For International Women’s Day 2017 I was invited by the University of Arts London to speak to some women students about being a woman in arts and politics. They sent me some questions in advance and I made some notes. As always happens what was said wasn’t quite the notes but here’s a few of the highlights.
Q – Why do you think it’s important women wanting to work in the arts consider politics
I think all women should consider politics. Why should politics care about us if we don’t care about them? And in arts I think we bring something particular – a way of looking at things, and doing things, building empathy, reframing policies and stories so that people can understand them. We have an ability to set a vision and our agenda that could be really valuable to politics. If as I do, you think our politics are broken, this is an exciting and unique time to be involved, to change how the new processes and priorities are set.
And if we aren’t there at this time of change, then our voices will be lost for another generation.
Q What challenges have you faced? How have you overcome them?
I had to take time out of doing arts to campaign in the May elections last year and that was a challenge because I was worried about losing my identity or being less of an artist. People have asked me recently when I was going to make another show (and I campaigned in a by-election and directed an R&D simultaneously last autumn) and I was both pleased and concerned. Until in a conversation with Stella Duffy, I realised that I have been doing arts. I’m still being an artist whilst I’m doing this politics work (today it’s both I think). That’s not to say I’m doing fluffy politics – far from it. My arts are transformative, hard-hitting, life-changing, rigorously pursued & researched, bespoke to their communities, funny, environmentally sustainable and provocative. Everything I think politics should be. It’s other people who see them as separate and unconnected. Politics has doctors, lawyers, scientists, clergy, economists, all sorts of professions and they all keep up their other expertise alongside the politics. Arts and politics don’t have to be antithetical.
Last year when I was campaigning as part of the candidate list for the GLA elections, I was absolutely using my experience as an artist to focus on getting more and new people involved just as I do with all my shows. It’s the same exercise and it’s really important.
At times I wondered – frankly – if I had any business dipping my toe into politics. At others and it’s a provocation I’ve thrown out in theatre workshops and at WE branch meetings, maybe everyone should be required to do this – like jury service. I’ve felt outside my comfort zone at times and that’s made me realise the value that artists can bring to politics. We have a great capacity to be empathic with the other – to see past rebuttals and try to get beneath the skin of a differing world view to our own. That’s partly what helped me get other people to engage. The ability to meet people where they’re at and help them imagine something different from the status quo that includes them. It’s early days but I believe we can do it.
Artists can play a role in ending the adversarial system. When I’ve felt alien, I think it’s not because I don’t fit – but more that the system is not fit for purpose. At the Women of the World Creative Day in 2016, I heard myself describing the system as an ill-fitting suit. We creative thinkers should be redesigning a new suit – not just for gender issues, for the whole bang shoot. And that for me is where the cross-over begins. I want politics and life and theatre all to be more imaginative, more ambitious and more inclusive.
I would argue that artists are essential to defining a new set of values not just commenting on them. I would argue that we need to change our dramaturgy, our way of telling stories as well as our politics.
And more experienced politicals and campaigners than me are saying the same eg: Caroline Lucas and Paul Allen (of the Centre for Altenative Technology), the leaders of the New Economics Foundation. Artists are needed and we are being invited by pockets of government by the climate change movement, by a new wave of economists and activists to help redesign the suit.
I wrote an adaptation of An Enemy of the People in 2013 in which the female protagonist said “if you can imagine a better future, you can start to make it happen.” Artists are visionaries and optimists and we are needed. I’ve drawn on that energy to sustain me.
Q – How have you balanced professional and personal life?
I wonder if you’d ask a man this question. In short, there have been times when I really haven’t had balance and when I have, I haven’t been any happier. I think life is work is life, for me. It’s not that I’m a martyr it’s just that the distinction is hard to define. I can’t legislate for when good ideas will come and I find it hard living in a fixed routine. That said, there are habits to develop which harness creativity like developing a muscle, and there are times when it’s really important to take down time. There is that glorious moment when you discover that it’s Ok to say “No I can’t do that, because I am away, because I’m having a reading day ” – whatever, so that you have some energy for the next “yes”.
Q- So what difference do you think being a woman has made to your career?
Everything has taken longer. Getting heard has sometimes been more difficult. Being grateful for what was offered (a conditioned response) rather than holding out for what I really wanted especially in the early days. Being offered jobs in assisting roles and creative participation roles which stopped me from being available for directing work. Eventually I stopped taking up those offers and started being clearer about what I wanted but I still found it difficult to get trusted with big projects. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy which is changing a lot already in the generation behind me. I didn’t know any women directors when I started working in theatre. That’s changed.
Being paid less, partly because I didn’t always ask for more – even though I encourage others to, and being pushed into areas traditionally seen as female jobs in theatre where the pay is concomitantly less.
The whole trying to start a family and losing out on opportunities to apply for jobs I wanted because I was either getting pregnant or recovering from miscarriages. Caring for my Mother when she was terminally ill.
Being a woman has also given me right of entry into some places, meetings where I’ve been there as an observer and forgotten about. Working in creative participation could take me from the most disadvantaged and challenging educational environments and into work with society’s most vulnerable people to the top floor of Canary Wharf in the same day. Many of my male counterparts (not all) wouldn’t do that.
My worst bugbear is being patronized about my enthusiasm – I don’t take that anymore – I am enthusiastic and I’m also expert after 20+ years. I delight in the fact that I can still be enthused and lit up by my work. It’s essential to what we do.
What’s been the secret of your success?
There are no secrets. And success – success for me is that I’m still here, that I’ve not done anything outside theatre in those 20+ years. Not always my dream job but never a call centre or a temping job in all that time. I’ve worked in producing houses and ACE funded companies for all that time. And I’ve had to work unpaid in all of that time too to make my own opportunities.
When I was starting out it was possible to get a flat in London for less than £100k so I have a place I can call home. That was important to me and I don’t do debt. I took the risk on having a salaried education/producing job in theatre and getting a place with my husband at the expense of pursuing personal artistic projects. My husband’s a huge part of the story, having someone in my life who completely understood what I wanted to do and is an artist too. I’ve done all the producing jobs I ever want to do, Now it’s about making the work I want to direct, write, devise, (possibly perform).
In terms of what I’ve done: getting on with it (when I don’t get on with it and hide, nothing happens, it’s that simple). Not letting fear get in the way –once I’m started I’m unstoppable but getting started can still be terrifying and yet I love doing things I don’t quite know how to do. I don’t always accept what the world is telling me about what’s possible. Sometimes you have to be disruptive to get things done and I’ve always been prepared to go cross-country if the conventional route hasn’t been open to me. It’s that new buzz word, resilience.
And my best successes and the things I’m most proud of have come from a deep need to see those things done, an understanding that I have something new to say or ask on the topic that I don’t see anyone else doing or asking. The right project at the right time, well-researched, with rigour and flair and generosity and with a clear need and want from the creatives and audiences/participants involved. – A bit like the Women’s Equality Party.
What is the one thing you wish you’d known starting out?
Is a list ok? It will never be your turn, so don’t wait. Kick the door open, it’s often already ajar. Build your networks and look after them. Pay it forward. Do favours, call them in, the cycle continues, help and be helped. You have to ask. You have to be clear about your ask. Avoid making tea on the first day but do your share. Ask for the job you want not the one you think you’ll get. Do your research, no-one likes a generalized approach or a time-waster. The worst anyone is going to say is NO and performers have to deal with this all the time. If you’re not enjoying working in arts – stop. You don’t have to be here. It isn’t about who you know, it’s about who you meet and what you do with that. NO meeting/interview is ever wasted
What do you hope the future will bring in terms of gender equality?
A society that is more at ease with itself. There is no country where women enjoy full equality with men – where men are able to be equal with women. You can be sure that if it’s a women’s issue, men are part of the answer and that many of men’s lives would be improved if we got there. The recognized norm is the male, white, cis, able-bodied, middleclass male but he’s a minority. My version of the equal society is safe, the air is clearer, we’re moving around in the clothes we wish to wear- all of us – in jobs we want to do according to our interest and talents – paid equally so able to make informed financial choices, and when we get ill, women will be treated as women as opposed to having our “minority” conditions ignored or dismissed or being over-medicalised on treatments that have mostly been modeled on the male adult. Women won’t be paying stealth taxes on the invisible gender levies and men who want to do caring duties won’t be laughed at or considered odd.
And none of this will happen whilst women feel excluded and exclude themselves from politics and public life. And the more of us there are, the easier it will be for others to join us.