Tuesday 20 August 2019

Abbey protesters demand 'Respect' as Waking the Feminists takes stage

Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

The out-going director of the Abbey Theatre, Fiach Mac Conghail, looked acutely uncomfortable as he welcomed audience members to the Waking the Feminists public meeting yesterday.

Since the launch of the national theatre's 1916 programme 'Waking the Nation', Mac Conghail has received a barrage of criticism. Some deserved, some not so much.

The Abbey's centenary programme claimed to "interrogate the Easter Rising" but failed to give women a prominent voice on stage - featuring just one female playwright in the programme.

When male and female theatre practitioners started to question this, Mac Conghail tweeted "thems the breaks" before heading off on holiday. Not the best PR move.

It sparked a social media revolution and gained international attention. Oscar winning actress Meryl Streep, Emmy winner Martha Plimpton, and Will and Grace star Debra Messing all shared messages of support.

Yesterday, the Waking the Feminists campaigners took to the Abbey stage to vent their frustration. And a contrite Fiach held his hands up in an act of self-abasement.

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

"I was thinking in microscopic detail," he confessed to the audience.

"I was thinking about the legacy of 1916. I was thinking about war stories, about poverty, about housing, about disenfranchisement... I wasn't thinking about gender balance. I did not look up. I failed to check my privilege. And I regret that."

However, a spokesperson for The Abbey stated they would not be amending their Waking the Nation line up.

The Waking The Feminists campaign was kickstarted by theatremaker Lian Bell who took to social media to voice her grievances with the Abbey's gender-biased programming.

"I just thought f**k it," she said simply. Since then, the movement has gathered momentum.

Tickets for the meeting sold out in 10 minutes. Those who didn't manage to get a seat settled in the bar and watched the action unfold on widescreen TVs.

Chaired by Senator Ivana Bacik, the meeting saw 30 Irish female theatremakers, including Amy Conroy, Oonagh Murphy and Derbhle Crotty, take to the stage to tell their stories

The event ended like all good shows do - with a foot tapping musical number - Aretha Franklin's 'Respect'.

Waving signs reading 'Easterogen Rising' and with badges proudly pinned to their chest, the audience punched the air and cheered loudly.

The campaign hopes to achieve economic parity for all working in the theatre, championing women artists and sustained policy for inclusion.

This is sorely needed - since 2006, 12.3pc of the plays shown on the Abbey stage have been by women.

Organiser Dairne O'Sullivan described the atmosphere inside the auditorium as electric. "There was such an overwhelming feeling of empowerment," she said.

Irish Independent

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