Wednesday, 17 June 2009

What is going on here?

If like me, you’ve been following the fabulous Mad Men on SBS, which is set in the early 1960s, you can probably understand why feminism became such a force in the decade that followed. Yes, the men evaluate the female characters in terms of their appearance and sexual availability, but far more insidious is their assumption that women are no-go zones when it comes to the life of the mind.

That’s Mad Men, that’s the 1960s, This is Sydney in 2009, and I’m a tad troubled by something I and a few colleagues, including fellow 7-ONers, are observing. Today we did a bit of a gender audit on Belvoir B Sharp’s 2009 season, and found: Women writers = 0; women directors = 2. Then there was that recent article about Neil Armfield’s decision to leave his position as Artistic Director of Belvoir Street Theatre after some 15 years, in which the talent waiting in the wings just happened to be all male. Speaking for myself, I’ll believe we’ve achieved equality when I read about a twenty-something female wunderkind!

But it’s not only Belvoir. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a piece about the current popularity of Russian plays and adaptations. The journalist discussed this trend with a number of directors, all male, and although the production Ladybird was referred to, its (female) director Lee Lewis was not named.

Most of us in 7-ON have taught performance writing in various contexts, and in nearly every instance female students greatly outnumber men. So what happens to them? At what point in the process are they being passed over? Do they give up when the going gets tough? Are they perhaps less committed than their male counterparts? Or do they side-step more readily into admin and support roles? Should we be asking those who commission and program to explain their criteria and decision-making processes?

Look, this is a vexed issue. As writers we want to get gigs on the strength and qualities of our work, not because of our gender, cultural background, place of residence or whatever. And I’m personally not in favour of affirmative action initiatives, which despite the best intentions, often end up marginalising rather than opening doors. But isn’t it time we asked: what the hell is going on here?


Kit said...

I believe this is a very important issue in Australia's theatre culture, and one that has been raised more than once. I’ll say at the start that I have no bright ideas at the moment about how to solve it, or even what the causes are, but it is not, in my view, from a dearth of accomplished, talented and highly skilled women writing, directing and creating theatre.

I'm going to try to restrict my comments to Sydney-based theatres, and I'm not going to concern myself with the whys and wherefores, because, as I said, I don’t have the answers. But I think statistics can provide a context and basis for an informed discussion, and while the example of the B-Sharp season outlined above is pretty breathtaking, it's just one case study, and this is a large and complex issue.
So to that end I garnered some statistics that I’ll share here.

Because the original post concerned itself with Belvoir St. Theatre first, that's where I'll start.
The last female director to work at Company B upstairs was Rachel McDonald, who directed 'The Pianist,' which was a co-presentation with Sydney Festival 2009. The production opened on 16 Jan 2009.
Prior to this, the last female director to work at Company B upstairs was Marion Potts in 2006 with her production of 'The Goat, or Who is Sylvia,' although this production was a buy-in from STCSA, and not originally produced by Company B.
The last female director to work on a Company B production was Kate Gaul, five years ago, for her 2004 production of 'Our Lady of Sligo.’
Female writers are slightly better represented, with 5 productions in 2004-2009, not including playreadings. Perhaps encouragingly, all 5 of these writers are Australian.
While the 2009 B-Sharp season, as noted above, has a distinct lack of female writers or directors, women have been better represented in past seasons, for example the 2008 season (10 productions) had 4 female writers and 5 female directors.
Griffin's 2009 season has 2 female writers in a 5-play season, and 1 female director. Of its current resident playwrights, 2 of the 3 are female. In the Griffin Independent season, a discussion of Australian playwrights of either gender is defunct since the plays are exclusively by international writers. 4 of the 7 productions are directed by women.
Sydney Theatre Company's mainstage 2009 season (as first announced) has 4 female directors and 3 female writers in a season of 12 productions. Their Next Stage season has 1 female director and 1 female writer (working on a creative development).
The Ensemble Theatre Company in a season of 11 plays has 2 female writers and will employ 3 female directors over 5 productions.
The Tamarama Rock Surfers’ 2009 season at the Old Fitzroy has 2 female writers (and 1 female co-deviser) and 3 female directors in a season of 11 plays.
And finally, on a brief national note, of the artistic directors of what might be, say, the 10 of the largest theatre companies in Australia (STC, MTC, QTC, STCSA, Black Swan, Malthouse, Company B, Griffin, Windmill, The Ensemble), 3½ are women (the ½ coming from STC where Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton are co-artistic directors).
Of the companies that have associate director or associate artist positions (to my knowledge MTC, STC, Belvoir, QTC, STCSA, Griffin, Black Swan, the Ensemble) only Griffin has a woman in this role.

I don't know "what is going on here." It’s certainly been going on for a long time. Although I do think there are signs that "what is going on" is changing. I think there are terrific female theatre artists working in Sydney, for example the performance collectives "Post" or "My Darling Patricia" but they're not necessarily present in 'traditional' venues. And 7-On itself is testament to the fact that there are terrific female theatre writers in Australia – and that these writers are working in a collective and collaborative way is exciting.
In any event, I hope the statistics above provide some sort of context or springboard for an urgent discussion.

Kit Brookman

Kit said...

Just a quick clarification - I said that Company B had produced productions by 5 female playwrights from 2004-2009, but actually it's 5 productions by 4 different playwrights.
And I shouldn't cop-out of trying to tackle those tough questions:

"At what point in the process are they being passed over? Do they give up when the going gets tough? Are they perhaps less committed than their male counterparts? Or do they side-step more readily into admin and support roles? Should we be asking those who commission and program to explain their criteria and decision-making processes?"

I can only speak from my own experience, and the young female writers and directors I know are very determined, very committed, and I'm very excited to see how their work develops.
And as for the 'wunderkid' phenomenon, often it's just a toxic mess based on an unhealthy mix of promising work and a thick dash of hype, which builds unreal expectations for developing artists and pushes them too deep too quickly and they sink, never to be heard of again, while the pushers sagely nod their heads and say "I guess they weren't up to it." The sooner we as a theatre community shed our need to label artists in that way the better, I think. But it's a strong temptation - and yes, given that I can't remember the last woman who was 'tapped on the shoulder' in that way, I understand the comment!


Hazel says: said...

I believe this is a hugely important issue. As a determined emerging director, actor, writer dramaturg. I am continually amazed at the fact that my work which gets audiences and is critically respected, is often passed over for my more flashy male counterparts.

Is this the glass ceiling that female directors I talk to that have been hammering away for years talk about?

I have a few thoughts about this.

Men like helping men. They see a young male, see themselves as perhaps they once were and then aid these men on a trajectory not unlike their own. Men have a leg up. They have people in positions of power moulding them in their own image.

Women work damn hard to get where they get and perhaps, because they've worked so hard don't offer the same aid, up to their young female counterparts.

I think our power is in our willingness to support each other's work. Get on the drums and beat loudly and proudly for our hardworking, dedicated and most importantly talented peers. I think this blog is a great start. I think Lucy Freeman's idea is a great. But lets start doing it more publicly. Let's get the guys to notice. And not in a I am woman hear me roar kind of way, but more of a - this girl is great! She needs attention.

I'm not saying don't be constructively critical or demand excellence, but let's take as much interest in those coming up behind us or those standing next to us, as men do. Then maybe we can break though this glass ceiling. And defy our male counterparts out there. One of which (a very public director in Melbourne) who said in a foyer not so long ago to a colleague - "Women can't direct".

Some men can't either. But the women I know, are brilliant and deserve all the accolades, attention and promotion possible.

kitballou said...

more later - but the NY Times from this week has a fascinating related article

Rethinking Gender Bias in the Theatre

Ross Mueller said...

Hazel says...
"Men like helping men. They see a young male, see themselves as perhaps they once were and then aid these men on a trajectory not unlike their own. Men have a leg up. They have people in positions of power moulding them in their own image."

This has not been my experience.

I think - some males like to help some boys. But if you are a man - you are just as much behind the eight ball. The whole experience is subjective. There is no conspiracy, just lack of opportunity.

Kit Brookman said...

I think I'm with Ross on this one, at the crux of it, as is often the case, is a lack of opportunity. For everyone. Although I feel the heart of what Hazel was saying in her post was a call for women to support each other, which is interesting and maybe fair enough given the results of the ny times article!

That being said I don't think it's helpful to characterise the situation as one of men vs. women, or indeed to characterise men as more interested in helping each other than they are in making good theatre. I think most people, male or female, are interested in quality.

Surely any discrepancy between the amount of work being produced by women compared to men must be due to more than just a couple of blokes giving each other a leg-up. I think to put it down to that - what's more with the only evidence provided being a single (unattributed) quote - is a bit of a failure of imagination.

SphericalBlogger said...

I would suggest that to use these sorts of statistics to analyse activities in theatre is a clear expression of mediocrity in play. We've heard these sorts of comments before from a lot of disgruntled people - in sport, in science, in television, in music and dance. It seems to operate wherever there is a perceived difference - sex, race, religion, income, education, celebrity, etc.
As to solving important issues in Australia's theatre culture, there is a yawning gap in resources and a dearth of ideas to deal with this fact. Yes indeed, a failure of imagination. Of course we can acknowledge a trend, one with centuries of background. Things change. Be a part of that change but please avoid the culture of blame.

kit said...

Hi SphericalBlogger, I just thought I'd ask for a clarification of your comment - to which statistics are you referring; those of Emily Glassberg Sands in Patricia Cohen's nytimes article, or the statistics that I posted? And which sorts of comments, specifically, are you referring to? Just trying to unpick which post you're referencing, because for my part, I have no intention or interest in being part of any blame game! And since I'm a bloke I don't really have an axe to grind on this one...

Furthermore I would suggest that a balanced analysis of any subject has to have some basis in statistics rather than just rhetoric or generalisations, and that mediocrity or otherwise can really only be measured from ones' arguments and the inferences that one draws from particular data, not the nature of the data itself. Also dismissing a genuine concern, however clumsily it might be expressed, as a few 'disgruntled' or 'mediocre' [sic.] people having a whinge is probably playing right into a culture of blame and indifference rather than debate and engagement.

But you're absolutely right that these statistics (either Glassberg Sands' or my own) certainly don't make an argument of themselves - but pertaining to this subject, I'm not sure what other statistics one should draw on, but would welcome any suggestions! My guess is that they would relate not to theatre, but to social and political movements, as you allude to in your post when you say this is a trend with centuries (or millennia!) of background.

SphericalBlogger said...

Hello kit,
I was definitely referring to the NYTimes article. I don't have an issue with many of the arguments here but the statistical one is bogus in my opinion.
If you are going to use statistics to examine reality then there would need to be some reasoning behind which numbers one employs. For example, if you are trying to assess the relative success of female to male playwrights then you would have to count how many active female and male playwrights there are. Then you would need to measure the number of suitable plays that are presented to theatres. And then their relative success rates. And does one include deceased playwrights? But then to find out if the writer's gender was a factor would be, I suspect, well beyond the statistical method employed. And then if it is acknowledged that 6% of the population is gay, should this also be reflected in sexual orientation of successful authors?
The article does go on to explain the already large discrepancy in numbers of male & female writers:

"In reviewing information on 20,000 playwrights in the Dramatists Guild and, an online database of playwrights, she found that there were twice as many male playwrights as female ones, and that the men tended to be more prolific, turning out more plays."

And should those male playwrights be discriminated against because of their x chromosomes?

And further:

“There is discrimination against female playwrights in the theater community,” said Emily Glassberg Sands, who conducted the research. Still, she said, that isn’t the whole story; there is also a shortage of good scripts by women.

So if one accepts this and then at the same time expects there to be equal representation of the genders in production, some 'adjustment' would have to be made, presumably to make up for the lack of "good scripts". Call it positive affirmation. Whatever it is, there is a very dangerous path that one can go down when one looks on an external obstacle (or chauvinist attitude) as the reason for one's lack of acceptance.
Mind you, a female in Afghanistan trying to do anything other than cooking and childbirth would have to operate in a totally different universe.
And if one day the truth behind Shakespeare's identity emerges and instead of William we find Willemina, will we have to rethink Iago's motives.
If we follow the doolee site, we discover that there are now almost 30,000 individual playwrights listed. And on the playwright's page is another statistic: Doollee's Top Ten most visited Playwright Pages as determined by number of user clicks
And out of 9 listed playwrights, only one is a woman.
My final statistic: during the last several years, out of all the productions both in film and theatre that I've collaborated on, three quarters were by female authors.
I would suggest that rather than statistics, the nature of cultural inheritance - traditional male and female roles in society - is the reason behind our current state and that, just as the Vienna Philharmonic has finally allowed a female to conduct it, that all deeply held attitudes (chauvinist or otherwise) will evolve over time.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

For the record, Kate Gaul also directed Company B's Gates of Egypt in 2006.

kit said...

Thanks for the correction, Mark - though I think "The Gates of Egypt" was 2007 - though that's a quibble on my part. Another error that I should clarify - as has been clarified on Nick Pickard's blog, but I should do so here as well, is that in terms of women in associate artist roles, Marion Potts at Bell Shakespeare is another. I had been thinking state by state when I collated the stats and Bell Shakespeare, being a national company, must have slipped past the radar, which, as I said on Nick Pickard's site, leaves me with a very red face, and sincere apologies for those errors of omission. Any other corrections/clarifications are of course very welcome.