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Lyn Gardner: It’s time the UK’s top theatres committed to gender quotas

Erica Whyman in rehearsals for Hecuba. Photo: Topher McGrillis Erica Whyman is part of the RSC's all-female directorial line-up in the summer of 2018. Photo: Topher McGrillis
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It’s terrific that for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s summer 2018 season, the directorial line-up will be all-female for both the main stage and the Swan.

Polly Findlay, Erica Whyman, Fiona Laird, Maria Aberg and Jo Davies have all directed for the RSC previously, and will be at the helm for new productions next year.

It’s a reminder that when given the platform, directors need more than one production to demonstrate their talent, learn how to handle particular spaces and thrive.

Too often, an artist – if they are a woman or are from diverse backgrounds – gets only one shot in a high-profile situation and if they don’t triumph, they are out.

But it’s only when the opportunities are sustained, and not just one-off tokenism, that a significant and genuine advancement occurs in the diversity of the arts.

This is why it’s important that organisations, particularly flagship ones in receipt of large amounts of public funding such as the RSC, lead the way and put policies in place that don’t just encourage diversity but embed it in their way of working.

It’s not just about the numbers, it’s about the whole culture of an organisation. It’s not that hard to give an opportunity to one or two disabled directors or actors in a couple of productions – then pat yourself on the back and point to what a forward-thinking organisation you are.

In those circumstances it’s too easy to go, “Oh we tried that and it wasn’t a success” and not do it again for another five years. That doesn’t help increase diversity, but rather hinders it.

People need a chance to try and fail and try again because that’s how they learn, and those with the greatest subsidy should be willing to take the greatest risks.

It’s why, despite the fact that the RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran will himself be directing the RSC’s first 50:50 gender production with a revival of Troilus and Cressida in the autumn, I’m disappointed that he has stepped back from committing to an equal gender split.

If incoming artistic director Michelle Terry can commit to such a policy at the unfunded Shakespeare’s Globe, why not the RSC?

“I don’t want to impose that on directors,” Doran said, arguing that he wanted “to keep it much more fluid and organic” before rather bizarrely adding: “I’m not going to say we’re going to do it 50:50, because in a way, Shakespeare was writing for a group of blokes, actually, but we try across the board to look at each specific production and try and shift that balance where we can and where we think it’s appropriate to do so.”

Actually I don’t reckon that is good enough. Because in this case gender equality – and equally one could apply what Doran is saying to disability and race – becomes, in effect, in the gift of those who are running organisations but are not part of the culture of that organisation.

As Tonic’s research has found, those running arts institutions often think they are employing more women in creative roles than they actually are. There is a disconnect between perception and statistical reality.

Victoria Sadler’s recent review of how London theatres support – or rather don’t support – female playwrights is evidence of that.

Schemes such as Artistic Directors of the Future’s Up Next project and the Artistic Director Leadership Programme are very welcome but they also point up the reason why they are so badly needed: left to their own devices, theatres talk about diversity but seldom actually act on it, so nothing ever really changes.

I applaud the fact that five women will be directing main-stage productions at the RSC next summer, and the company is staging its first 50:50 gender split production, but whether this is a real shift that can be demonstrated by statistical evidence will only become apparent in time.

Otherwise the danger is that it just becomes another case of two steps forward and one step back. In any case, who exactly are these directors that Doran refers to, in the 21st century, that would feel a commitment to a 50:50 gender split, gender-blind casting – that employing actors who are not male, white and able-bodied – would be an imposition on their artistic vision?

One of the good things about affirmative action when it comes to diversity is that it concentrates minds. If you know it is the policy of the organisation, a director also knows they need a very good reason not to adhere to it.

Of course any such policy can be flexible: a 50:50 gender split doesn’t mean – as Doran seems to think – that you couldn’t do an all-female or all-male production if you so desired.

You would simply balance the numbers over a period of time. If a world-respected brand such as the RSC were to commit to gender equality it would be a game-changer. Doran should rethink.

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