Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Belvoir thing

There’s a lot going round on the blogosphere with regard to the latest Belvoir season.

It’s hard weighing into this one, isn’t it?

You don’t want to whinge; you don’t want to self-promote; you don’t want to cast aspersions on the work of your male peers, whom you admire as people and writers. You don’t really want to get stuck into a theatre company either, because whatever you may think of decisions made, the people who have been appointed to those positions have a perfect right to run the company the way they want to during the time they are employed to do so.

But … it WAS a moment when we saw the line up of blokes and the one woman on the ABC TV report …

For the record here is a list of female writers for the stage in Australia. We don’t know if any of them are currently in contact with Belvoir, or had any discussions with Belvoir in relation to the 2010 season.

As far as we know in terms of new work by Australian female playwrights only Alana Valentine, Jenny Kemp, Robyn Archer, Katherine Thomson, Beatrix Christian, Christine Evans, Leah Purcell (with Scott Rankin), Melissa Reeves, Linda Aronson, Val Levkowicz, Dallas Winmar, Jane Harrison, Kate Mulvaney and Julie Janson have had a mainstage gig at Belvoir Upstairs since 1985.

That’s 14 in 24 years.

As compared to 52 for men (not counting ‘company’ productions but counting both writers where a duo was concerned, as we have done for women writers). It’s possible that other Australian mainstage companies have similar track records.

We hope not.

The list below is also by no means exhaustive – it’s just those playwrights who happen to be female whose work those of us seconded to write this post know well enough to honour and who we’re certain are still writing. If we’ve missed anyone, apologies. It’ll be because we haven’t read or seen your work or because we think (possibly erroneously) you’re currently engaged in a more sensible way of making a living. But sing out if we’ve missed you! Give us a chance to make good.

We’ll start with 7-ON because that’s our tribe but there’s no particular order of merit or relevance implied.

Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Hilary Bell, Noëlle Janaczewska, Verity Laughton, Catherine Zimdahl, Alana Valentine, Suzie Miller, Catherine Fargher, Julie Janson, Louise Fox, Debra Oswald, Sue Smith, Leah Purcell, Elaine Acworth, Jan Cornall, Elizabeth Coleman, Beatrix Christian, Robyn Archer, Kate Smith, Ros Horin, Katherine Thomson, Linda Aronson, Van Badham, Melissa Reeves, Dallas Winmar, Catherine Fitzgerald, Rosalba Clemente, Sandra Shotlander, Angela Betzien, Delia Fetter, Karin Mainwaring, Merlinda Bobis, Jane Harrison, Mary Rachel Brown, Nicki Bloom, Patricia Cornelius, Kate Mulvaney, Jenny Kemp, Christine Evans, Heather Nimmo, Claire Heywood, Lally Katz, Tobsha Learner, Andrea Lemon, Maryanne Lynch, Val Levcowicz, Peta Murray, Hannie Rayson, Catherine Ryan, Kylie Trounson, Alma de Groen, Belinda Bradley, Angela Costi, Jane Bodie, Sally Richardson, Alison Lyssa, Chi Vu, Joanna Murray Smith, Suzanne Spunner, Jackie Smith, Andrea James, Margaret Cameron, Fiona Sprott.

Setting aside the new work by Australian male writers – because we can’t reduce this to an inter-gender competition with our male peers - is anyone seriously going to assert that not one of those women could not have written a better play than Englishwoman Polly Stenham’s adolescent-gothic That Face? (Actually, it’s quite interesting that the only female sensibility in the whole season is an adolescent one.)

There have been comments made on other blogs with regard to the number of (terrific) women on the board and in management at Belvoir). All this means - in the context of the 2010 season anyway - is that there are a great many extremely able women supporting and facilitating the creativity of a group of men.

Someone else produced statistics about the number of indigenous works programmed at Belvoir as an argument against any decision to seek a gender balance in terms of central creative roles. On the contrary, the programming of works by indigenous writers simply indicates – in the case of female writers - not that the fact that ‘things just ended up that way’ is because of limited material at a level of excellence available to go into the programming mix, but that the company has consistently been making very deliberate choices with regard to programming. And anyway, ‘things just ending up that way’ is a pretty crass definition of leadership.

We don’t think anyone is suggesting that this moment in time for Belvoir is result of any ill will. Or that it isn’t a difficult job supporting new Australian writing of any kind in an industry where the box office exercises a huge influence.

But where do we go from here? Not sure. An act of unconsciousness is a kind of betrayal. It requires either a mea culpa or an act of reparation on the part of the betrayer. Perhaps Belvoir could just say sorry and resolve to do better. Or perhaps each of those men involved in programming the 2010 season could resolve to champion at least one female Australian playwright next chance they got.

That’d be something.


Jean Prouvaire said...

"There have been comments made on other blogs with regard to the number of (terrific) women on the board and in management at Belvoir). All this means - in the context of the 2010 season anyway - is that there are a great many extremely able women supporting and facilitating the creativity of a group of men."

I brought up the number of women at board level during the discussion at Cluster. But to describe these women as merely (and I think my use of the word "merely" is justified by the phrase "all this means") "supporting and facilitating", and to limit the scope to only the 2010 season, is to sell these people short and to misunderstand my point. Which is: that the board can influence key artistic choices, most profoundly who the Artistic Director is. Both Company B and Malthouse will be changing ADs next year. If people would like to see more women in key creative roles, and if one proceeds on the basis that a female AD will be of help in addressing the gender imbalance, then a good place to start might be to have a dialogue with the board members of the companies about this issue.

7-ON said...

Oi. Semantics are semantics but 'merely' carries a more pejorative tone in my/our book than 'all' does. We most definitely did NOT write that 'these (terrific) women were 'merely' supporting the creative work of this group of men.' We know they do a lot of other work as well. And we limited the scope to the 2010 season because that was what we were talking about, not the function of the board and management now and in the future - which is an issue of more complexity.

But setting that aside.

You quite rightly look to the next step. What action can people take if they are dissatisfied? And again you're right. One of the options is to go to the macro level of the board.

Semantics are indeed tricky because your response here seems to suggest that a female AD is more likely to support women in key creative roles. Which research from the US quoted in our long ago original post suggests is not in fact the case.

But to put the board on notice that there is a perception that there IS an issue is a good idea.

In terms of outcome, one would have to hope that in 2010 whoever is appointed to both Belvoir and the Malthouse - male or female - may serve to be as inspiring a theatre leader as Neil Armfield has been over the years he's been at Belvoir AND programs more works by female writers and uses more female directors than he and the programming group at Belvoir have done, certainly this year, and, if the record is accurate,most years since 1985.

As to the wider discussion of why - overall - women in theatre STILL aren't getting something approaching an equal share of the pudding...well, keep it coming.

Jean Prouvaire said...

> your response here seems to suggest that a female AD is more likely to support women in key creative roles. Which research from the US quoted in our long ago original post suggests is not in fact the case.

Yeah, the Sands study is interesting and surprising. It poses the provocative question: Are women failing women? I haven't read the thesis itself (at 173 pages it's too long and my knowledge of statistical methods evaporated on the day of my last exam ten years ago) but the Powerpoint slide summary has pretty graphs that I enjoyed looking at.

Given the structural differences between Australia and the US it would be useful for someone to do a local study.

To do some quantitative noodling in a less rigorous fashion, I ran some quick numbers over Ros Horin's tenure at Griffin from 1993 to 2003:

1993 – 3 women out of 4 writers/directors
1994 – 16 of 20
1995 – 3 of 7
1996 – 2 of 8
1997 – 6 of 8
1998 – 6 of 8
1999 – 3 of 8
2000 – 4 of 10
2001 – 6 of 12
2002 – 6 of 8
2003 – 5 of 6

total: 60 of 99 writer/directors were female, about 60%.

I was going by names only, so might have been caught out by a "Tracy Letts" type confusion (as indeed I have been!), but this percentage would be in the ballpark.

(At some point I might do the same for, say, Sandra Bates's Ensemble and Robyn Nevin's STC tenures if I can find the necessary production data. I suspect the percentage of female key creatives there would be lower than at Ros Horin's GTC. And to do a proper study of course would require comparison with male-led companies with regression analysis and all that statistical stuff.)

This is not to suggest that only female ADs can act as advocates for female creatives. But, Sands' findings notwithstanding, it seems to me that those who are concerned by the gender imbalance would at least be tentatively encouraged if Company B or Malthouse or whoever appointed a woman as AD.

> What action can people take if they are dissatisfied?

So, one option is to go to the boards.

Another is to raise the level of public debate, as seems to be happening ... in the blogosphere at least.

A third is for people to take the initiative to do their own theatre with the people they want to collaborate with - after all, that's how Nimrod/Belvoir itself started all those years ago. And of course plenty of women (and men) are doing just that.

But there must be other options as well, right? And likely the ones proposed have drawbacks that need to be identified and addressed.

There seems to be more discussion about what the problem is than about what the solutions might be.

Mel Beddie said...

Interesting comments and stats. Thanks. For more on all this have a look at our blog.
AWDA went directly to the Board of MTC believing that they are an important aspect of theatre management to engage with. They chose to respond without much thought and with no spirit of cooperation. Indeed their opening paragraph even has a hint of intimidation!
We are also getting the debate out and about not only on blogs but in the Age and on radio. Have a look and leave a comment.