite simple. We are looking for a genuinely nice human being who is skilled at doing their job, is kind and generous with their thoughts and someone who believes in the stories we want to tell and understands the way we want to tell them. Maybe we employ more women because we ourselves are women and we can resonate with their voices and experiences? or most probably because they are simply the best people for the job. When we are next in the rehearsal room or in production meetings we will remember to take a moment to reflect and celebrate the strong women we are fortunate to have encountered and know that women in theatre is on the up!

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