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Features Published 4 November 2015

“Them’s the Breaks”: Gender Imbalance and Irish Theatre

#WakingTheFeminists - Chris McCormack on gender imbalance in Irish theatre and the response to the Abbey's new season.
Chris McCormack
Dublin's Abbey Theatre

Dublin’s Abbey Theatre

Two weeks ago, mathematician Greg Martin from the University of British Columbia presented a paper, testing the likelihood of over-male representation as random occurrence. Devising a probability analysis with a conservative assumption of 24% female, he found that a group of ten made up almost entirely of men is “astronomically unlikely”. Male-dominant selection doesn’t just happen.

The Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre, has received an extraordinary response to the reveal of its new season: ‘Waking the Nation’.

Set to resonate with next year’s centenary of the Easter Rising, an insurrection that anteceded the Irish War of Independence, the 2016 programme features 10 productions, only one of which written by a female playwright. Me, Mollser, a monologue for young audiences based on The Plough and the Stars, will tour to nearly 700 schools and communities as part of the theatre’s outreach programme. The author, Ali White, wasn’t invited to the season launch.

Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail defended his track record of producing work by women playwrights (Stacy Gregg’s overblownShibboleth has just finished a run on the Peacock stage), saying on Twitter: “Sometimes plays and ideas that we have commissioned by and about women just don’t work out. That has happened. Them the breaks”.

Mac Conghail admitted that he’s never programmed on the basis of gender. However, if the national theatre has a remit to reflect the nation (and is recipient of taxpayer money for doing so), surely there’s a responsibility to articulate equally the voices of women and men?

Waking the Feminists

We mightn’t know much about the Abbey’s programming process but Tender novelist Belinda McKeown, currently on commission at the theatre, describes it as a “bit of a nightmare”, believing that her manuscript will never make it to production.

With the Twitter hash tag #WakingTheFeminists (coined by Pan Pan associate director Maeve Stone), a discussion on gender bias in the industry continues to unfold. Set designer and arts manager Lian Bell has been a leading voice, sensitively reposting colleagues’ observations from her Facebook page. The Corn Exchange director Annie Ryan, who marks the company’s 20thanniversary this month with Jenny Worton’s adaptation of the screenplay Through a Glass Darkly, confessed that she stopped initiating meetings with Mac Conghail years ago, moving on to “other conversations”. TheEmergencyRoom’s Olwen Fouéré, formerly a member of the Abbey board, suspects “there are so many agendas and issues … in my opinion, gender imbalance is only one and a symptom of something deeper”.

One of the recurring issues is the discouragement female artists sense from the theatre, especially in the presentation of work on the main stage. Obviously there are exceptions: Selina Cartmell and Annabelle Comyn regularly stage work there. But it’s a wonder that more experienced directors such as Ryan and Sarah Jane Scaife have never had the opportunity.

Producer Sarah Durcan recalled that when it came to presenting the Corn Exchange production of Michael West’s Freefall at the Abbey in 2010, it was promoted from the smaller Peacock stage to the main stage (another commission was suspected to have fallen through). The run sold poorly, prompting Mac Conghail to insinuate, allegedly, that Ryan wasn’t ready for that stage. According to Durcan, nothing was said of the record-breaking cold snap that crippled the country’s transport system at the time. Presumably, nothing was said of Ryan’s commedia-makeover of Nobokov’s Lolita in 2002, which has been suspected of selling out the Peacock for the first time in years.

Several have highlighted this feeling from the Abbey, that they are suggested to be ‘not ready’ for the main stage, receiving instead some token gesture. In 2009, playwright Abbie Spallen turned down the offer to take part in a series of staged readings of short plays by women called ‘The Fairer Sex’. Spallen, still unproduced by the Abbey, is currently under commission for the Olivier stage of The National in London, and writing a musical for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.

Waking the Repertoire

There is no shortage of contemporary Irish women playwrights. We know this because we have seen so many leave! Why did Mac Conghail let Stella Feehily migrate to the Royal Court? Nancy Harris to the Atlantic? Ursula Rani Sarma to the Traverse? And why have none of their plays premiered since leaving Ireland been produced here? Even Marina Carr, who has withstood the odds better than most, has at least three plays awaiting their Irish premieres. Meanwhile Deirdre Kinahan, Sonya Kelly, Amy Conroy and many others continue to make strides in the independent sector.

The fact is: the Abbey’s recent efforts to engage with female voices – the aforementioned ‘The Fairer Sex’ readings; Elaine Murphy’s comedy Shush, explicitly marketed as ‘girl’s night out’ entertainment – have involved an ‘eventing up’ of women writers when they should be produced as the norm.

And even if there were no new plays ready to go for 2016, what about the Abbey’s repertoire of neglected women playwrights? It would be easy to dismiss the theatre’s co-founder Lady Augusta Gregory as a lightweight but why has JM Synge’s drama, conceived in a similar idiom, been mined for darker stuff while hers haven’t? The same goes for Suzanne Day and Geraldine Cummins, whose mixture of paganism and melodrama is undoubtedly a precursor to John B. Keane, another male playwright whose comedies have been summoned in their more wicked realities.

Gregory’s tragedy Dervorgilla fits the billing of any 1916 project, exploring the consequences of that foundational moment in Ireland’s colonial history: Diarmuid’s abduction of Dervorgilla in the 12th century, prompting the first Norman arrival to Ireland.

What about the coveted Irish revival of Teresa Deevy, ‘the Irish Chekhov’ or ‘Ibsen’ (take your pick), a project already proven successful by New York’s Mint Theater in 2013? Deevy’s disappearance, and that of her strange dramas from the 1930s, may be owed to exposing the myths of patriarchy in De Valera’s Ireland. The interventions of Dorothy Macardle, Elizabeth Connor, Mary Rynne and many others are also due to be rediscovered.

Resolutions?

Of course, the Abbey isn’t an isolated case, and certainly isn’t the worst (the only woman writer the Gate Theatre’s Michael Colgan seems to like is a dead one). The discussion needs to be opened out to the independent sector. Anne Clarke, producer of Landmark Productions, recalled being told by a senior male writer that she would never make a good producer. Landmark tour The Last Hotel, an opera by Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy, to St Ann’s Warehouse, New York in January.

From the Abbey outcry there are signs of a movement, and a desire for action. Protests have been voiced before, particularly against the lack of women playwrights comprising the Abbey’s centenary season in 2004, but this opposition seems to have galvanised the community in a new way. With rumblings of holding a public forum, the question will now probably be posed: what infrastructure can be put in place to promote a sustained policy of inclusion?

Ireland’s gender imbalance is not unique; a 2013 report on the British Theatre Repertoire found that the rate of plays written by women (around 30%) has barely changed in ten years. This heralded the arrival of the Tonic Theatre initiative, which partners with leading theatre companies in the U.K. to achieve gender equality across all roles, including actors, directors and designers.

In 2012, the International Centre for Women Playwrights (ICWP) founded the 50/50 Applause Award, which celebrates theatres that produce a season with an equal or greater number of female playwrights. In its first year, there were only five recipients. In 2014 there were 67 recipients across nine countries. Can an Irish theatre be pressured to commit?

In the U.S., a new project called The Jubilee has just launched, inviting companies across the nation to pledge to produce a whole season of plays during 2020-21, written only by women, people of colour, LGBTQA individuals, and writers with disabilities.

Male-dominant selection doesn’t just happen, and possibly taking what is offered by these models promoting inclusion elsewhere, this Irish uprising is priming to change the outcome. That will require a commitment from the theatres themselves to play ball. For the infrastructure to budge from patriarchal precedence, it needs to seriously adapt to how it can serve the artist, and not the other way around.

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Chris McCormack is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine