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Does your show pass the Bechdel test?

Scene from Bend It Like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Bend It Like Beckham has been praised on the Bechdel Theatre Twitter account for passing the Bechdel test. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
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Think back to your last theatre production. Were there at least two female characters on stage? Did they talk to each other? And if they did, was it about something besides a man? If the answer to all three questions is ‘yes’, then the production passes the Bechdel test, and Beth Watson, the actor behind Bechdel Theatre, wants to hear about it.

Designed to provoke discussion about the representation of gender on our stages and celebrate work that presents female characters defined by more than their relationships to men, the campaign is inspired by a set of criteria more commonly used to assess the representation of women in films.

The Bechdel test first appeared in 1985 in a comic strip by the American artist and writer Alison Bechdel (coincidentally, a musical based on her graphic memoir Fun Home is currently running on Broadway). What began as a gag has gradually gained prominence, particularly in the last decade or so, among feminist film commentators as a simple means of articulating cinema’s women problem.

Watson, frustrated by the stereotyping of female roles in mainstream theatre, wondered whether the test could be valuable as a jumping-off point for debate about women on stage too. She brought the idea along to a day of discussion on gender and performance organised by Improbable Theatre as part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down Dear festival in London last month. By the end of the breakout session that Watson called, the @BechdelTheatre Twitter handle had been registered and the campaign was on its way.

Its launch, it turns out, was timely, with the role of women in theatre back in the spotlight in recent weeks following comments by Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone at a career retrospective at the V&A. Featherstone said that she thinks audiences are less comfortable with female-led narratives and complex female roles than they are with male ones. Whether or not you agree with her (I won’t go into that here, but recommend you read Mark Shenton and Liz Hoggard’s excellent discussion on the topic), it is certainly the case that male roles tend to be meatier than female ones, and that male-led narratives are given greater prominence on our stages.

There is some excellent work going on within the theatre community to get to the bottom of why women are so underrepresented in theatre, and what can be done to remedy it, but the Bechdel test, we agreed at the Improbable event, could be an effective way of bringing audiences into the debate too.

Theatregoers in the UK are already very comfortable with the idea of tweeting about the work they see. All the Bechdel Theatre campaign asks is that people mention in their tweets when shows pass the test, using #bechdeltest or copying in @bechdeltheatre. Watson will then retweet from the campaign account and add the show to a running tally of current productions that pass.

If the test sounds like rather an unnuanced approach, that’s because it is. Passing it says nothing about the quality of the play, nor is it a commentary on its content or message. The gender balance of the creative team doesn’t come into it, and one-woman plays would fall at the first hurdle, of course. As long as a show features two female characters (1) who talk to each other (2) about something besides a man, (3) it passes, even if those female characters are adrift in a sea of testosterone.

We discussed at length, that day at the CPT, whether such a seemingly reductive set of criteria could be relevant to theatre. And we decided that it could – if the idea is to get ordinary theatregoers, people from outside the industry, to notice the lack of real, complex female characters on our stages, the more accessible the terms of the debate the better.

There is plenty of room for conversations about the validity of the test, what it means for a particular show to have passed, the implication of gender-blind casting, etc (and Watson will be launching a Bechdel Theatre blog where some of those discussions can take place), but in the first instance, we need to get people thinking about theatre in these terms. And the Bechdel test offers a route to that destination. While highfalutin feminist rhetoric is stirring for some, it is a turn-off for many. The simplicity of the test has been the key to its success in the world of film, and it will be key in theatre too.

Watson says that the Bechdel Theatre campaign’s prime intention is about celebrating the productions that pass the test, and in the process creating a resource for those of us keen to support the writers, companies and theatres moving in the right direction in terms of their depiction of women. I am unlikely to buy a ticket to a show just because I hear that it passes the test – but that might be enough to make me read a review, visit the company’s website or sign up for its mailing list. And I bet I’m not the only one.

Part of what inspired Watson’s thinking about a Bechdel test for theatre was an initiative launched in Sweden in 2013 that saw several independent cinemas introduce a rating for films that pass the test. I don’t think it’s all that far-fetched to imagine that some British theatres and companies could adopt something similar.

Organisations such as the 11 involved in Tonic Theatre’s Advance programme, a six-month project that examined why women are not rising to the top of the profession, would surely be interested in celebrating and helping their audiences identify work that presents a truer depiction of women. Several of those companies have made commitments based on the research done with Tonic – why not add an involvement with Bechdel Theatre to the list too? Copying @bechdeltheatre in on tweets about upcoming shows, or using #bechdeltest would be an excellent first step.

The more attention we bring to this subject, the more theatregoers will start demanding work that better represents gender balance in the modern world. And that’s where Sphinx Theatre comes in. Helen Barnett, an associate artist with the company, was there at CPT on the day that Bechdel Theatre was born, and explained how she and colleagues at Sphinx have been working on an adaptation of the test for use by theatremakers and venues.

The ‘Sphinx List’, which they are hoping to launch soon, will take the Bechdel test as its starting point but address all the flaws I’ve outlined above to build a theatre-centric document that makers and programmers will be able to use as a provocation to improve representations of women in their work. Sphinx has put some of its research into action already, having drawn on these ideas when putting together the Women Centre Stage festival at the Actors Centre and National Theatre Temporary Theatre earlier this year. I have high hopes for the impact the list could have on British theatremaking when it is published.

In the meantime, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Bechdel Theatre blog and Twitter feed, tweeting about the shows I see and telling friends and colleagues to do the same. Of course having two women on stage talking about something other than a man is not the be all and end all of the representation battle – it is just the beginning. But if you are going to think big, sometimes you have got to be prepared to start small.

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