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Lucy Kerbel: ‘Gender equality is everyone’s duty’

Maxine Peake in Hamlet. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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It’s International Women’s Day this week and, as has been the case in the first week of March every year since I founded Tonic Theatre in 2011, I am the recipient of a disproportionately high level of invitations to speak at debates, attend events and write articles on the under-representation of women in theatre.

In many ways this is marvellous – it feels that the baffling question of why women remain less visible on stage, and also screen, is one that is being discussed more openly and persistently in public and among ourselves than it was even four or five years ago.

This act of naming the issue and calling out its belligerent and damaging presence in our industries is in itself a step towards progress.

I refused to believe the industry excuse that “there just aren’t any good plays for women”

However, I do have my reservations about parcelling up the conversation into an annual slot that neatly coincides with March 8 every year. Does it mean we run the risk of transforming a situation that affects the lives of half the acting profession and impoverishes audiences and creative programmes alike into nothing more than the subject line for a 1,000-word article, or the focus of an hour-long panel debate? Instead, shouldn’t we be using the remaining 364 days of the year to remain focused on the problem?

By all means, let’s talk about it – and International Women’s Day gives us an excellent excuse for that – but then let’s make sure we do something about it too.

I can natter on about the lack of women on stage with the best of them. But I’d rather not; I’m a real fan of action and am always inspired by people who get on and do something to improve or enhance parts of the industry they feel could be working better or reaching out more widely. People like Stella Duffy with her Fun Palaces and response to Jennie Lee’s White Paper, Fin Kennedy with his In Battalions campaign, Danny Lee Wynter and the team behind Act for Change (who this week are releasing a series of video interviews campaigning for more roles for older women on our stages and screens).

When I got so perplexed by the imbalances I could see around me in theatre that it began to cloud everything I thought and saw about the industry I worked in, I decided to do something active. I founded Tonic because I recognised theatre leaders would need greater support if they were going to make their organisations more equitable. I wrote a book, 100 Great Plays for Women, because I refused to believe the excuse I kept hearing from industry colleagues to explain the lack of women on stage: “there just aren’t any good plays for women”. I created the Advance programme which saw Tonic work with a cohort of 11 theatres from across England, supporting them to become more successful in how they work with female theatre artists – something which Sheffield Theatres responded to by pledging to employ equal numbers of men and women on stage, a decision which, as far as the feedback from them goes, has led to some exciting and provocative choices being made in this season’s programming.

Let’s celebrate successes like Maxine Peake as Hamlet at the Royal Exchange – while we acknowledge that we’re not there yet

Next up, Tonic is commissioning and publishing a series of new plays for young people to perform called Platform, written to offer more and better roles for girls. Because if we can prevent another generation moving out of school, youth theatre, drama school or university and into the industry already with the ingrained expectation that female characters inevitably have less to say and do on stage – because that’s all they’ve ever known – change will be created all the quicker.

While I am a huge advocate of doing rather than just talking, of course it’s worth pointing out that when it comes to the question of any group being under-represented, perversely, it is often the very people disadvantaged by this under-representation who can do the least to change the situation. All power and respect to those actresses who speak out publicly on the issue, as well as those who are tackling the problem by writing material for them and their female colleagues to perform. But we can’t anticipate that actresses in the main can be the ones to lead change. It is a regrettable and cruel reality that people in the acting profession are often those lowest down the hierarchies of power, often through the simple matter of supply and demand. For actresses, this is even more biting than for their male counterparts because they cannot access the lion’s share of the work, leading in turn to a limited ability to have a say or get close enough to the seats of power to influence change.

So it must be down to others to speak out (and act out) on their behalf. Actresses don’t make the decisions about the shows that go on, the TV dramas that get commissioned or the films that get green-lit, nor about who gets to appear in them. Consequently it is those of us who do: the writers, directors, producers, casting directors, artistic directors, literary managers and commissioners who need to make sure we are taking responsibility for flagging up if things are looking unequal and, crucially, doing something about it.

It goes without saying that this is down to the men in these roles just as much as it is the women.

There is still far to go. There remains a stark under-representation of women on our screens and stages and in particular certain types of women: women above a certain age, women of certain shapes and sizes, of certain ethnicity, class, sexuality, non-binary gender, and those who are deaf and disabled. There’s a whole host of women (one could even go so far as to say the majority of women) who seldom appear in the worlds conjured on our stages and screens, and that is inexcusable.

But to save us all from becoming terribly depressed about that, we must hold on to the fact that, with the increased conversation on the subject in combination with the work of some terrific do-ers, things are changing. In theatre in the last 12 months alone, since last International Women’s Day, there have been some terrific steps forward. We’ve had the 50/50 cast of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre company, the next chapter in the Donmar and Clean Break’s continued exploration of all-female Shakespeare, the utterly brilliant Maxine Peake as Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, foregrounding of women’s stories at a range of theatres and perhaps most notably at the Royal Court, the Gate, and the Tricycle. There have also been significant steps forward in the National Theatre’s programming, from the Shed right up to the Olivier, and exciting progress at the RSC with the Roaring Girls and Midsummer Mischief seasons.

So this International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate these successes while we acknowledge that we’re not there yet. We must keep pushing forward and capitalise on the green shoots of progress already being achieved.

If not, there’s a risk that if we talk for too long, a kind of fatigue will creep in among the people who we need to enlist the most, a sense of “are we still talking about that?” or, even more dangerously, “if, after all this talking, still so little has been achieved, that suggests it probably never will be.”

I really don’t want to be doing what I do in the long-term. I’d love to get to a point where Tonic doesn’t need to exist and I really, really hope that I won’t still be going on about this in my dotage. I don’t even want to be writing the same article for International Women’s Day next year.

Instead, I want to be raving about all the brilliant progress that has been made throughout the remainder of 2015 and the beginning of 2016.

I really do believe that can be the case, but if that’s going to happen, then we all need to play a role.

Watch Art for Change’s video featuring actresses including Juliet Stevenson and Meera Syal

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