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Women ‘edge towards equality in theatre’

Stage directors UK co-chair Kate Saxon has welcomed the findings for directors
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The gender gap is closing for directors and writers, but female performers are still missing out in comparison to their male counterparts.

This is the claim of a major new study of the sector, which shows that the proportion of female directors and female playwrights working in the theatre industry has risen over the last three years.

However, the report compiled by entertainment data specialist Purple Seven also shows that there has been no improvement in the share of acting roles given to women.

Called Gender and the Theatre, the report collected box office and programme data from more than 6,000 plays in 159 venues across the UK, as well as analysing more than 800 theatre reviews.

The study claims the picture for female arts practitioners is improving, indicating a shift in the industry as a whole.

Purple Seven’s analysis found that women directed 39% of plays in both 2014 and 2015, compared with 34% in 2012. The proportion of plays with men at the helm has decreased from 66% in 2012 to 61% by 2014.

The figures have been hailed as “encouraging” by industry body Stage Directors UK.

SDUK co-chair Kate Saxon said the study’s findings illustrate that the theatre sector is “moving in the right direction in addressing gender imbalance in the arts”. She added: “However, 39% of theatre directed by women is still far behind the male 61%, especially considering that women make up 47% of the UK workforce.”

“Our own fees survey at Stage Directors UK and our membership data shows an approximate 50/50 gender split in directors in the UK. So we need to keep going forward until the gender gap is truly closed,” she said.

Plays written by women also accounted for more productions in 2015 than the previous year, rising from 28% in 2014 to 32% in 2015. This compares with a figure of 25% in 2012.

Despite growth for female representation in both these areas, the picture is less encouraging for actors, with the study showing the gender gap has remained static.

In 2015, it claims that 39% of performers in the shows monitored were female, no change on 2012 – although in 2013 and 2014 the number dropped down to 37%.

Director Sue Parrish, whose company Sphinx recently launched a tool to help theatremakers create more and better roles for women, described the study as “most welcome”, in terms of its findings for writers and directors.

“However there is no progress for actors. This is shocking and saddening. The data collected for actors also needs to be further refined to include leading roles, to shed a more definitive light on the scale of female subordinate roles,” Parrish added.

Hamida Ali, Equity’s equalities and diversity organiser, told The Stage: “These figures confirm what our members have been telling us – that for every two male roles there is just one female role. The question the industry must now ask itself is: why?”

She added that ultimately, the responsibility lies with theatre companies to question their choices when programming and casting work.

“If they end up with a season that has two male roles for every female role, are they questioning how they got there?” she said.

The study also assessed trends in theatre reviews, based on an analysis of 835 reviews by critics for The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Plays with casts of at least 50% women received high ratings from female reviewers, the results show, while male-heavy casts were more likely to receive ratings of four or five stars from male critics.

When looking at reviewers’ attitudes to writers, the findings show that on the whole, critics rate plays by authors of each gender equally. The analysis said female-written plays were awarded an average of 3.41 stars, with plays by men receiving 3.44 stars.

Earlier this year, Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone expressed concern that female performers and playwrights were judged more harshly by critics and audiences.

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