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Best-funded theatres in Ireland have worst gender balance – study

Dublin's Abbey Theatre has been criticised for the low number of female playwrights and directors in its new season. Photo: Fiona Morgan Waking the Feminists protest outside Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 2015. Photo: Fiona Morgan
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The Irish theatres that receive the most public funding are the worst at achieving gender balance in their work, according to a new study.

The Abbey and Gate theatres in Dublin, which between them are in receipt of €87 million (£75.5 million) in Arts Council funding, displayed the worst overall representation of women out of 10 leading funded organisations.

These are the findings of a 76-page report, Gender Counts: An Analysis of Gender in Irish Theatre, 2006-15, which reveals an endemic resistance to the employment of women over a 10-year period during which, the report’s authors claim, “discrimination was the norm”.


Overall percentages of female representation in each category, 2006 to 2015

Directors – 37%
Authors – 28%
Cast – 42%
Set designers – 40%
Lighting designers – 34%
Sound designers – 9%
Costume designers – 79%


The report has been commissioned by pressure group Waking the Feminists and produced in collaboration with the Irish Theatre Institute and the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Waking the Feminists was founded in 2015 after a programme launched by the Abbey had commissioned just one female writer in a line-up of 10 plays, and only three female directors.

The new report analyses 1,155 productions by 10 leading producing and presenting companies, focusing on six roles – directing, writing, acting, set design, lighting design, sound design and costume design.

During the decade examined by the survey, women took only a third of key roles at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre despite it receiving 57% of the €134.2 million (£116.5 million) state funding awarded to the 10 surveyed companies. Only 17% of its produced authors were women.

The overall figure is 32% for the Gate Theatre; in the same period, just 6% of plays staged by the Gate were directed by women, with none being employed in six of the 10 years.

Two companies led by female artistic directors – Lynne Parker’s Rough Magic and Garry Hynes’ Druid – together with the Dublin Fringe Festival and the city’s culture centre the Ark, all showed greater commitment to gender balance in several areas than the larger theatres. The Ark, Rough Magic and the Fringe Festival employed 47% women overall.

Of the 9,205 individual roles identified by a team of six researchers – led by Brenda Donohue – women were less likely to be employed than their male counterparts in all but one of the key categories. Women accounted for 79% of costume designers, but fared substantially less well in other areas.

Representation of women among actors amounted to 42% of the 4,815 employed, set designers were 40% female, and women accounted for just over a third (37%) of directors. In the design categories, the gender imbalance was more pronounced, with 34% of lighting designers, 28% of authors and just 9% of 673 sound designers women.

Calling for further scrutiny, the report’s authors claim its findings clearly demonstrate “a significant gender problem” in Irish theatre.

They added: “Ideally this report will come to be seen as a snapshot of a time that is coming to a close, where discrimination was the norm. It is up to all of us, workers, artists and audiences alike, to make sure that these numbers change and change forever.”

A 2016 survey by Waking the Feminists, focused on playwrights, found that less than a fifth of writers at top Irish theatres were women, in a period between 2006 and 2016.

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