Features Published 14 June 2017

#WakingTheFeminists: The Numbers are Out

A new report, Gender Counts, reveals stark statistics about the under-representation of women in Irish Theatre. Chris McCormack asks: What next?
Chris McCormack
Dr Tanya Dean, Dr Brenda Donhue and Dr Ciara O'Dowd at the launch of 'Gender Counts' by Waking the Feminists

Dr Tanya Dean, Dr Brenda Donhue and Dr Ciara O’Dowd at the launch of ‘Gender Counts’ by Waking the Feminists

In Amsterdam 1969, students from the local Institute of Dramaturgy threw tomatoes at a performance of The Tempest. Adding fire to an outcry against subsidised Dutch theatres and their out-of-touch repertories, these acts of protests began to spread. The movement was called Actie Tomaat (Action Tomato) and it changed theatre in the Netherlands.

From that, we might speculate that a theatre protest, like any production, needs good dramaturgy. In other words, it requires masterful control of its context. When industry workers displeased with gender representation at the Irish National Theatre, the Abbey Theatre, took action in 2015, the tomato wasn’t their choice of tool but Twitter. Followers rallied using #WakingTheFeminists.

Why strike then? Abbey Theatre’s decision to commission only one play written by a woman, in a symbolic programme commemorating the revolutionary action that led to Irish Independence, might have played a part. Knowledge that the theatre’s artistic director was stepping down must certainly have been a factor. Rumours of departure by the head of another major theatre, the Gate theatre, were also promising. The old guards were changing.

Powered by an overwhelming online response, #WakingTheFeminists moved into the physical world. Tickets for their popular public meetings were hard to come by. Actors, designers, directors and producers all shared from the stage their stories about gender dismissal. Anecdotes, however, can only get you so far. You need numbers to create lasting change.Last week, a new report commissioned by #WakingTheFeminists was launched. Authored by Brenda Donohue, Ciara O’Dowd and Tanya Dean, Gender Counts: An Analysis of Gender in Irish Theatre 2006-2015 examines ten of the top Arts Council-funded organisations. Data of this kind is rare and it’s only beginning to emerge. In 2012, the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques started publishing yearly figures on gender balance in French theatre. The U.S. Dramatists Guild funded The Count in 2015, a study looking at playwrights in regional American theatre. Other theatre ecologies such as London’s remain uncharted.

Gender Counts is a stark read. The roles of costume and sound designer are found to be bizarrely gendered, female and male respectively. The Abbey, under the artistic directorship of Fiach Mac Conghail, vacuumed up a stunning 57% of Arts Council funding but was low on all accounts, faring worst in female cast representation.

The Gate, which had Michael Colgan as its artistic director, was the biggest offender of the lot. In comparison to the Irish repertory at the national theatre, this playhouse produces Western classics. Only three authors were counted: Helen Edmundson for her adaptation of Anna Karenina (2005), Yasmina Reza for God of Carnage (2011) and Anne-Marie Casey who adapted Wuthering Heights (2014).Rough Magic, an arch company, soars high in its representation of directors but that’s because artistic director Lynne Parker directs most productions. The same can be said of ambitious touring company Druid, led by Garry Hynes, though it has a particularly bad track record with playwrights. Only two were counted: Geraldine Aron for My Brilliant Divorce (2007) and Lucy Caldwell who wrote Leaves (2007). Dublin Theatre Festival and Dublin Fringe Festival act as both producers and receivers of work, though the latter body is closest to gender parity by far. With director representation at 49%, author at 46% and cast most successful at 51%, it seems that women do well on the Fringe; Dublin Theatre Festival numbers indicate that they don’t move past it. The Fringe shares with The Ark, a Dublin venue for young audiences, the best performance in authorship.

Another playhouse in the capital, Project Arts Centre, performed highest in lighting design. Barnstorm, a children’s theatre company, is relatively low in cast representation. Its artistic director Philip Hardy directs most productions. The same goes for Gavin Quinn of contemporary theatre company Pan Pan, though author representation is poor.

Most disturbing is the inverse relationship this report finds between funding and equality in the top four organisations. The better resourced the institution, the poorer representation of women it tends to have. This calls for greater change higher up. The Irish Arts Council is currently drafting a new gender policy.

#WakingTheFeminists have called for gender parity in Irish theatre by 2021. The national theatre might yet become a leader in that mission, having published an in-house gender policy to achieve its own balance by that same year. A commitment to the widely forgotten 1936 play Katie Roche by Teresa Deevy, opening in August, suggests a re-evaluation of female playwrights from the canon. The Gate hasn’t announced any official targets though the new artistic director, Selina Cartmell, has spoken about making the theatre more inclusive. Her programme for the next 12 months will deliver three works by women (as many as the theatre produced in the past decade): Nina Raine’s drama Tribes, an adaptation of The Red Shoes by Nancy Harris, and Camille O’Sullivan’s cabaret take on The Rape of Lucrece.

Other organisations haven’t made the same leap. Druid received backlash online when its all-male season was announced in February. Garry Hynes defended the programme, saying “Making a real difference takes time”. Oddly, she didn’t share with Irish media, like she did in the U.S., that Nancy Harris is under commission by the company. Dublin Theatre Festival also got a negative response when last month it announced nine highlights, only two of which are authored by women.

Regardless, change is coming from elsewhere, in the surprising change of direction by companies dedicated almost exclusively to male playwrights. Decadent Theatre ceases their commitment to Martin McDonagh, for a moment at least, to stage Abbie Spallen’s comedy Pump Girl. The Corcadorca company, exchanging Enda Walsh for Caryl Churchill, are producing Far Away in the monastic setting of Spike Island. The Irish language theatre, An Taibhdearc, is reviving Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s 1995 work Dún na mBan Trí Thine (The Fairy Fort is on Fire). Fringe artists will be unlocking past playwrights such as Suzanne R. Day and Teresa Deevy as contemporaries.

Gender Counts, which can be downloaded from #WakingTheFeminists’ website, equips Ireland to be one of few countries that can articulate its gender representation. It also suggests, through the efforts of many individuals, a kind of offstage dramaturgy, one that doesn’t nurture a specific production but the wider ecology. Perhaps it’s time for London to follow suit.


Chris McCormack is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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