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Mark Shenton’s week: Is playwright gender imbalance worse in London theatres?

Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2015 winner Katherine Soper. Photo: Joel Fildes Katherine Soper, whose play Wish List is nominated in the all-female new plays category at the UK Theatre Awards. Photo: Joel Fildes
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Blogger Victoria Sadler recently ignited a hornet’s nest with a survey of where women playwrights stand in the hierarchy of what she designated London’s six leading producing theatres.

She chooses, for the purposes of the survey, the Almeida, Donmar Warehouse, National Theatre, Old Vic, Royal Court and the Young Vic (and takes a well-aimed shot to dismiss Hampstead entirely: “The backwardness of that place and its artistic director has made it almost entirely irrelevant”).

Looking at all the shows that have opened or will open in the entirety of this year at each of them, she makes some interesting observations. Only the Royal Court emerges with any real credit: “Seventeen plays were programmed for the Royal Court 2017, and of those 10 were written by women. Terrific, just terrific,” she writes.

The National, by comparison, will have programmed 21 plays across the year (she double-counts Barber Shop Chronicles because it is returning, but says “that’s still an active decision taken not to platform another work”); only seven out of those 21 are by women.

At the Young Vic, 16 shows have been programmed; only two of them solely by women. The Donmar Warehouse has also only had two shows in which women writers played a part – artistic director Josie Rourke herself working as adaptor with Hadley Fraser on Committee, and Elinor Cook as translator of The Lady from the Sea. The Almeida will have had six shows, five of them by men and the sixth adapted by Anne Washburn. And the Old Vic will have had five shows, none of them by women.

But for all that this shows a picture of marginalisation of women playwrights, what should we make of the fact that of the shortlist for this year’s UK Theatre Awards announced last week, all three best new play nominees were written by women – Katherine Soper, Tash Marshall and Lizzie Nunnery.

As one of the judges of the awards myself, I can honestly say that there was no special pleading for women playwrights to be represented; we just chose, between us, the three best plays we’d seen across the year in regional theatres represented by UK Theatre. Perhaps things are better in the regions than in London. I’d be interested in a comparable survey of Britain’s six leading regional theatres.

Meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company also took a bold step forward last week in its representation of female directors: in an announcement of its next Stratford season, all six new productions in both of its theatres there will be directed by women (only one show, the return of Greg Doran’s King Lear with Antony Sher, has a male director). For his part, RSC artistic director Doran insists it was not a deliberate act to employ only women directors for the season. Rather, he said, it was part of a process whereby they had “reached a point where those women directors had been with us and had grown, developed.”

Disney’s latest franchise musical

Last week, I went out of town – way out of town – to attend the opening of the try-out for a new musical, already announced for Broadway, namely Disney’s Frozen, in Denver. Of course I could have just waited till next February, when it arrives at the St James Theatre. But I’m not the patient sort.

The original 2013 animated film is a phenomenon – the most lucrative yet of Disney’s animated franchise, earning more than $1 billion in just the first four months of its release and therefore setting the record for the highest-grossing animated film ever.

Exactly 20 years ago, Disney turned The Lion King into a stage musical that has since become the most profitable entertainment in any genre of all time, with global revenues in excess of $7 billion; so the idea of turning Frozen into a stage musical could surely turn out to be even more lucrative.

Precedent has long dictated that when a show already has a Broadway date lined up, Broadway critics keep away and deliver their verdicts only when the show actually opens there. But I clearly wasn’t the only one who couldn’t wait; there were reviews, too, from the New York Times, Variety and Chicago Tribune among the local press also covering it.

The simple fact is that critics now have to go not just where the money is, but where the interests of their readers lie. A stage version of Frozen is massive news, and the major news outlets would be remiss not to cover it. You can read my review for The Stage here.

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