The 1916 Proclamation of Independence was ahead of its time in many ways. It announced a Republic when most of Europe was ruled by monarchies and called for the new government to be elected by ‘the suffrages of all her men and women,’ meaning women would have the right to vote should the Rising be successful. It guaranteed ‘civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all,’ while promising to cherish ‘all the children of the nation equally.’
So the dearth of female playwrights in the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 Centenary Programme is a little ironic to say the least and the irony wasn’t lost on artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail, who was left reeling from a very public backlash in response to the blatant gender imbalance. In the early stages of the controversy he said he was sorry there weren’t enough female playwrights but he wasn’t ‘going to produce a play that is not ready and undermine the writer.’ Translation: the men are usually ready but the women are often not. Sadly, remarks like this didn’t surprise me but did make my blood boil. The artistic director of the national theatre of Ireland was essentially implying that women write plays of inferior quality to the plays written by men. A stark reminder to us all that gender biases exist, and the Irish theatre industry is not immune.
I have a friend who also happens to be a playwright, male and Irish. He and I have long been engaged in heated discussions about the under-representation of female playwrights on the main stages here. But he has always opposed the idea that this could be in any way due to gender bias and instead prefers to believe that production and commissioning decisions are based purely on the strength of the writing. Post-Waking the Feminists I felt confident that he might have to backtrack a little. I was wrong. Frustratingly, he is now focusing on the dangers of gender quotas and mediocre plays slipping through the net. But what worries me more than quotas is that he seems to be blithely suggesting if a female writer’s work were to be sourced through a quota system, then her play might be of inferior quality to the plays of her male counterparts. Now, I believe this writer respects me and sees me as his equal in terms of commitment, ability, ambition etc, so what the hell is going on here? Unconscious gender bias? Are his prejudices so deeply embedded that he has no idea they’re even there?
Women have been fighting for decades to overturn ancient, reified beliefs about their roles within society but as Virginia Woolf said, ‘it is far more difficult to kill a phantom than a reality.’ The idea that a female playwright is inferior to a male playwright is just that – a phantom concept. An illusion.
But the phantom is still hanging around and the under-representation of female playwrights within the Irish Theatre industry today is just one small part of a far bigger and more complex whole. On November 12th, as the Waking the Feminists movement gathered momentum both at home and abroad (by then, the likes of Meryl Streep and Wim Wenders were lending their support), the Abbey Theatre decided to facilitate an open discussion. Fair play. Hundreds of women turned out to speak up about their experiences of working within a patriarchal arts system here in Ireland. So many that loudspeakers had to be erected on Lower Abbey Street so the crowds left outside could listen to the speeches inside. And it seems our voices are at last being heard. Having reconsidered some of his initial responses, in an open letter posted on the Abbey Theatre website Mac Conghail said ‘the fact that I haven’t programmed a new play by a female playwright is not something I can defend’ and ‘the experience has presented a professional challenge to me as a programmer and has made me question the filters and factors that influence my decision-making.’ In the same letter he also recognises that there’s still a long way to go and ‘our challenge now is how to address this imbalance both here at the Abbey Theatre and nationally in the arts community and beyond.’ And he’s absolutely right. The Abbey isn’t the only theatre in Ireland guilty of under representing female playwrights and this under-representation becomes even more complicated when you start digging deeper.
For instance, what about the severe lack of substantial support and development initiatives for the emerging female playwright (and male for that matter) in Ireland today? Let’s take some of the heat off the Abbey for a moment. Druid claims to be a new writing theatre committed to ‘producing those plays that are vital and challenging for the contemporary theatre.’ Yet they are currently preparing for a 2016 tour of Big Maggie by John B. Keane, a play written in the late 60s and already produced by the company as recently as 2011/12. It will be presented by the Gaiety Theatre whose other 2016 productions include another John B play, The Matchmaker which was written in the 70s, and The 39 Steps, based on the Hitchcock movie and adapted for stage by Patrick Barlow. Brian Martin’s debut play Be Infants in Evil was produced by Druid for the Galway International Arts Festival in 2014, but Martin was the first new writer to be commissioned by the company in seven years. In less than one year, I had been professionally produced and published twice in the UK. Incidentally, while in London this summer I bumped into a very famous Irish playwright. Over a cup of tea and a smoke this writer said to me, and I quote, ‘don’t bother wasting your time at home because they’ll workshop you to death and you’ll still end up unproduced at the end of it.’ That’s food for thought right there.
Winning a UK based competition like the Papatango New Writing Prize (open to residents in the Republic of Ireland, as is the Bruntwood Prize and Verity Bargate Award) can start your career. It did mine and I’ll be forever indebted to the company for backing me and working hard to ensure I was professionally produced and published within months of winning. And they do all this without the backing of a subsidised theatre. So why waste years fighting for opportunities in Ireland only to end up with a rehearsed reading sometime if you’re lucky. Or an extract of a new play read out at a scratch night perhaps. Let’s remember that the first thing to go at the Abbey after the Arts Council funding cuts back in 2013 was their New Playwrights’ Programme. There’s just not enough serious commitment to the development of new voices here and I speak as someone who has won one of the few Irish playwriting awards – the Eamon Keane Full Length Play Award, run annually by the Listowel Writers’ Festival – yet all of my professional production experience thus far is still UK based.
Speaking of the latter award, this is probably an opportune moment to recount an unfortunate incident that occurred the year I won. The Listowel Writers’ Festival is the biggest literary festival in Ireland. Each year, winners of the various awards and competitions are invited to read from a published winner’s anthology the morning after the opening ceremony. It’s a free public event and usually quite popular. It’s not compulsory that you read, but I felt obliged to turn up that morning as I was incredibly grateful (and still am) for the festival’s support and their recognition of my work. When it was my turn, I stood in front of the microphone like all the other readers and waited to be introduced by the lone male facilitator who looked to be in his mid to late sixties. And then he did something I’ll never forget. In front of a hall full of people, he made a comment about my appearance and ‘jokingly’ suggested that this was the only reason I’d been given an award at all. Cue tumbleweed. I could see the shocked faces of the people sitting in the front row. I knew their expressions reflected my own. The entries for that award are read anonymously but in one foul swoop, this total stranger had undermined me both as a writer and as a woman. I should have called him out on the spot. I should have challenged his patronising casual sexism there and then. But I didn’t. I just took a deep breath, read my extract and got the hell out. I never told another festival organiser what had happened (I have no doubt they would have been horrified too) and felt angry with myself afterwards for not responding the way I wished I had. Later on, a number of men and women who had been at the event approached me to say how outraged they were on my behalf. All I kept thinking was, ‘what if I had been male.’
I’m fairly sure this guy had no awareness of how inappropriate he was being, but that does not make it okay. Old habits die hard and gender inequality within Irish Theatre is, as Olwen Fouéré said recently, just one issue and symptomatic of something much deeper. The play that won that award was produced by Hampstead Theatre in April 2015. The Assistant Literary Manager of the National dropped by to see a performance one night and a couple of months later I was starting a seven week attachment at the NT Studio where I wrote my eighth full-length play. Had the award in Ireland anything to do with it all? I’d like to say yes, but the reality is that Hampstead had been reading my work and supporting me as a writer since early 2013. In fact, when they decided to produce Deluge they ran into problems relating to my Irish residency which meant I didn’t qualify for their usual funding. Instead of giving up, they actively sought alternative funding which led to my second production and another invaluable experience for me as an emerging playwright. Would an Irish theatre have supported my work the way Hampstead did?
Would I be professionally produced and published twice in Ireland in less than one year? To be crude, I think if I had only looked to Irish theatres for support and opportunities as a new female playwright I’d have been left perennially banging my head against a big stone wall with a huge sign on it saying ‘New writer? Turn round now and f**k right off.’ And then I would have given up. As one woman admitted to doing at the recent Waking the Feminists open discussion at the Abbey. She had abandoned her career as a playwright. And I don’t blame her. That wall is big and after a while your head will start to hurt.
Writing isn’t an easy career path and I admit there’s no-one pointing a gun in my direction forcing me to do it. But we women are not the reserve players and should no longer be consigned to the sidelines. We have to acknowledge that the dominant literary and theatrical voice in Ireland has been, and still is, a male one. But women exist. We live and breathe and matter and should never internalise the feeling that we are ‘lesser than.’ Has the revolution finally started? I hope so.
Waking the Feminists does feel like the beginning of something. But there’s a whole stagnant system operating in this country that needs root and branch reform. From the way programming decisions are made to how seriously new playwright initiatives are taken – so much has to change and that won’t happen overnight. We’ve a long road ahead of us. But if we’ve really started marching, then march on I say. And let’s not stop until it’s done.
“Them’s The Breaks.” Chris McCormack on the gender imbalance in Irish theatre.