An everday assault course for women in theatre?
On International Women’s Day I was delighted to be invited by the Spitalfields City Farm about my experiences of gender (in)equality. The original invitation was to my colleague and ally, Harini Iyengar, who works in discrimination law.
She’s a bit pre-eminent and I’m, well, perhaps slightly less well known for what I do in theatre. But as I stepped up to the plate, I realized that what I do is an everyday challenge to the gender inequality debate in the arts. Theatre’s job is to hold a mirror up to nature, so I realized that my experiences in theatre are a concentrated form of what is happening in wider society.
I also realized that the women in theatre are vital to London in every single criterion you could think of. Is it an accident that I’m a woman in the arts and I’m working in the areas of diversity, access, social justice and climate change? Certainly most of the meetings I attend on cultural policy and equality are mostly attended by women – unless the power brokers are there, and these are still mostly – not exclusively – but mostly, white men.
Since 1997, I’ve been promoting cultural diversity in the arts and I’m known as a director that BAME actors can write to and I will engage them in my casts. For me Diversity isn’t a problem we need to solve – I just do it. When I have a budget to engage people, I look for a diversity of people to engage. I’m proud to say that my work promoting diversity in programming and audiences has been cited by ACE as a model of good practice and not because I’m good at ticking boxes but because I have the imagination to see things differently.
And this is what I have in common with WE’s vision. The answers to our equality issues are not esoteric and difficult. They are right in front of us. And we just need to be bold, London. That promise and challenge is for me, the most exciting element of this work that we’re instigating: – it’s mischievous, it’s unknown, it’s never been done before – and like all good theatre and unlike most politics – it has the potential to transform everyday lives for everyone. WE all know it can work (we’re just pretending we don’t).
As a theatre-maker, I’ve seen and been part of some brilliant equality and diversity initiatives and I’ve seen and experienced some really worrying things and the current climate is not at all healthy. In case you’re wondering why discrimination against women in the arts matters, there are nearly 800,000 people working in arts and culture in London according to DCMS. That’s 16% of London’s workforce and half of us are women.
That means every 12th working age woman you see on your way home is involved in the creative energy of London. 10% of London’s women*.
London’s theatres are one of the biggest magnets for tourists. And the theatre punches above its weight in promoting environmental sustainability. Most importantly I think, theatre and the creative industries are a part of London’s DNA, its identity, its history quite apart from being one of the main reasons tourists visit.
Since 1660, when King Charles II reopened the theatres and brought women centre stage, London’s arts and creative women have been essential to London Theatre. They have been innovators a
nd eccentrics, its champions, producers and its critics. And yet today, on a typical week in the West End, only one woman writer’s name is consistently lit up – she is of course, Agatha Christie… nevertheless London’s theatre women generate a significant part of its turnover, as well as making London fun for everyone and helping all of us cope with living here.
I love what I do and I’m proud of the arts sector and what it contributes. But in the early 21st century, women in theatre are not getting a fair deal. Their quality of life is increasingly unacceptable. Women make up 51% of the population and book most of the theatre tickets in this country. We make up many of the administration jobs in the arts and we outnumber the boys for applications to drama schools and on drama, design, and arts management courses up and down the country. You’d think we’d be doing ok….
You may have heard the “joke” about men called Dave in the House of Lords? There are currently more men in the House of Lords called Dave than there are women. Well, we have a Dave situation in theatre too – I can name more playwrights called Dave (at least two with knighthoods) – all white – some of them my friends – I can name more playwrights called Dave, than all the writers born women who have had their work produced on our National Theatre’s main stage. The first production by a woman playwright on that main Stage at the National was in – guess…. 2008, Her Naked Skin, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz directed by Howard Davies.
Its theme: the Suffragettes. 2008 – Right at the cutting edge of topicality. Since when I’m pleased to report, under the 5th (Male) Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, it is getting better.
WE need more women on and running our national stages. It doesn’t take a genius in arts or science to work out that from 0 – 29% in 100 years is not Equality in parliament, and that it isn’t Equality for the National Theatre, after 50 years, not to be producing work by half the population.
UK theatre leads the world in technical innovation and design. I really did believe a car could fly….and WE know that girls are put off the sciences and technology at school not knowing that these could be essential to them in creative careers – women sound designers and lighting designers are still a tiny minority and yet those I know are doing really well. Lots of theatres are trying to recruit differently but the role models for women in technical theatre are still few and far between.
Equal Representation and Equal Media Representation As a woman in theatre I am less likely to be offered a tippity-top artistic or executive role in the arts. When I get that tippity-top dream job, the media will comment on my age, my appearance, on whether I have children at home and if I’m lucky, they may mention the quality of my work. At Board meetings, I may be (have been) roundly patronized or left out of certain key discussions.
Equal Pay En route to my dream job, I am more likely to have worked unpaid than a man and therefore I am more likely to come from a background where I can afford to do that. To divert me from ever getting a top job, I will be steered towards jobs which involve children (education and participation) and then I’ll be told I’m too much of a risk because I don’t have enough directing experience or I’ll be considered unambitious. I may be diverted into roles where being nice to people – Front of House/Fundraising is important. Or where being organized is essential: Stage Management and Wardrobe…. roles which are less well paid. We see pleasing anomalies in marketing and fundraising where women thrive and are doing better financially because they are roles men used to do. When finally, I am offered one of the tippity-top jobs, it will be paid at less salary (up to 10% less) than a man. At any point in her career in the arts, a woman is likely to be paid £3,500 – £4,000 per annum less than her male counterparts.
Equal Caring: As a woman in theatre, I’m very likely to be working freelance or part-time, especially if I have children. As a freelancer I have no employment protection, sick pay, holiday pay – child care arrangements are really expensive and, may all the gods help me if – as happened to me last year – a parent gets a terminal illness. When I had a series of miscarriages in my 30s, I was in salaried employment and The Almeida Theatre under Neil Constable now at The Globe was brilliant. They paid me my full salary whilst the state paid them Statutory Sick Pay. Last year as an independent, whilst my mother way dying, I earned £10k and cancelled a tour which would have employed 10 people for 3 months. My family supported me to support my mother. I’m sorry for my freelancers. I know of women in theatre who should have brought discrimination cases based on their treatment related to their pregnancies/maternity leave. But no-one likes a whistleblower. I know of only one production and only female actor (a household name) where the show was put on hold – for a year – because she was pregnant.
And we all know that with the price of housing and unsociable hours, women and men are finding it harder and harder to start families. Women fall out of the creative industries in their 30s taking all their incredible expertise & training out of the arts while the usually male partner – continues to live the dream because Mr Shakespeare, dear Mr Shakespeare is still the biggest casting source in the UK – but he hasn’t written a new role for 400 years. Hang on a sec – When were the models for the rest of working life laid down? Is there some kind of overlap maybe?
Nationally, less than 10% of the male employed workforce is taking up the full parental care arrangements available to them – …. The good news is: you will find instances of arts freelancers making sharenting a reality. Several of my male and female friends are enjoying the responsibility of equal care. They know that Sharenting is for life not for 9 months. This is one area where the rest of the working world could learn from the values-driven lifestyle that the creative sector often adopts. WE want to make those sharenting partnerships normal not a weird artistic anomaly and WE have costed how to make that work.
Ending Violence Against Women Women work long and difficult hours in the arts and culture and on days and at times that the transport system just doesn’t. WE cannot afford to live close to our work. WE are like the cleaners, the nurses and the service staff, and WE pay a hidden transport tax, especially women, in taxis, taking the long way round, getting partners to pick us up. WE run from pillar to post dropping kids off and spend energy getting them picked up miles from where we work. Often we are not safe home because the transport system is understaffed and unreliable. This is real to many thousands of women and if we end the violence to women, we will unlock so much potential for London.
In the last few years, having worked at senior level in big houses I wanted to be able to get my own work seen and to do that I had to go it alone and start a company. So I’ve decided to create my own work and writes roles for women myself: “Oh, but putting on a new piece is risky Rebecca and we have got an Asian piece and a dance piece already this season”. Women’s work is still placed in the minority interest groups partly because it is by defintion new. There is still an underlying fear that for some reason my writing will only appeal to women…And despite women being the majority of ticket bookers, that doesn’t work at the box office….
My company’s first production took a 19th century classic in a modern setting with the protagonist transformed into a woman. The result was an acclaimed production which toured for seven weeks and created 3 major female 3 dimensional roles for women in their 20s, 40 and 60s with 4 four men 1 lead and 3 in the supporting roles. It was an incredible rehearsal dynamic. We passed the Bechdel test in style and I was told it was radical. It wasn’t. Or maybe it was and it shouldn’t be. We made acting cool for girls and playing support, strong and subtle for guys. WE played to audiences from age 8 – 88. They all got it. Some knew they were seeing a classic we’d shaken up, some were just watching a story which excited them.
And that’s exactly my experience of the Women’s Equality party. A year ago when WE formed, politics wasn’t just broken it was boring.
Clearly in the last year quite a few people have got exercised about that – but we still have a long way to go. Two weeks ago, I went canvassing for the first time. And the biggest thing I found was not that people do or don’t care about Women’s Equality – broadly speaking they do – people didn’t know, and these are people registered to vote – that the London Mayoral Elections are in May. Thursday 5th May. Registration 18th April.
People don’t know that there are two elections coming up in which their vote really does make a difference: I speak of London Mayor and the London General Assembly list. On both of those forms, how and if you vote can make a huge difference because it’s that rare and wonderful thing, an election which is not just first past the post.
Everyone at the Women’s Equality Party is very excited about International Women’s Day because this is first our birthday week. And we’re excited not because we’re surviving but because WE are thriving. WE are thriving because we offer something which is distinct from the other parties. It’s based on the stories and the tested private and professional experience of thousands of women.
Living equally, sharing opportunities and responsibilities is not about denial. It’s about connecting, sustaining and changing the story. A lot of people have asked me why I joined the Women’s Equality Party – it comes down to this. I felt included, invited: The Women’s Equality Party asked me to join, they offered to take me as I am and gave me the opportunity to stand as a candidate chosen by the other members based on my potential.
The Women’s Equality Party is non-partisan. Non-partisan means that WE members can work with other parties to get what WE want. At last here is a Party which knows that politics is important to all of us, belongs to all of us and that you don’t need to be a professional parliamentarian to be active in the democractic process.
They have promised to do things differently and this approach already feels different to me. As a theatre-maker, there can be no great excitement than this opportunity to change the story.
At the Women of the World creative Industry Day on Wednesday 9th March, I said that I was beginning to think that it wasn’t just about dancing backwards in high heels, in fact it’s that I’ve been trying to function for 20 years in an ill-fitting suit. Perhaps my walk around Brick Lane to Spitalfields put the image in my head. I realise I need to stop trying to get the suit to fit.
WE need to reinvent the suit and tailor one to fit an equal society.
*The stats I use are compiled from the Department of Culture Media & Sport, Arts Council England and the Creative Industries Federation. There is no single source comparing apples with apples (because each authority defines arts and culture slightly differently and none looks at the whole picture) but it’s as good a précis as can be found.