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Letter: Hampstead writer gender imbalance due to shortage of suitable plays

Sharon Small in Luna Gale. Photo: Manuel Harlan Sharon Small in Luna Gale, written by Rebecca Gilman, at the Hampstead Theatre, London, in 2015. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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This letter is in reply to a letter published by The Stage by multiple signatories, questioning the lack of women in the Hampstead Theatre’s 2017 summer season. Read their letter on our website now

I write in response to your excellent open letter to The Stage.

While not wishing to diminish the importance of the deeper question you are asking, let me first deal with the first one. The answer is that you are looking at a three-month snapshot of Hampstead’s work. And you are only seeing what ended up being programmed, not the work we aspired to programme or the work we hope to programme in the future. Theatre production is only the art of the possible, and in programming a venue there are priorities driving the choices – artist availability, the money you have available, the box-office return you need to achieve – and… 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.

Then to your more serious question. I note your list of distinguished female playwrights, all of whom I admire immensely and who are exactly the sort of writers we want to produce at Hampstead. If I had space, I could write you a list of plays by them I wish we had done. But we are only Hampstead, and those playwrights can pick and choose where they want their work seen: the prospect of a production at the National Theatre or the RSC or other more established and better-funded addresses is an understandable attraction. 

And, it’s not sour grapes, but on that list there are playwrights who are holding commissions from Hampstead but have not delivered the plays, there are playwrights we have met who won’t accept a commission, there are playwrights who we simply cannot get near because they are too busy. So yes, I recognise we aren’t achieving equality – or anything like it – yet, but that’s not because we are ignoring the question. Far from it. It’s because we don’t have the plays. This is a source of endless frustration for me and all the team here. That said, we feel (or felt…) that it’s early days for Hampstead – finally at the end of its recovery – and there are (or were going to be…) better times ahead. 

In the meantime, we have been trying to help the gender balance on our main stage by producing plays by American women of whom there are so many brilliant examples, and whose work wouldn’t be seen in the UK otherwise – four in recent seasons ([Gina] Gionfriddo, [Theresa] Rebeck, [Rebecca] Gilman, [Laura] Eason) with two more slated for next spring. But it isn’t ideal, is it, for a UK new-writing house to be having to reach across the Atlantic in this way. 

The only answer that I know is to commission more, although that only works if the plays actually get written(!), so we commission younger writers who are less busy and more likely to deliver. The problem there is that a less experienced younger writer is more likely to write something we can present Downstairs, though of course there are exceptions. Upstairs is a real challenge – the space is very demanding, and it serves nobody if we expose playwrights of either sex to the sort of harsh critical scrutiny that our main house work receives – witness the cruel treatment meted out to so many potentially fine emerging playwrights under my predecessor’s regime, some of whom had their confidence completely destroyed. 

And there are other exigencies: producing a main house play at Hampstead costs upwards of about £275,000, and without more funding, of which more anon, we need to believe that it will at least achieve break-even at the box office. That’s 13,000+ tickets across the run. Not every play can do that, but if any female playwright among you has a play that they think will, I’ll read it, immediately.

I cannot speak for the other theatres you mention, of course, though I think that only we new-writing theatres have a real responsibility to address this issue. And I fully recognise and accept that responsibility: I am open to good plays by anybody irrespective of the playwright’s gender, race, class, sexual orientation or any other defining characteristic. You mention the excellent work of Emily Glassberg Sands in your letter; what you fail to mention about her research is that she says that: “On aggregate, male respondents assign nearly identical ratings to a script irrespective of the gender of the pen-name. Female respondents, however, assign markedly lower ratings to a script when that script bears a female pen-name.”  So, yes, I am open to anything, whatever the name on the title page, as long as it’s good.

Let’s now talk about funding, because it does inform all of this: how many risks we can take on the main stage, one or two a year until now, how much commissioning we can do, how much development work we can do with writers, how many Downstairs plays we can look at transferring… 

In the past few years, on a relatively small grant and without local authority support, we have rebuilt Hampstead from bankruptcy. We have rebuilt the audience from zero, we have started to find a generous donor base, and we have – with no additional funding – opened a studio, Hampstead Downstairs, where no studio existed, so we can now produce 15 plays each year across the two houses, more than doubling opportunity for playwrights of either sex. That studio has presented plays by first-time or emerging writers including Colette Kane, Deborah Bruce, Atiha Sen Gupta, Rose Heiney, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, Pamela Carter, Amelia Bullmore, Alexandra Wood, Fiona Doyle, Jacqui Honess-Martin, Hannah Patterson and others. 

I’m not going to pretend we got everything right, but Hampstead is, against what everybody said in 2011, still here, and it’s a success story not a basket case. We’re also a major employer: in any given week of last financial year we had an average 24.6 Equity members under contract. We have done this with a tiny, badly paid, dedicated staff who work unbelievably hard, sacrificing their health and their private lives for the playwrights’ work on stage. The theatre generally plays to full houses, but, here’s the kicker, it has to – the main stage model is essentially commercial because it has to cover the deficit from the studio and help support overhead costs. Without good reviews and full houses, five or six times out of seven, the institution fails. 

And all of you will be aware that, in spite of its meeting all the objectives set for it by ACE, Hampstead has just been singled out for a 14% cut of its grant: a cut that we have been told we should regard as “a celebration of success” (sic!). This cut has wide-reaching implications for the institution and, ultimately, for my ability to respond meaningfully to the questions you raise. It sets us back at least four years, and I’ll be scrabbling around once again, focusing on small plays that will generate a margin, plays that are castable, plays that I am certain will find a large audience… and with no serious regard to their provenance. We could never have done either of Beth Steel’s massive and magnificent plays on our new level of subsidy. And the cut may well have deeper consequences: it’s completely likely that we’ll have to close Hampstead Downstairs. That would be eight world premieres every year that won’t happen, and our capacity to commission, develop, encourage and produce first-time and emerging playwrights reduced to zero.

ACE have said they want to bring us into line with the Donmar and Almeida – each of them single auditorium – and we may, indeed, even have to consider giving up being a new-writing theatre altogether.   Granted, what you are calling for and I am hoping for – Hampstead producing senior living female writers in the main house to offer role models to the new, young female writers coming on-stream Downstairs – well, a diet of Ibsen, Sophocles, Brecht and Shaw would rather circumscribe my ability to address your concerns in any meaningful way.

In conclusion, then, to help me respond to your challenge, there are three things that I would ask that you do for me:

  1. If you are a female playwright and have a play that is available and unencumbered, send it to me.
  2. If you are a female playwright with no play available, come and see Gloria or Alligators (yes, I’m afraid they are both by men…) and if you believe you can write a play as good or better than either of those, then let’s talk!
  3. Whoever you are, lobby ACE to have the Hampstead grant restored to its pre-cut level. Write to Nicholas Serota and implore him. We’re not asking for more than we had and it’s still a tiny grant for a two-auditorium new-writing theatre, much smaller than the grants received by the brilliant artistic directors you mention in your letter.  But we were just starting to address the weaknesses implicit in any recovery period: starting our young writers’ group, paying writers better, commissioning more widely… If we have to cut those initiatives, and we almost certainly will, responding fully to you becomes much harder.

So if you can do some, or all, of the above, you can really contribute to our attaining the goals you want us to achieve – the goals you have set yourselves, indeed. Because, look, however it may seem from your perspective, nobody in our industry is an island. We are all interdependent. I am not a gatekeeper guarding some sort of flame. If I am to achieve the objectives you set out, which are also, by the way, among my personal objectives, then I need your help – it’s no use your standing outside simply throwing stones. Hampstead is open to all playwrights. All of you. You will have gathered from the foregoing that, of course, our resources are limited and about to get more so, and there are practical limits on the work we can do, but we do try to be straightforward and honest in all our dealings. And while our judgement is as fallible as anybody else’s, we have never turned down a play because of any characteristic of the playwright. We just read the plays we are sent, and we are one of the few theatres that still reads a lot of unsolicited scripts (like Wonderland), plus those that arrive from our commissions, we try to decide whether they are good, and we try to figure out whether we can produce them and how. It’s not a mystical or even a very complicated process. But one thing is for sure, if we don’t have the work, we cannot produce it.  So, as I say, we need your help.

I hope this helps address your concerns. I am sorry it’s such a long response, but I want to be clear and these are complex issues: they cannot readily be articulated or even discussed in 140 characters.

Edward Hall
Artistic director, Hampstead Theatre

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