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

The MU found that just 12% of musicians in West End pits were female, and that female musical directors and conductors were all but invisible. Photo: Shutterstock
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Just one in nine players in West End orchestra pits are women, according to figures from the Musicians’ Union.

The statistics have prompted calls for diversity pledges in the theatre industry to extend to its orchestra pits.

The Musicians’ Union conducted a snap poll of all West End theatres, using data it gathers for all of the bands playing in shows, and found that around 12% of musicians in West End pits are female. The MU said female musical directors and conductors were all but invisible.

The MU has been working with West End production Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, which has made what it claims is West End history by having an all-female band play at its performance on January 29.

Prior to the performance, a networking event was held with the aim of celebrating female performers and raising awareness of the lack of diversity within shows’ bands.

MU London official Jo Laverty, who has been assisting Showstopper!, told The Stage it was not unusual for her to visit bands and “see 100% men”.

“In band visits over the last year I have probably encountered one female musical director – but there are more out there,” she added.

She added that ‘fixers’ – those who oversee the make-up of West End bands and orchestras – needed to consider diversity, claiming that even orchestras overseen by a female fixer tended to be exclusively male.

Laverty added that 33% of the MU’s membership were female.

“If the 12% [of women in bands] reflected the membership you would say, ‘That’s about right.’ But it’s low,” she said, calling on producers to consider the diversity of bands.

“There’s a conversation around diversity more generally and I have seen the change on stage. I think London is very diverse now but when you look down into the pit you see it’s not the case there. They need to look at all areas and not just what you see on stage,” Laverty said.

She assessed the make-up of bands in West End theatres after being approached by Duncan Walsh Atkins, music director of Showstopper!, who had noticed the lack of women in orchestra pits. He claimed recruitment processes for musicians were partly to blame.

“Musicians are mostly recruited to theatre bands by an informal networking system, which women struggle to gain access to, and the atmosphere and working environment in West End bands has traditionally been very masculine, with lots of heavy drinking and ‘laddish’ behaviour,” he said.

Last year, a round-table discussion held by the Musical Theatre Network highlighted some of the issues around gender disparity in West End pits. One concern raised was that the “culture within bands is male dominated”, with often no separate changing room for women.

Walsh Atkins added that he had assembled an all-female band for the January 29 show to “celebrate the female musicians of London and highlight the under-representation of women in West End orchestras”.

“Despite so many great female players coming out of the colleges, very few make it into the West End pits,” he said.

Yshani Perinpanayagam was the conductor of the all-female band at Showstopper! this week (commencing January 29).

She said preconceptions often played a part in whether or not women were asked to lead a band.

“When I am in front of someone doing my job, I look like I am control. But perhaps the boxes I tick of being female and BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] means people don’t necessarily look and me and say: ‘There’s an authority figure, someone who knows what they’re talking about,’” she said.

“I feel there is this idea deep down in some people’s souls that women can’t do the job as well. It would be wonderful to smash that apart in all kinds of ways,” she added.

Wendy Gadian, a musical director who is also head of the BA Acting (Musical Theatre) at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, told The Stage that there needed to be “support for role models that don’t fit the profile of a typical orchestra pit player”.

“Now is the time for positive action that encourages and recognises the value that everyone can bring,” she said.

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