Features Q&A and Interviews Published 2 July 2018

Bechdel Theatre: Fighting Inequality With Data

Francesca Peschier interviews the duo behind Bechdel Theatre about industry inequality, representation, and sexy, sexy data.
Francesca Peschier

Bechdel Theatre meet Alison Bechdel


Data is sexy.

No wait, come back – hear me out.

Without data, what we have to judge inequality on is emotional response. A sense that the mainstream theatre landscape doesn’t feel right. It’s not just the seeing no one like you on stage, but feeling alone in an audience. It’s having your name misspelled in the programme –yet again, it’s being critiqued on what you look like, not what you do, it’s still being in the Dorfmann, when everyone can see this is an Olivier show.

Our playing field is under examination. Groups like Tonic Theatre, and the Create London Panic survey are pulling out alarming information. Women are still more likely to work for free, and where we are paid, we tend to earn less than our male counterparts. White people still don’t acknowledge the barriers facing people of colour. Power Play feature some of these alarming statistics in their crowdfunding video : 68% of theatregoers are women but only account for 34% of new work. An initial snapshot taken by the activist theatre suggests that, across theatre, gender equality has a 2:1 ratio problem

“When I saw those stats I was like, yes please! Let’s team up!” – Beth Watson

The founders of Bechdel Theatre, Pippa Sa and Beth Watson, get a lot of emails. Their campaign applies the Bechdel test to theatre in order to start conversations about on-stage representations of women, and companies want to know if they pass. Here’s the checklist:

– Does your show contain two named women?

– Do they talk to each other?

– About something that isn’t a man?

The test comes from Alison Bechdel’s iconic Dykes to Watch Out For comics,and has been applied widely to film and TV. Bechdel Theatre are not affiliated with the author  –though they did recently fangirl over her at Fun Home and the photos are enough to warm the coldest heart. The Bechdel Test’s brilliance is its straightforward format and instant ability to detect bullshit. It’s no good advertising your new musical as ‘feminist-intersectional-empowering-in-the-age-of-Me-Too-on-day-of-the-woman’ if all the conversations the cast have are about their no-good male partners. But the test can be a blunt tool, too: the movie Hustle passes the Bechdel Test even though its only conversation between women is a brief chat about nail varnish.

What began as posters asking folk if they’d seen a performance that fit the guidelines quickly spiralled. “I thought people would see the test and email me,” says Watson, “instead they started writing directly on the poster”. There’s a brilliant immediacy and visual quality to Bechdel Theatre. The sight of their instantly recognisable stickers pulls a show out of a collage of posters, but also make you look again at those where it’s absent.

Bechdel Theatre’s stickers in action (via bechdeltheatre.com )

And they’re just the start of a wider conversation. “When we use the stickers we’re highlighting shows that might be worth having a conversion about (not saying they’re feminist or not) because women are not completely absent or ignored”, says Watson. “We have a podcast, blog and host post-show discussion groups, because the test is a opener for a conversation not a final goal.”

Bechdel Theatre shine for looking at theatre in an intersectional way. As Watson explains, they periodically highlight shows “because they’re doing something brilliantly proactive in terms of representation” – like The Thelmas’ Coconut, which had an all-female creative team and told the story of a British-Pakistani woman’s relationships with men. Or Milk Presents’ Bullish, which explores trans-masculine identity: “which reinvigorated our feeling that it’s in the spirit of the test’s origins (the Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip includes trans and gender non-conforming characters) not to be prescriptive about who can pass the test. It’s important to champion artists who self-identity as either passing the test and/or being part of the conversation because their gender experience is under-represented, even if they’re not “female”.

Watson is keen to point out that “we keep most of our coverage positive, because frankly it’s tiring being a feminist in this industry sometimes and we wanna give our followers hope by championing the most brilliant examples loudly”. But sometimes, their email conversations with emerging companies who think they’ve got it right can leave them in a difficult position. It’s not easy to tell people they’ve failed, says Watson: “How many times have you sat in the audience and found something uncomfortable but not been able to tell them? When you see something that is really problematic and awful, dealing with that is way harder.”

That’s why the email from Power Play stood out. Led by director and writer Polly Creed, the collective isn’t content with showcasing four shows by women at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. They’re also seeking to undertake a work of huge data acquisition and subsequent analysis to examine gender inequality at The Fringe. “There’s some rubbish, questionable data out there –we want to find the statistics” says Creed, “We are looking at EVERYTHING, who makes the shows, who’s in the shows, who’s writing, producing, designing, operating the sound board…”

It’s heavy stuff, working with academics from The Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London, Power Play have a few qualitative and quantitative (see? SEXY!)  approaches. Using surveys, feedback cards and interactive posters they hope to garner a wide range of info from theatre makers and audiences. Instead of the standard descriptive summaries typically found in such reports, they’re using multivariate (HOT) analysis which allows them to identity causes and their effects. Instead of assessing a play by one criteria, for example, what percentage of dialogue is spoken by women, their work looks at the gender breakdown across companies and then hold that against other factors like funding, location and venue size. This allows us to see into the roots of a problem – are companies with more money more likely to commission men? How many women are on stage at the permanent, main venues? Is this company truly allocating an appropriate proportion of its resources to making work by Queer women, or is this piece a one-off, token gesture?

Power Play do not intend to publicise the data this year, there’s a lot of picking over and complex statistical (Phwoooar… ok, I’ll stop fetishizing the Excel now) work to done before they can translate what they’ve found into something accessible. But Creed is already excited for the project’s post-fringe potential afterlife, applying it to more festivals, maybe internationally. Though Bechdel already have a strong presence at other festivals, Sa agrees that more knowledge is always power: “You have somewhere like Vault Festival that was very vocal about their 50/50 gender split, but when you sat down and looked at other elements, the intersectionality wasn’t really all that great…” It’s not a case of name and shame, however: “You have to understand their experiences, what they were aiming for”. Some of the worst work can come from great intentions.

Power Play’s showcase will take place in a Pleasance pop-up venue that is an actual house. There is something atmospheric about how the plays fit the domestic space, and in turn how Power Play are looking to turn into a ‘hub’ where conversations can develop and flourish. They plan for it to be an inclusive space, a respite from the rest of The Fringe. Creed is enthusiastic: “We’re building a community, expanding outside of the feminist activist bubble”. It offers a place for those to ‘semi formalize’ those conversations we’re already having, says Sa, “to express love, recommend shows and have a rant”. Both Power Play and Bechdel Theatre are conscious of their own limitations. Creed, in particular, bemoans their venue’s lack of disabled access, “We tried, but we can’t do everything – it’s a constant compromise”. “Even if awareness around gender representation is increasing there are other groups that are going to feel marginalised’ Sa cautions, “The Fringe is still very white, very middle class and very able bodied.”

“Bechdel Theatre are good at amplifying conversation between artists, and between artists and audiences”, Watson notes, “but not between audiences and audiences”. At the Fringe, what you choose to see (or don’t) has increased currency, Sa passionately concurs: “You have real influence at the Fringe–your choices matter”. Word of mouth has more potential in Edinburgh, Watson encourages: “If you choose to buck the trend and tell your friends about the shows that aren’t pale, cis and male, you can actually do something powerful”.

The flyer for ‘Drag To Watch Out For’, Bechdel Theatre’s fundraiser

On that Sa and Watson are hoping that people with vote with their feet next Wednesday for their fundraising night Drag to Watch Out For at Styx in Tottenham. It’s an inclusive, pay-want-you-can event born out of the pair’s love of drag kings and cabaret. “All we did is talk to our mates” says Sa “and they all said YES! I’ll perform!” Rumour has it that Bechdel Theatre’s potentially tricksy alter egos might even make appearance: “I wanted to make a man but I didn’t want to make him an arsehole” muses Watson, “and that’s difficult when a lot of my ideas about masculinity are based in arse-holery”.

The data Bechdel and Power Play are collecting won’t necessarily solve the issues in our industry, but it does put them under a microscope. It will help identify false, insidious claims to intersectionality which are just new paint on the old building. If you are creating work that is about experiences far removed from your own, it is surely sensible to at least consult someone on the inside. It’s simply not good enough anymore to stand in front of your target audience when they tell you that no, that’s not how it is, and cry censorship. I once overheard a (male) director of a lesbian romance drama quip to a pal that he’d had to “google how the sex ‘works'”. Yes mate, we could tell.

There’s a problem here when theatres and festivals are emailing Bechdel asking “what should we do? Who should we be programming? Who are the exciting women, the awesome people of colour, the bad-ass neuro-diverse in theatre today?” There’s an argument to be had that, as Sa puts it “if you don’t have that knowledge, you shouldn’t be doing the programming. It is not underrepresented theatre makers’ job to educate you, they’re busy making theatre. You can’t just come to us”, continues Sa, and say “We would have programmed women of colour but we didn’t know any”. A unanimous ‘HOW?’ goes up from round the table. It’s a noise of outrage, a collective unanimous finding: that answer’s not good enough anymore.

Bechdel Theatre’s Drag Night ‘Drag to Watch out for’  is on the 4th July at Styx in Tottenham Hale. Pay what you can Tickets are available here.  You can book tickets for Power Play’s Edinburgh shows: Funeral Flowers by Emma Dennis-Edwards, Somebody by Matilda Curtis, Next Time by Jess Moore and the Empty Chair by Polly Creed here.

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Francesca Peschier

Francesca is a freelance lecturer, reviewer, and AHRC funded PhD student at University of Arts London. where her research examines the relationship between scenography and identity in Liverpool. A former model maker and set painter, she still manages to keep her place on the Society of British Theatre Designers committee. She is the founding editor of JAWS, the Journal of Arts Writing by Students published by Intellect. When not writing about or watching theatre she concerns herself with running a croquet society and back-combing her hair to desired Dolly Parton heights.

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