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Sphinx Theatre’s Sue Parrish: We must break down barriers to gender parity

Women make up more than half of the UK population but only a fifth of artistic directors. Sphinx Theatre’s Sue Parrish explains why equality is taking so long to achieve and what needs to be done to make progress

International Women’s Day is upon us, and it should be a great moment to celebrate the progress of women around the world. It doesn’t feel like that. We need to consider the under-representation of 51% of the population across the arts, of the majority with the status of a minority.

The only good thing to come out of the Harvey Weinstein case is that it has encouraged us to speak out. This should be the year that the movement for gender parity across the arts gains overwhelming momentum.

Sphinx Theatre [1]has been at the vanguard of campaigning, promoting and advocating for women in the arts for 40 years, through our Glass Ceiling and Vamps, Vixens and Feminists conferences. As its artistic director, I have a stack of exhaustive and comprehensive reports of women’s representation on stage and backstage since the one I commissioned in 1983 for the Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators.

At its publication, we naively assumed that once the data was known justice would quickly follow. Every few years since then, a new report has emerged with signs of small areas of progress, but nothing approaching parity.

Despite the dawning consciousness in the creative community, and gender equality being a very current issue in the public domain, the heritage of men’s cultural entitlement remains the ghost in the machine. The 2:1 ratio of men to women in Shakespeare’s plays still blights women’s artistic participation and, particularly, representation. Cross-gender casting can only be a partial solution to bringing parity to onstage roles.

We are at a turning point in society’s recognition of female disenfranchisement, led by female actors

We are at a turning point in society’s recognition of female disenfranchisement, led by female actors. Every day, new instances of male misuse of power are coming to notice, but the UK creative establishment is not addressing the deep cultural issues at play.

Current data assembled by Stage Directors UK shows the severe under-employment of women directors at all levels; women playwrights are responsible for between 28% and 33% of the work staged, and the 2:1 ratio still holds true for actors.

In the current structure, the artistic and financial power in theatres is concentrated in the hands of artistic directors, sometimes working with executive directors.

Looking at Arts Council England’s funding for its national portfolio organisations, only 33 of 168 artistic directors are female – a fifth – and they control only 13% of the total ACE theatre funding budget. This shocking statistic shows a massive inequality.

Why is the participation and representation of women, the 51%, not a priority? Why is there no clear and committed strategy to progress to parity? Why is this not a scandal?

This is a question I have put over many years to Arts Council England and will continue to do so. It seems that where strategies under the Creative Case for Diversity are developed, women are merely one in a string of “protected characteristics” under the Equalities Act. Furthermore, being categorised as “diverse” assumes that men are the norm and confines women to minority status. This is a blockage.

A belated recognition of women’s inequality is now in train and many theatres are committing to a 50/50 gender split in their workforce. This is a huge and welcome step forward.

The ‘sexual harassment’ code of behaviour [2] developed by Vicky Featherstone at London’s Royal Court, as well as work done by Equity, with #MeToo and the Time’s Up campaigns, all made the news recently. Soon afterwards, women’s group Bossy launched an audacious bid to buy Theatre Royal Haymarket in the West End.

Royal Court publishes 30-point plan to tackle harassment in theatre [2]

All these initiatives are timely and progressive, but what is needed is a seismic shift across the cultural landscape, and funding bodies should be leading from the front to achieve parity.

The key is to develop new work especially from a female perspective. This is the guiding principle of Women Centre Stage [3], Sphinx’s major project in partnership with Hampstead Theatre and funded by the Arts Council.

The heart of what we are trying to do with Women Centre Stage and the Sphinx Test – a theatre version we have developed of the Bechdel Test set up to call out inequality in film – is to change the paradigm and develop new models for writing, creating and working within the theatre.

There needs to be a proactive approach to increasing women’s representation within the theatre industry. Working from the ground up, we must change the way we write female roles for theatre, and the way we support, train and develop female writers, directors, actors and other women working within the theatre. We need to create a level playing field right now as well as in the future.

At Women Centre Stage at Hampstead in 2016, 132 artists took part – as writers, actors and directors – in 25 plays over seven hours of performance. Many of the creative seeds planted then have since blossomed. One example, The Hiccup Project, has staged sell-out tours and graduated from the Brighton Fringe programme to the curated programme of the Brighton Festival.

At the last count, in our most recent data collection, there are more than 70 young women’s theatre companies across England who have created work for festivals and tours.

Last year, York Theatre Royal initiated a women’s season and has now instituted a 50/50 gender split [4]; currently Nottingham Playhouse is hosting The Party Somewhere Else, a women’s festival, and last year the Barbican produced the Samuel Beckett Award-winning Roller by Mars.tarrab [5]. These are examples of the seismic shift taking place at the grass roots becoming mainstream.

A recent project, Neropa [6], which offers a tool for increasing the casting of women across the film industry, has been adopted by the BFI as a condition of funding. We would urge all industry organisations to follow this lead:

1. They should acknowledge that there is a serious gender imbalance, and a responsibility to address it as a matter of urgency, on its own terms and not as part of a diversity agenda.

2. The industry, led by the Arts Council, should discuss strategies for progress with concerned professional bodies: Sphinx, Equity, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, Stage Directors UK, Equal Representation for Actresses, the Musicians’ Union and others across the industry.

3. Artistic directors and programmers should examine all programming decisions through a gender prism, such as our Sphinx Test, which questions stereotypical assignment of roles.

4. Literary departments must be encouraged to find and commission more women writers, established and emerging.

Casting tool to create gender parity in theatre launches in UK [7]

Finally, as shown by Women Centre Stage – which involved six months of writers’ workshops, professional panel discussions, commissioning established writers, and wide-ranging contacts across the profession – programmes can be set up to engage women and girls of all ages and experience with the artistic process.

Talks in schools, writers’ workshops attached to theatres, professional discussions and masterclasses can be formative. The talent to create this seismic shift is there in abundance, it just needs the space and support.