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Andrzej Lukowski: Shaming theatres into programming more women writers is fine by me

Tom Riley, Aidan McArdle, Hayley Atwell and Joseph Balderrama in Dry Powder at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Tom Riley, Aidan McArdle, Hayley Atwell and Joseph Balderrama in Dry Powder at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Not wishing to sound like a shill for the patriarchy, but is something heartening finally happening about gender parity of writers on Britain’s stages?

Following the saintly example of the Royal Court, two other major new writing theatres have announced seasons in which female writers outnumber the men.

Hampstead Theatre’s 2018 main stage roster is a play by a woman – Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder – and a musical by a man and a woman, Caroline, or Change, which has music by Jeanine Tesori.

The theatre’s Downstairs studio features three new plays by women, and they will actually receive some exposure thanks to an apparent abandonment of the long-standing ‘no reviews’ rule for the space.

Meanwhile the Almeida’s latest season announcement includes works by Ella Hickson, Sophie Treadwell and Clare Barron, plus Ontroerend Goed’s £¥€$ (Lies), which has a female co-writer in Karolien De Bleser.

Production news round-up: Almeida reveals new season and Bake Off’s Mel Giedroyc to star in Company

So that’s great, right? Well: yes, yes it is. However, there’s a but.

Would it be wrong to cock a cynical brow at the precise timing of all this. As connoisseurs of awkward open letters may be aware, last year Hampstead boss Ed Hall wrote a tired and emotional missive to The Stage in response to 100 or so industry types calling him out for the sausagefest that was his autumn 2017 season.

I won’t dwell on the letter. I have nothing personal against Hall, who bought me lunch once, but he did actually ask if anybody knew any women writers he could programme. Well somebody clearly did, as all of a sudden he has found five.

There has been no high-profile call out of the Almeida’s programming – except in Victoria Sadler’s blog. Largely, I suspect, the lack of outcry was because it’s such a bloody good theatre that there’s no great will to lay into it.

Nonetheless, until 2018, its ongoing golden age under Rupert Goold has only featured a single female writer per year, (bar 2014, when there were two). You don’t have to delve too deep into social media to see that this has been heavily noted, even if insurrection isn’t in the air just yet.

What with the post-Weinstein climate throwing these issues into a starker spotlight, this would have been a spectacularly poor year for either theatre to announce an all-dude roster… and they duly didn’t.

On the one hand, you could interpret the ease by which Hampstead, in particular, suddenly managed to conjure up five female writers a little on the depressing side.

On the other: screw it – you don’t change things by politely waiting for the people in charge to change things. Shaming theatres into programming more women seems absolutely fine by me.

The question is whether all this is a sticking plaster or a sign of a sea change. Neither theatre is exactly doing the business with BAME representation, for instance, but there’s less volatility around the subject at the moment – there is no guarantee that the heat will remain focused on gender parity. I suppose that spells out the message even more strongly: the responsibility lies with us to continue to care.

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