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The pits: why are no women leading West End orchestras?

Laura Bangay. Photo: Deborah Abramson Musical director Laura Bangay. Photo: Deborah Abramson
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Women are few and far between when it comes to orchestras, but a recent snapshot of the West End showed no female musical directors in the pits at all. A group of musicians eager to see change speak to Jo Caird

At the time of a recent snapshot of the industry by the Musicians’ Union, there were no female musical directors leading pit orchestras in the West End. None. The industry is by now all too familiar with depressing statistics around women and power in the arts, but even the most jaded will be shocked to learn that when it comes to the West End, women are entirely absent from the top music jobs.

The scenario isn’t always quite this dire. MU London official Jo Laverty, who undertook the March 15 ‘snapshot’, says she occasionally encounters female musical directors during her regular visits to West End pit bands, but examples of women in these leadership roles – the most visible in the business, positioned in front of large West End audiences – are few and far between.

It’s a little less bleak elsewhere, although women musical directors are still in the minority Off West End and in theatres across the UK. There are no official figures to call on – a problem in itself – but it’s striking to note that of the 425 members of the Facebook group UK Theatre Musical Directors, just 48 are women.

Wendy Gadian, head of the undergraduate musical theatre course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and an experienced musical director, arranger and composer, is calling for better representation of women in musical director roles.

Prompted by the lack of female applicants for last year’s Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical Director Fellowship at Central, she set up a round-table discussion with the membership organisation Musical Theatre Network to focus on the issue.

“We’ve always had low numbers of women applicants but women have made it on to the shortlist. I know the number of very exciting, talented women that are coming through conservatoires,” she says.

There may be plenty of women studying music, but only a tiny proportion go on to pursue careers as musical directors. Why? “It’s very hard to even think about breaking into being a musical director as there are hardly any female musical directors out there,” says Laura Bangay, who was children’s MD on Matilda in the West End for five years and is now MD on Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

When I was a kid, I didn’t think it was something girls did and found it hard to believe I would be able to do it because I had no role models

“When I was a kid, I didn’t think it was something that girls did and found it hard to believe that I would be able to do it because I had no role models. This wasn’t just exclusive to theatre – none of the bands and orchestras I played in had female conductors,” she adds.

It was only thanks to a supportive music teacher and then an MD – a man – at the National Youth Music Theatre that Bangay was encouraged to pursue a career as an MD. If we want to see more young women entering the industry, says Bangay, a concerted effort must be made early on to make them aware of the possibilities available.

At the same time others say there needs to be structural change around hiring processes for MDs, which are frustratingly opaque for anyone seeking to break into the business or advance their career. Positions are rarely advertised, with fixers instead relying on an informal, and often sociable, network of contacts when it comes to hiring.

Yshani-Perinpanayagam. Photo: Double Take Studios
Yshani-Perinpanayagam. Photo: Double Take Studios

“I like real ale and I’m quite aware of the times where work has been pinged my way because I am in someone’s consciousness, because I was part of a very nice evening the day before,” says Yshani Perinpanayagam, the only woman that audiences have a chance of spotting conducting in the West End at the moment. (As she is one of one of four rotating MDs, she was not included in the snapshot survey results.) She works on Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, which has a monthly residency at the Lyric Theatre.

“It’s totally natural, those people are in my head too, but I don’t know how traditionally female a pastime that is and, especially if there are children involved, lots of those people will be going home.”

It’s easy for bias to creep in too, with people hiring in their own image whether they intend to or not. The West End, says Bangay, is “a bit of a boys’ club”, with not enough fixers actively seeking out female conductors, or musicians – women currently comprise only around 12% of West End pit bands, according to the MU survey.

Education and socialisation also play a role: while boys are socialised to put themselves forward, girls are taught to keep their heads down. Women must first unlearn this ingrained behaviour if they are to become the successful networkers favoured by the system as it stands.

‘90% of players in West End orchestras are men’ – Musicians’ Union

This ‘boys’ club’ atmosphere can also extend into the job itself, with some female MDs reporting having to justify their presence and prove themselves in a way that wouldn’t be expected of a man in their position.

The heavy-drinking culture that used to be a fact of life for West End pit musicians may be a thing of the past, but sexist comments – often taking the form of supposedly light-hearted ‘banter’ – are still not unusual.

Tom Kelly
Tom Kelly

“I absolutely believe we have a duty to change that culture,” says Tom Kelly, currently MD on Tina the Musical at the Aldwych. “You make it clear as the MD what kind of behaviour you will tolerate. I find it difficult to hear misogyny and sexism and to accept that in a working environment. As ever, the tricky thing is knowing when it’s crossed a line. I freely admit I struggle with that.”

Structural changes are important, says Central’s Gadian. “Making sure there are dressing rooms for female musicians, making sure the band room isn’t designated ‘Gentlemen of the Orchestra’, that there’s inclusivity in terms of management structures.”

She would like to see the creation of a mentoring scheme for female MDs and believes such a programme could potentially come out of the discussions currently taking place among women in the industry. “To operate in the West End you need experience early on to work at that kind of pressure, to see people working, to engage. It’s about work placements and mentoring,” she says.

Having set up the Musical Theatre Network round-table discussion in the autumn, Gadian has since organised networking opportunities for female MDs and hopes that more will follow. “Women have felt, more than anything, that it’s the first time they’ve had a chance to speak and share their experiences,” she says.

“And what’s interesting is that lots of those are positive experiences. I can’t stress that enough.” Now is the moment for industry leaders to listen to those stories, positive and negative, and start working to change the systems that are preventing women from thriving in the world of musical directing.

Parallel to Gadian’s work, the team behind Showstopper! hosted a networking event before the performance on January 29 to raise awareness of the under-representation of women in West End orchestras. Perinpanayagam conducted the all-female band performing on the night.

Wholesale change won’t necessarily be an easy ride, Perinpanayagam warns. “The system is quite male so it involves changing it in ways that potentially will feel as though it’s disadvantaging the people it initially was made for. That will be unpopular.”

Maybe so, but Gadian is hopeful about a new generation of musicians with progressive attitudes towards “gender, diversity and widening participation”. MU official Laverty, for her part, sees a role for the union in shining a spotlight on best practice in the industry and “show[ing] how greater diversity makes for a happy workplace”.

Let’s see if the West End gets the message soon – another snapshot showing zero female MDs would be damning indeed.


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