Playwrights lambast shortage of women writers for exam set texts

Timberlake Wertenbaker. Photo: Jenny Lewis Timberlake Wertenbaker. Photo: Jenny Lewis
by -

Leading playwrights including Timberlake Wertenbaker and Jessica Swale have criticised the under-representation of women writers in set texts planned for GSCE and A-level drama.

They have warned that there is a danger of “wiping out” the female voice under the draft specifications, which will come into use from September 2016.

They include set texts at GCSE-level drama for the first time, as well as featuring new plays to be studied at A level.

Of the 21 writers of proposed GCSE set texts for England’s three main exam boards – AQA, Edexcel and OCR – combined, only three female playwrights are featured.

Plays by Arthur Miller feature on the list for all three boards. William Shakespeare and Willy Russell are both included on two lists.

Swale’s Blue Stockings, Kindertransport by Diane Samuels and Olwen Wymark’s Find Me are the only works by female playwrights to feature on the combined lists. However, Noughts and Crosses – adapted from Malorie Blackman’s novel by Dominic Cooke – also features.

Swale described the imbalance of female writers on the new set texts as “disappointing”.

She told The Stage: “When I was at school I assumed Caryl Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker were the only female playwrights – they were the only women ever spoken about, and yet I could have written you a list of 50 famous male writers. I have never, in my whole drama education, studied a play by a woman. Isn’t that shocking?”

Samuels, who teaches creative writing in schools and whose play Kindertransport also features on the GCSE English literature syllabus, said the lack of female voices in drama education was indicative of a continued imbalance in the wider theatre industry.

“The fact that in the world of theatre there is still a huge bias towards male authors means that it is going to have an impact on what happens in the education system as well,” she said.

At A level, only nine female writers are featured across all three exam boards’ choices, in comparison with 30 different male writers – several of whom are included on more than one list.

Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, Churchill’s Cloud 9 and Polly Teale’s Bronte are the only female-written plays on a list of 13 texts chosen by AQA for its A-level specification.

Wertenbaker told The Stage that an under-representation of female playwrights in education meant that “theatre begins to speak with a male voice”.

She added: “Never underestimate the importance of confidence for artists. If you fracture it this early, the damage is done. You fracture confidence by making people silent or invisible. Or by wiping out their history: in this case, the history of plays written by women.”

An AQA spokeswoman said: “There are – and always will be – many opportunities for students to learn about women and their work in the subjects we offer qualifications in.”

OCR declined to comment. However, a spokesman from Edexcel’s parent company Pearson said: “The values of diversity and inclusion are integral to Pearson, and this is reflected across our business and through our qualifications. Our drama qualifications feature a diverse mix of playwrights, characters and practitioners, as well as a broad range of styles, genres and forms that provide thought-provoking, diverse and stimulating content for all our students.”

The under-representation of women in the current theatrical landscape was highlighted earlier this year in a report published by the British Theatre Consortium, which suggested that less than a third of new plays performed in UK theatres are written by women.

Playwright David Edgar, who is part of BTC and co-chair of the theatre committee of the Writers’ Guild, said it was important that students leave school with “a sense of the drama canon as well as contemporary work”, but added that focusing on the canon “dramatically” reduced the number of female-written plays.

Aine Lark, chair of National Drama, the association for drama teachers and theatre educators, said that at a recent conference, teachers had voiced dissatisfaction with the lack of female writers on the draft lists.

“Exam boards think they are being helpful by retaining texts that schools already have as resources, but this can be as stifling as it is helpful,” she added.