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Mark Shenton: How does theatre compare to the BBC in terms of gender equality?

Claire Machin, Sophie Louise Dann, Joanna Riding, Claire Moore and Debbie Chazen in The Girls at Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo: Matt Crockett, Dewynters The Girls features a female-led cast, but where are the women writers? Photo: Matt Crockett/Dewynters
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Institutional sexism, like institutional racism, is insidious and hard to prove – unless confronted by hard facts, such as the BBC’s enforced publication of pay scales of its top earners.

The top seven are all (white) men; within the top 20 highest-paid on-air stars, only five are female and not one is from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. Only one woman is in the top 10 – Claudia Winkleman, who earns £450,000 to £499,000 (compared with Chris Evans’ £2.2 million to £2.25 million).

Equal pay campaigner Stefan Cross wrote to the Guardian: “What the BBC disclosure has demonstrated is that, when you have true pay transparency, you discover real discrimination (which may or may not be justified).”

No wonder that some of the BBC’s most high-profile female talent have written an open letter to BBC director general Tony Hall to “correct this disparity” over gender pay, which they say has been suspected “for many years”. The BBC admitted: “Across the BBC, the average pay of men is 10% higher than women. The national average is 18%. We are committing to closing it by 2020 – something no other organisation has committed to doing.”

In theatre, a survey by The Stage last year revealed that women leaders at the UK’s top subsidised theatres are paid on average £29,000 less than men.

‘There’s not enough new work being produced, and when it is, it goes to famous white men’

Earlier this year, National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris committed to ensuring gender equality at the theatre.

Not so at Hampstead Theatre, where no plays by women feature in its autumn programme. In an open letter to The Stage, actors, directors and playwrights of both genders wrote to artistic director Edward Hall to point out: “In 2015 there were four plays by women and 11 plays by men; in 2016 there were three plays by women and 13 plays by men and this year only two plays by women and 14 by men.

“A similar picture of inequality is true across the country: at Theatre Royal Bath’s 2017 summer season, there is one play by a woman (an adaptation); in Chichester Festival Theatre’s summer season, only three plays out of 12 are written by women; in the Old Vic’s 2016/2017 season, one play was written by a woman.”

The Donmar Warehouse, run by two women, hasn’t programmed a female playwright since Abi Morgan’s Splendour in 2015. But the Donmar has done rather better by women in putting their talents front and centre in other ways – the all-female Shakespeare trilogy, for instance, and the fact that, apart from Arturo Ui, this year’s slate of shows have been adapted or directed by women.

Harriet Walter in the Donmar Warehouse's Julius Caeser. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Harriet Walter in the Donmar Warehouse’s Julius Caeser. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Hall replied to the letter by defensively stating: “You can only programme the plays you actually have before you. So our autumn season isn’t really indicative of anything other than the plays that happened to fall into place for those dates.” He added that they’ve plugged the gap in British female writers by programming work by American female writers instead. Hall has been at Hampstead since 2010: long enough, surely, to have established relationships and commissioned work that should yield fruit; but if not, why not?

If women are under-represented on our new-writing stages, it’s even worse when it comes to musicals. The Stage recently looked at West End musicals produced in the last decade, and found “only four out of the 118 musicals that ran over the 10-year period had a female composer solely responsible for writing the score”. Only three shows had all-female writers – and each of them were commercial flops, Bad Girls, Gone With the Wind and Viva Forever!.

Catherine Johnson, who wrote the book for Mamma Mia!, told The Stage: “There are so many women playwrights out there – their voices are heard and they’re writing contemporary, pertinent, compelling drama, so for that not also to be happening in musical theatre, something is really going wrong.”

Things are a little better on Broadway, where the past few years has seen Kinky Boots (scored by Cyndi Lauper), Fun Home (by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron) and Waitress (Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson) become hits.

In the West End, new British musicals are a rarity – two new shows have premiered here in the past year, compared with 13 on Broadway. Even the opportunity to get a female voice to collaborate on The Girls was passed over in favour of pop star Gary Barlow. No wonder women struggle to get their voices heard here; there’s not enough new work being produced, and when it is, it goes to famous white men.

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