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No more excuses for male bias, say top playwrights including Timberlake Wertenbaker and Tanika Gupta

Timberlake Wertenbaker. Photo: Jenny Lewis
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Leading playwrights including Timberlake Wertenbaker, Charlotte Jones and Tanika Gupta are demanding theatre makes bigger strides to address the under-representation of female writers.

They say the change is needed to produce a new theatrical canon that is no longer dominated by men.

The playwrights issued a call for theatres to commission more women and not regard female-written plays as a commercial risk.

This was prompted by Jones, whose plays include Humble Boy and The Meeting, which recently premiered at Chichester Festival Theatre. She said that only now, aged 50, was her latest play being critiqued in its own right.

She told The Stage: “When I started writing 20 years ago I was always compared in reviews to male playwrights – ‘a touch of Ayckbourn’, ‘Stoppard-esque’… The theatrical canon, let’s face it, is mostly male. But we are constantly being judged according to a male paradigm by both male and female critics.”

Jones added: “This has been a wonderful year for female playwrights: Ella Hickson’s sublime The Writer, Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling. There is strength and depth in us. And none of us is trying to be Arthur Miller.”

Some of the UK’s leading theatre writers have backed Jones, insisting that the situation would not improve unless there was an industry-wide shift in the way work by women was approached.

The most recent British Theatre Repertoire report, published in 2016, found that of new plays staged in the UK, those by men outweighed the number by women two to one. Meanwhile, female-authored plays appeared in spaces that were 39% smaller than the venues hosting work by men.

London’s dominance of UK theatre is growing, says report

Gupta said this could be because female work was not being championed by the theatre establishment or because women did not push themselves forward enough.

Blue Stockings and Nell Gwynn writer Jessica Swale said: “As a female playwright, the wider problem is that, culturally, we sit in a male paradigm where plays by and about women are seen as ‘female plays’ or ‘feminist plays’. That is so reductive, and I have found that frustrating in my own career. There’s a much greater awareness of gender parity, but I don’t think that has manifested itself yet in actual change.”

She added: “Theatres must take responsibility for [diversity] in their programming. There are too many excuses and I don’t buy them. It’s just not that hard. There are great writers out there of colour, great women, great regional voices, great gay writers, working-class writers. Make it a rule that a percentage of your programming will be from some of these pools. Just do it.”

Other playwrights raising similar concerns include Wertenbaker, who said facts and arguments regarding the under-representation of female writers were too often ignored.

“The statistics need to be out there, [made] public and widely circulated and refreshed again and again. Theatres need to come clean. ‘We can’t find plays by women’ isn’t quite good enough,” she said.

Writer Zinnie Harris said many women who wrote for the theatre “believe that their work is more harshly judged” and that there was “no leeway or tolerance for work that doesn’t succeed”.

“One bad play buries you, whereas the perception is that male peers can get away with the odd half-baked script,” she added.

Alexis Zegerman, whose new play Holy Sh!t will reopen the Kiln Theatre [formerly the Tricycle] in north London next month, argued that theatres needed to stop viewing female-written work as risky and “take the leap of faith” in programming. She said: “Until everybody takes those changes, we will not have the numbers [in the canon]. That’s what it’s about.”

Lucy Kerbel, chief executive of Tonic Theatre, which works to achieve gender equality in theatre, said: “We know how important [reviews are] in influencing who theatres want to work with and, of course, in getting audiences through the doors. So it’s obvious that writers will want to be reviewed on equal terms and have equal levels of thoughtfulness and intelligence applied in the critiquing of their work.”

Playwright Charlotte Jones: ‘The middle-aged female voice is not heard enough in theatre’

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