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Lucy Kerbel: To create lasting equality, we must enact change at every level, not just the top

Detail from the cover of All Change Please
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One of the things I love about theatre is that it isn’t a solitary activity. It can only happen when a group of people with a range of skills work together to achieve a shared goal. Some of those people are really visible in that process: they get to take a bow at the end of the evening, or get their names on the poster. Others are behind the scenes: they may be the person who built the set or looks after the accounts. The role each member of the company plays is crucial and yet no one person can put the show on alone – without the plethora of skills, talents and interests that the people around them have, there would be no production or, if there was, it would be a poorer, less well-executed one.

When it comes to the question of how we can achieve greater gender equality in the theatre industry, I think there’s a similar principle at play to how we put a show on stage. It will only happen, and happen in the best way possible, if a whole range of people are involved in its creation and can bring their own particular talent, skill and interest to the mix.

Now is a time of hugely exciting change across our industry. During the past five to 10 years – in line with a broader societal reawakening to the ongoing need for feminism – discussions about gender equality have been had in theatre in a way they haven’t for years, and arguably on a greater scale than ever before. A swathe of new artistic directors, many of them women, have been keen to place women’s art and stories at the heart of their programmes. They are shifting the dial, as are individual artists driving new and invigorated ways of thinking about how the canon can be staged and by whom. A questioning has begun of how our theatre organisations are run, from the administrative to the technical to the creative to the financial. We are also beginning to reconsider how pay, hours and working practices feed into the debate. All of this is hugely exciting and it’s providing us with the impetus and the opportunity to re-imagine what theatre can be, as an industry, an art form and a medium through which we converse with the public.

To select just one of many recent breakthroughs, the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, produced in collaboration with Clean Break and with director Phyllida Lloyd and actress Harriet Walter at the helm was a landmark production. An all-female Shakespeare production of that magnitude, with that level of profile and that level of political directness in terms of its message made history. It also shouldered open a door which, certainly as far as cross-gender casting in the classics has gone since the first production, Julius Caesar, appeared in 2012, has made it significantly easier for others to pass through. It has moved the practice even further forward.

While all of this is thrilling and positive, there remains a long way to go.

Tonic’s work with the industry is about trying to ensure that those green shoots of change establish into permanent features in the theatre landscape, so that in 30 years’ time we’re not still pointing to early indicators of progress and predicting that equality is somewhere on the horizon. This will be about capitalising on the shifts that, long fought for, have already been achieved, and about embedding this change properly, so that it’s not a brief burst of brilliance before things return to how they have always been. We need to ensure that we properly check that progress really is happening, not simply settling for the outward, and at times deceptive, signs that it is.

I can’t tell you exactly what you should be doing. There’s no instruction manual; if creating a culture shift in an industry were as straightforward as assembling a model aeroplane we’d have achieved it long ago. Instead, I intend to provide a springboard from which you will feel inspired and equipped to come up with your own ideas and plans for how you will contribute to the wider changes that are happening. That’s in keeping with the approach taken by Tonic, the organisation I founded back in 2011. We work across the UK theatre industry, supporting it to achieve greater gender equality in its work and workforces, but we never go into an organisation and tell the people there what they should do. I never sit down with artistic directors and tell them what they should think. Instead, Tonic’s job is to provide tools, information and insights – and allow them to work out for themselves why imbalances exist and what they could best do to address them.

I don’t claim to have all the answers. That’s not me letting myself off the hook; rather, I’m suggesting that many brains and perspectives on how to move forward on this very big issue will always be better than one. Because if we are going to achieve proper change across theatre – and do it in the most joyful, imaginative, thorough and effective way possible – it will require a whole range of approaches to it. Besides, you know the part of theatre you inhabit the best. If you come up with your own solutions to the particular challenges that exist there, the results will be more nuanced, longer lasting and stronger.

Having been working towards this change over the past six years, I’m firmly of the opinion that everyone who has a stake in theatre – whether they work in it, teach it, study it, watch it, or make it – has the potential and the opportunity to get involved in driving forward change. You don’t have to be the director of the National Theatre to make change happen. You can be an A-level student just embarking on a theatre studies course. Granted, if you are a student then there are certain things that, realistically, you can’t do that the director of the National Theatre can. Conversely, there are things that you can do that he can’t: there are ideas that you will have, a perspective you will bring to the subject and a language you are in command of that he isn’t. You can use all these things to make your own contribution at the same time as he is making his. If many people enact many types of change on different scales and in varied settings across theatre, a major shift will occur.

Working together on the shared goal of achieving greater gender equality is like collaborating to put the most brilliant production on stage. Collectively we have a shared goal; through each contributing our own skill, knowledge and creativity, we will achieve it in the most successful manner.

This is an edited extract from All Change Please: A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre, by Lucy Kerbel, published by Nick Hern Books (£9.99)

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