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Camilla Whitehill: ‘Female playwrights’ have a rubbish time – the industry needs a reset

Linda Bassett in Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone, at London's Royal Court in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton Linda Bassett in Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone, at London's Royal Court in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I write plays, but I am not a playwright. That is not my title. I am a female playwright. And apparently there’s a difference.

So, as well as writing plays this past week, I’ve been on Twitter trying to explain why female playwrights have such a rubbish time.

Male playwrights – the ones who write most of the produced plays – can carry on with their work, serene. Nobody questions their competence because of their gender. Nobody asks if more than one male writer in a season might be too many, and they (largely) don’t join in with the discussion – they tend to stay quiet.

Male artistic directors – also quiet. Producers, directors – quiet. Their silence is complicit and they all stay in charge and nothing changes.

This is not someone blaming external factors for her own struggles at work. The fact is I’m doing well at the moment. I’m under commission to one of my favourite theatres, and working with some other brilliant companies.

The reason I’m writing this in The Stage, which, again, is not my job, is because of a review by blogger Victoria Sadler of how theatre is serving female playwrights. The answer she found was: they are not.

Of the six theatres she looked at in last week’s post, only the Royal Court came out well. Most did poorly and the shocking lack of female representation at the Almeida and the Old Vic in particular makes me think they must be doing this on purpose.

This happens a couple of times a year. Someone points out that female playwrights are being ignored, it gets shared around social media, (mainly) women speak out about it. The men in charge stay silent, and absolutely nothing changes.

Earlier this year, I co-wrote a letter to the Hampstead Theatre, which was published in The Stage. It criticised the complete and utter lack of female voices in its latest season. We received an insulting response that – among other contentious points – disturbingly suggested there aren’t enough women writing. It stings as I genuinely think other male programmers think the same.

I don’t pretend I speak for all female writers. I can only talk about my own experience, but I believe it echoes that of others. My career started with a few years of being a nobody, followed by a sold-out, acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe show, followed by… not a huge amount for quite a while.

Becoming a playwright should be hard. But once you’ve proved yourself capable, there should be an equal playing field.

There were lots of meetings, lots of emails, but little end result. After male colleagues’ first successful show, they started climbing a ladder that isn’t even offered to women until they are deemed less of a risk. Which could be never.

Becoming a playwright should be hard. Most people who want to be a playwright probably aren’t good enough. But once you’ve proved yourself capable, there should be an equal playing field.

And I’m a white, middle-class woman. I’m privileged. If it’s this hard for me, what about for a working-class woman? Or a woman of colour? When white male is the status quo, everything else is shunted into tiny spaces. “We’ve already got a play by a black woman this year”; “We can’t commission another comedy by a woman”. If men are in charge of 85% of an industry, it will not always be pleasant for those of us in the minority.

The industry needs a massive reset. We need people in charge who believe in change to speak out publicly. We need action. We need fewer plays by white men and more by women.

Until this happens, our big stages will stagnate and only the fringe spaces will see progress. And I’ll keep tweeting about inequality until I’m forced to quit writing altogether.

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