Thursday 19 October 2017

Theatre: Waking up to the gender imbalance in Irish theatre

Actors Kate O Toole and Kate Thompson pictured at the WakingThe Feminists campaign calling for equality for women artists in The Abbey Theatre
Actors Kate O Toole and Kate Thompson pictured at the WakingThe Feminists campaign calling for equality for women artists in The Abbey Theatre

Maggie Armstrong

On November 12 last, a young woman stood on The Abbey stage for the first time. She wore Doc Martens over jeans and muttered "fuck it" into the mic. She was not in the usual category of star to grace that illustrious and historic stage. Who on earth was she?

A set designer and arts manager, we learned, who usually worked behind the scenes. Had her name been invented by some winking playwright it would be hard to believe a woman named Lian Bell would sound the alarm over our national theatre's 'Waking the Nation' centenary programme for 2016.

The programme featured nine plays by men and one (children's) play by a woman, and read like the a boy's club newsletter. (It's not going to be changed, artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail told me.)

She rang that bell, writing an irate blog post that lit the flame that sparked a movement, #WakingTheFeminists. As the campaign drew support from such coteries as Meryl Streep, Simon Callow, Saoirse Ronan and Gabriel Byrne, Lian used her connections to pull together this rather electric public meeting.

After she had read her simple mission statement for gender equality in Irish theatre and the packed house had danced to Aretha Franklin's 'Respect', Lian went home exhausted, burning up with fever, and slept for 12 hours. But her work was not done.

With her chief collaborator Sarah Durcan, she is leading the cause of #WTF, and a second public meeting is scheduled for March 8 in Liberty Hall.

Two less likely heroines of this battle could not exist. Neither has ever acted, but both had lead parts in last year's hit show (Sarah's poignant testimony was, like all, worth replaying on wakingthefeminists.org). Neither had identified themselves as feminists. Neither campaigned nor were "vocal" about anything before. Now they are powering ahead with a slick and effective campaign to redress a gaping imbalance, one that shows that meritocracy, a nice notion, doesn't work.

In three months, they have met with the boards of The Abbey, The Gate, Druid, Rough Magic, Dublin Theatre Festival and Dublin Fringe Festival - targeting those bodies in receipt of the most generous funding - and with the Arts Council, to help tease out a policy of gender balance.

The Abbey's programme was but a drop in an ocean of exclusion, they discovered, at a time when even the National Theatre in London will take until 2021 to achieve gender balance, as it has committed to doing. When people want good, straight entertainment to distract them from the horrors of the news, #WTF may seem not to matter much. But here is why it matters a little. "Audiences are at least 50pc women," says Lian. "The great thing about gender balance in storytelling is we end up having better theatre because we're drawing on a much wider pool of diverse voices."

Once we fix the system, "public finances will be spent more equally. People will get to see and express stories in a more even-handed way. Great artists will get a platform for the first time," says Lian.

She has found strength in small exchanges, like when she went to NUI Galway to address students. "There was this young man who said, 'you know what, my favourite thing about that day was I was in this room full of people and I could say I was a feminist and not feel like I was going to be laughed at'. I love that."

That fear of being laughed at held many people back over the years, it seems. "We all talked about all this amongst ourselves in pubs and cafes, had a moan," says Sarah, who also operates as general manager of Science Gallery International. "But that day at The Abbey, people were hearing stuff they'd never heard before."

It seems impressive they turned their anger so quickly into activism. I wonder if this was a key strategy, killing with kindness. "Yes, absolutely," says Lian. "As soon as you start getting angry and pointing the finger at somebody, their defences will go up. So we were very careful that we were never going to name and shame individuals.

"We understand we all come with some kind of biases. We're not going to throw stones from a glass house - we're not perfect people either. We live in this sector that's been like this so it's part of our responsibility to help change it."

Since they started, they have been contacted by women in the tech industry, defence forces, medicine and academia, expressing their grievances and seeking advice. They have had to limit their efforts to theatre because otherwise, says Lian, "your brain would explode". And they have no money, having existed on "very small donations".

They plan to wrap up, or pass on #WTF, in a year and get back to their own lives. They have scattered the seeds of change in Irish theatre because they believe it deserves no less.

"Theatre is essentially a place where you can imagine your society differently, and test things out that you can't do in real life," says Lian, "ideas and structures and alternative ways of thinking."

What about theatre they actually enjoy? Both women love contemporary, cross-disciplinary theatre made by emerging artists like Grace Dyas, Louise Lowe, Oonagh Murphy, Amy Conroy, Sonya Kelly, Annie Ryan, Sarah-Jane Scaife, Annabelle Comyn and Aoife McAtamney. Just look at that. Nine women and not one man.

#Waking the Feminists will hold a public meeting on International Women's Day, March 8 at Liberty Hall

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