At the fringe this year, Traverse Theatre put laminated signs on the doors of its toilets, with symbols that mean they’re accessible for people of all genders. It’s both a welcome gesture, and a telling one. Laminated cardboard can easily be taken down once the venues’ impressive 2017 line-up of trans artists go home.
This year’s Edinburgh fringe was pretty unprecedented for its consistent engagement with ideas of gender, and gender fluidity. And back in London, the start of September has been marked by an incredible outpouring of new work by trans artists. Camden People’s Theatre’s regular programme of mini-festivals are always adept at capturing the zeitgeist, and this year it’s no different: Come As You Are is a thrilling-looking festival of new performances about gender identity, headlined by Milk Presents’ new work Bullish.
There’s also a return for Testosterone at New Diorama, plus And The Rest Of Me Floats by OutBox Theatre. This month’s line-up of new work feels hugely exciting – an opportunity for powerful, messy, hilarious, memorable discussions about gender to unfold in some of London’s most exciting small venues. But how much will they influence the mainstream?
At Edinburgh, Kate O’Donnell’s gently witty performance in You’ve Changed pointed to the risks of trans becoming trendy. It’s a show that feels like a showcase for her talents, as much as a standalone piece of theatre, making it especially poignant when she asks if she’ll still be getting roles, once the media attention dies down.
I hope so. But there’s a real danger that commissioning trans and gender fluid artists is seen as an attention-grabbing one-off, rather than a longterm commitment to changing how everyone understands gender, to breaking down the rules which still define who plays what role, and how they must dress and behave. Away from fringe spaces and the live art scene, theatre is only making the most tentative moves towards a more complex understanding of gender – a few women dragging up as men to correct the gender imbalance in Shakespeare plays is welcome, but it also reinforces binaries as much as it disrupts them.
It’s an ongoing challenge that makes me think of another big discussion that’s happening right now, around gender equality in playwriting. Victoria Sadler’s excellent blog post points to the disproportionate number of men getting commissions. Outside the handful of leading theatres she looks at, things aren’t much different. As long as PRs and journalists still (have to) describe plays as ‘female-led’, it means that nothing’s changed. The normative way of doing things is intact, even as we constantly use phrases like ‘a tipping point has been reached’ or ‘real progress is being made’ or ‘forward-looking’ or ‘change is in the air’.
At school in the ’90s I grew up with the comforting idea that social progress was inevitable. Teachers would say that by the time we all grew up, racism and sexism would be a thing of the past. [Queerness and gender identity wasn’t mentioned – thanks for nothing, Section 28]. But at the same time, we were being fed a curriculum which was overwhelmingly based on the achievements of white men. It’s an object lesson of how easy it is to be seduced by this appealing sense that things are getting better, that we’re on steady path to wider tolerance and understanding. A quick look at the news suggests we’re not. Mainstream politics has shifted abruptly to the right, the US’s President is openly endorsing white supremacy, and Boris Johnson’s rightful heir Jacob Rees-Mogg is publically spouting sexist opinions that belong to the ’50s.
Writing a Time Out preview for Black Lives, Black Words at Bush Theatre earlier this year, I got a stark reminder of how much of an illusion progress can be. The three writers I spoke to – Somalia Seaton, Winsome Pinnock and Mojisola Adebayo – were unanimous in pointing out the dangers of complacency, and of believing in a comforting narrative of progress, in time.
Mojisola Adebayo even suggested that “We’ve gone backwards, actually. I started making theatre in the late 80s and early 90s, and at that time there were several Black and Asian-led theatre companies. We’d open a new show on the West End every year. It’s a bit of a forgotten history.” She spoke of the idea of ‘giving space’, and how a temporary, trendy ‘diversity agenda’ is problematic. She also added that “Most people programming are white middle class and university educated, so until more Black people have the opportunity to get those positions of power, nothing will change.” After hearing her talk, this year’s spate of shows by Black playwrights started to look a little different: tokenistic, and thoroughly unradical, compared to giving funding to Black and Asian-led companies which make work and build audiences all year round.
Large swathes of the Blair generation graduated with a ‘do what you love’ mindset, which made working in the arts something that you didn’t expect to get paid for. Three of the biggest qualifications of getting into arts leadership positions, into the roles which define which artists get supported and which stories get told, are being well-connected, wildly self-confident, and being able to afford to work for little or no money. As such, it’s not a surprise that these roles are dominated by white men at every level – from the tiniest fringe venue to the National Theatre. Minority groups shouldn’t have to rely on their goodwill.
Institutional change won’t be caused by one, brief outpouring of work exploring gender, or sexuality, or race. It relies on people in power deciding to turn that mood into something more durable, and putting systems in place to make sure that theatres don’t reflect society’s inequalities – which means funding, and quotas, and strong voices holding the mainstream to account.
So maybe there are two challenges. One is changing mindsets: confronting ideas about who can write what, who can play what, who’s invited to take part. Theatre’s quite good at that. But the second, deeper challenge is changing management, and asking: who gets to issue the invitations? Until that happens, any changes are as temporary and transient as a laminated sign on a toilet door.
Bullish is on at Camden People’s Theatre until September 30th, as part of their Come As You Are festival: full line-up here. And The Rest Of Me Floats is on at Rose Lipman Building until September 23rd: book tickets here.