#WakingTheFeminists: ringing the alarm for gender equality in theatre

by Women Are Boring.

WTF

Image via Broadsheet.ie

This month, we’ve decided to dedicate a feature to women in theatre, and what better way to do that than by talking about #WakingTheFeminists? Many of you in Ireland will likely be familiar with the movement already, but for those of you abroad, here’s a short explainer from the movement itself: Waking The Feminists is ‘a grassroots movement calling for equality for women across the Irish theatre sector.’ It started in response to the fact that, when Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey theatre, launched its programme to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising, only one of the ten plays programmed was written by a woman, and only three were directed by women. In May 2016, the movement became the first organisation or person outside the U.S. to be presented with a Lilly Award, and has garnered support from people like Meryl Streep.

This feature brings together the voices of three women working in different aspects of theatre in Ireland – Áine Ní Laoghaire, an actor; Dr. Brenda Donohue, a researcher and dramaturg; and director Maeve Stone, who coined #WakingTheFeminists. We also have a video by young dramaturg Katie Poushpom on her ten favourite female theatre-makers from Ireland and abroad. Enjoy, be inspired, and do some waking of your own.

‘This campaign makes revolutionaries of us all’

by Áine Ní Laoghaire.

Aine Ni Laoghaire headshot 2015

Factory Girls, Frank McGuinness’s debut play, was inspired by the strong, difficult women he was raised by. Women who were capable. Women who could shift from aggressive to jovial, to heartbreakingly vulnerable in nothing more than an intake of breath. Revolutionary women, who refused to be walked on when the system worked against them.

In the year following the beginning of Waking The Feminists, a year of both centenary celebrations and calls to repeal the 8th amendment, it was a gift as an actor to represent women like this.In response to the #WakingTheFeminists campaign, Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre, Julie Kelleher, had programmed a rehearsed reading series featuring only female (and Cork related) playwrights. The decision to stage Factory Girls was a conscious continuation of that response.

 A single play by a male playwright, outside of a Dublin-centric theatre world might not appear to have the potential to have any real impact. But the 11 women (5 actors, 2 stage managers, a director, a producer, a costume designer, and a hair and make up artist) hired for Factory Girls, and the predominantly female audience of the show might beg to differ. Despite female actors being in the majority of theatre graduates, only 38% of those women are working professionally at any given time. Theatre going audiences are made up of 60-70% women.

This audience was filled with groups of women. They cheered every night, without fail, at one characters defiant “Fuck off yourself” to a bullying husband. They shared their recollections of factory life with us afterwards in the bar. And without fail, every night, someone would comment on how “mad it is to see women like us up there.” Before Waking The Feminists I was as unfamiliar with my own stories and with my own voice.

In the Abbey, on the 12th of November 2015, I was struck by the articulacy and conviction with which other people spoke. But I remained silent. I was in the habit of doing so. I’d gotten so used to fighting for my voice to be heard that I’d stopped bothering to raise it in the first place. I’d so often been the only girl (as I was always referred to in the rehearsal room) that in order to join the boys club, I’d had to let all sorts of comments slide. But on hearing my own experiences echoed back to me from that stage on that day, something shifted, imperceptibly.

I began to feel uneasy certain comments were going unchallenged, and then when I wasn’t the person who challenged them. I started asking for apologies when I was spoken to disrespectfully inside or outside of the rehearsal room. I refused to audition for roles that were unnecessarily sexualised.

Those actions were my own way of responding to the Waking The Feminists campaign. They are minor in comparison to the Trojan work of those at the very heart of the campaign. But when we choose to commit to the ethos of Waking The Feminists, personally and professionally, this campaign make revolutionaries of us all.

#WTF: Translating Lived Experience into Numbers

by Dr. Brenda Donohue

#WakingTheFeminists is a grassroots movement that came about in reaction to a programme commemorating 1916 that did not include women in a significant way. In November 2015, after the Abbey Theatre announced a commemoration line-up that featured only one woman writer and three female directors, reaction on social media was swift and impassioned. Spurred on by Lian Bell’s Facebook post, a new feminist movement was born. This organisation, #WakingTheFeminists, now actively campaigns for gender equality in theatre in Ireland. Since November, the movement has grown, first in the virtual space of social media, and then in the real world through a series of large, public meetings, and informal get-togethers. #WakingTheFeminists has inspired women in diverse sectors, not just theatre, to recount their experiences and to search out ways to address gender imbalance.

As part of the #WakingTheFeminists movement, I, along with a team of volunteer researchers, am conducting a study that examines gender balance in the Irish theatre industry over the last 10 years. The study examines key creative and technical roles in theatre in the top ten Arts Council-funded organisations that produce or present theatre in Ireland. The project is receiving institutional support from the Irish Theatre Institute, the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway, and from the Arts Council.

The impetus for this research came from a notable lack of statistical information on the issue in an Irish context. While the Irish Theatre Institute and Theatre Forum have recently published valuable studies on aspects of the Irish theatre industry, a comprehensive study of gender in Irish theatre has yet to be published. This was a particular challenge while researching and writing my doctoral thesis on contemporary female playwrights; although it was plain to see that there was a dearth of productions by women on the main Irish stages, there was no statistical evidence to back up anecdotal accounts.

In the context of such an informational vacuum, the real extent of the problem is currently not known. While we suspect that women playwrights and directors are underrepresented on the Irish stages, we simply can’t say for certain if this is true. A host of questions remain unanswered- Are women well represented in the roles of set and lighting designer? Are there more women in costume design than men?  Is the situation for women improving, or is it static?

If we do not understand the nature of the problem and its different facets, then it will be a challenge to find effective solutions to address the imbalance. Strategies and policies need to be written and implemented from a strong evidence base. This #WakingTheFeminists study, therefore, has two aims; firstly it will describe the problem of gender imbalance in Irish theatre in a nuanced way, and secondly it will create a baseline against which the effectiveness of proposed solutions can be measured.

The report emanating from this research will be published in November 2016. Until then, the team of volunteer researchers will be working at improbable hours to fill the identified informational gap!

‘#WakingTheFeminists has charged the air with new language’

by Maeve Stone.

Maeve Stone

My first response to the Abbey’s 2016 “Waking the Nation” programme launch last November was a tongue-in-cheek tweet: “Waking The Feminists”. Lian Bell began using it as a hashtag to centralise a wide conversation that had gathered unstoppable momentum online. And that, I guess, is how I accidentally named #WakingTheFeminists. Thing is, it’s pretty obvious and I know someone else would have thought of it if I hadn’t. I’m unendingly proud of my connection to this origin story for such a key moment in recent Irish theatre, but ultimately it feels like it was just looking for a mouth to come out of.

And I think that’s probably the single biggest asset of this whole movement. Nobody owns it, it belongs to us all. Asides from sounding incredibly idealist I think this perception has defined a few key qualities of the movement since its inception almost a year ago. People have taken ownership, using it as a platform to form networks and communities. This movement came into being because there was no public forum for discussion of feminist theatre in Ireland, or of the gender inequalities in policy and pay. In the months preceding it I had had several furtive chats – one even in the Abbey lobby – about the work of women in Ireland, bemoaning the absence of the word feminism in our cultural lexicon. It has also created a core #WTF team who have worked quietly and consistently with a set agenda.

Two things are coming (apart from Winter); The anniversary of the November meeting that will mark the end of that team’s year long commitment, and new artistic directors at The Abbey and The Gate. It’s inevitable that people will begin a review of what has been achieved in the past year, and some will claim that a noisy beginning faded too quickly. But I’ve seen behind the curtain – so to speak – and would challenge that opinion. There’s a sense when you sit in a room with the #WTF team that very little ego is in play. What they have sought, and are winning, is policy change. It’s not glamorous or dramatic. Foundational negotiations that will affect everything herein, but lack the narrative appeal of a big explosive, short lived event. For example, if The Abbey had changed its programme this would have appeared to many as the ultimate victory. But “Waking The Nation” was never the problem, it was a symptom of the problem. Having the skills and patience to figure out the way to begin to fix the source of a very structural issue is an entirely different beast. People like Lian, Sarah Durcan, Dairne O’Sullivan, Anne Clarke, Lisa Tierney Keogh, Maria Flemming, Lynne Parker, Caroline Williams, Aisling O’Brien, Niamh Ní Chonchubhair and Kate Ferris have maintained a quiet and relentless grip on the wheel. They had long-lasting policy change in mind and they’re getting it done. Sarah Durcan is even now an Abbey board member!

As for the new boys in the big houses… They walked into a new scene. One that’s humming with women’s voices. I’m hopeful that we, who have found each other, who have acted in solidarity, can continue to work on the foundational shifts. I think #WakingTheFeminists has charged the air with new language. It has opened up the space for feminist thinking in a town where the big houses (The Gate and The Abbey) could sometimes feel heavy with the sound of old, rasping, Herculean masculinity. And it’s important that we have this because the movement will continue in the hands of us all, this network, this community. When Lian and the team step away, the change won’t stop.

(Side note:  I suspect we’re going to need strong feminist networks working together for change in the next couple of years… #RepealThe8th)

Follow the #WakingTheFeminists movement on Twitter at @WTFeminists, and visit their site here.

Want to know about more women in theatre from all over the world? Katie has got you covered! Have a look at her video and learn about her ten favourite female theatre-makers, including Lady Augusta Gregory, co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland; Lorraine Hansberry, the first African-American woman to write a play performed on Broadway; Teresa Deevy, an Irish dramatist and Cumann na mBan member from Waterford; and Pulitzer prize winner Suzan Lori-Parks.

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