Theatre still suffers from the “ludicrous” misconception that women can only write domestic plays, leading figures have warned.
Directors and writers involved in the establishment of a new women’s playwriting prize claim that a lack of faith in female-written work fuels a continued gender imbalance on the UK’s main stages, despite an acceptance that venues must make the plays they stage more representative of society.
At an event held at the National Theatre to launch the Women’s Prize for Playwriting, Tanika Gupta, who will sit on the judging panel, said she knew of a prominent male director who “not so long ago” had claimed that “women did not have the intellectual rigour to write big plays”.
“It was a really awful thing to hear. [I thought] yes we can write those big plays, just give us a chance,” she said.
Speaking to The Stage, she added: “It’s just a reflection of society generally. There is still misogyny out there, there’s still massive sexism.
“I think that the perception is changing, but I don’t think it’s necessarily changing that much in buildings like this [the NT] or elsewhere.”
The judging panel for the £12,000 prize will be chaired by literary agent Mel Kenyon, who said: “I don’t think there’s a feeling [that women can solely write domestic work] but there is still an element of surprise when a woman writes a play that doesn’t have domestic concerns, and there is no element of surprise when a man does it. So the woman who manages to do it is seen as an anomaly rather than the norm.”
She added: “I also think that men have dictated for too long who the women of talent are, so what we’ve got to do is change who decides who is talented.”
The award has been set up by Ellie Keel Productions and Paines Plough to support UK and Ireland-based playwrights who identify as female. It will offer the winning writer £12,000 as a fee in respect of an exclusive option for Paines Plough and EKP to co-produce the winning play.
Charlotte Bennett, co-artistic director of Paines Plough, said she believed the idea that women’s writing could only be domestic was still pervasive in the industry.
“I’ve heard that attitude from many, many male artistic directors, who have described women’s work as domestic… I think it is ludicrous but I think it is absolutely an attitude that exists, sometimes openly, sometimes not,” she said.
Producer Ellie Keel, who founded the award, added: “A lot of buildings and companies are still run by men who are less interested in the female imagination. They might not think this consciously but they tend to believe that women can only write very small, domestic stuff. Studios are often full of plays by women, but where are they on the larger scale?”
She said other playwriting prizes, while valuable for raising the profile of underrepresented writers, “have not achieved equality in programming”.
“What this is about is making people aware of the best writing by women, and encouraging more women to write plays, and by so doing, get more work on these major stages,” she said.
Submissions for the inaugural award are now open, and close on March 2.
The judging panel also includes actors Monica Dolan and Maxine Peake, playwright Ella Hickson, LAMDA director Sarah Frankcom, producer Kate Pakenham and Kiln artistic director Indhu Rubasingham.
The prize is being run in partnership with publisher Samuel French, part of Concord Theatricals, which will publish the first, second and third-place scripts.