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Javaad Alipoor: ‘It’s time for women to stop being written out of their own work’

Director Kirsty Housley, centre, with Complicite’s Poppy Keeling (left) and Claire Gilbert (right) receiving The Stage Award for innovation earlier this year. Housley co-directed The Encounter. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge Director Kirsty Housley, centre, with Complicite’s Poppy Keeling (left) and Claire Gilbert (right) receiving The Stage Award for innovation earlier this year. Housley co-directed The Encounter. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
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Theatre is, by its nature, a collaborative art form – why then, asks Javaad Alipoor, do we so often insist on crediting a single individual, often at the expense of female artists? We need a culture change, he says

Collaboration is the lifeblood of theatre. The lean years of austerity and funding cuts have prompted the cannier organisations to co-produce and collaborate more than ever before. Institutions that don’t have been left behind.

Co-commissioning projects such as Routes North have opened up ways for smaller companies and artists to make work and move it around.

But this instructional collaboration is just the industry catching up with the way artists, especially at the cutting edge, have worked for decades. There’s often a feeling of magic and excess, where something happens in the rehearsal room that can’t be reduced to any one person’s input.

There is one element that has not caught up, and it is in attribution. This is not a minor point: women are being written out of their own work.

My recent show Believers Are But Brothers was received warmly at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Audiences wanted to engage with it, and I was lucky enough to benefit from a host of critical engagement from other artists and arts professionals.

A particular source of pride about the experience was that, in a show that addressed toxic masculinity among other things, we had a company that was split down the middle in terms of gender. But in the conversation around the show, whether in the media, or the unofficial discussion in the bar and on social media, the female members of the company received almost no mention.

People rightly noticed the debt the show owed to Chris Thorpe, an artist who has long inspired me and whose dramaturgical support was invaluable. But the show bore the imprint of my female collaborators too, and this was hardly touched upon.

In the first case, my partner and long-term collaborator Natalie Diddams provided additional direction, but her influence was only discussed by other women who saw the show.

This may be a question of profile, as neither of us had brought work to such a high-profile part of the fringe. But in the case of my co-director Kirsty Housley, this can hardly be the case.

To give just a single example, her work on Complicite’s The Encounter is not far removed from the playful use of technology that we developed together through the making process of my show. All I can really see working here is the age-old unconscious bias that makes us cling to men’s names more than women’s.

When I spoke about this with other defining women artists, more anecdotes came up that echoed this same situation.

One artist was a black woman who had spent years working with hard-to-reach young people empowering them and their voices as poets, only to find that when their story was turned into a major production she was not invited to the process.

Just a couple of months ago, a blog post argued that the way we as an industry talked about the influence of Ivo van Hove’s work on contemporary British theatre masked generations of British women designers who were both influenced by and influencing the ‘European’ traditions now being celebrated. There is a list of women artists that stretch right back to Peter Brook’s collaborator Sally Jacobs.

This is in the context of the wider soul-searching our industry is having to do about gender, most recently provoked by the Weinstein allegations and the disclosures and allegations this has provoked in UK theatre.

Then there is the issue of representation on stage and off. When, as arts writer Victoria Sadler has pointed out, Jack Thorne has more plays on than her entire gender at the Old Vic, when producing houses such as Hampstead Theatre can programme no women writers at all and when only one in nine musicals have

women writers, it’s obvious that this problem is part of a much deeper situation.

These problems aren’t going away. Writers are much more likely to be found in rehearsal rooms or workshopping ideas than they are staring off into the middle distance on windswept moors, waiting for inspiration to strike. Some of our most exciting directors are those who are willing to open up their process to experimentation or to leave space for design to drive conceptually.

This is, without getting into smaller-scale and more experimental work, where the notion of the ‘theatremaker’ has permanently blurred boundaries between writers, directors, performers and designers.

When we do not recognise the role that women are having through collaboration at the smaller and more experimental scale, how will we ever change the gender balance of lead names and credits?

While race, ethnicity, white privilege and, for want of a better expression, institutional racism still short-change artists of colour, one of the ways the industry is improving is that men of colour can increasingly tie their work to their names and voices. But this still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, if it’s at the expense of half of our collaborators.

Javaad Alipoor in rehearsals for  The Believers Are But Brothers. Photo: Richard Davenport
Javaad Alipoor in rehearsals for
The Believers Are But Brothers. Photo: Richard Davenport

My personal response was to think through how crediting works as I put together the company to make the next two works of the trilogy Believers Are But Brothers.

One answer is to go back to the old company-creation model that owes something to the vanguard of experimental companies of the 1980s, or non-theatre parallels such as the Luther Blissett collective and their models of shared ownership.

But when we dig at that history, we see how that hits its own problems. If we look at the development of that generation of companies, and how changing funding regimes led to the development of the single artistic director model, we see how the heritage of that work often sticks to the single artistic director, who, more often than not, was a single charismatic male figure.

For me, the solution, partially at least, lies outside theatre. TV shows and films, especially at the commercial end, often credit work as ‘created’ by more than one individual, and that’s not necessarily a writer.

In other forms, visual and conceptual art for instance, a shared title such as ‘lead artists’ is used. But more than this, I think we just need to pay a little more attention to how we talk about the process of production.

We need a cultural change. When we think of something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream we should be saying ‘Sally Jacobs’ as often as we say ‘Peter Brook’.

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