The busy spring season of theatre openings has ground to a halt. Sadly, some shows that were gaining significant momentum have had their runs curtailed, others have been postponed. This week's column should have seen a review of The Lonsdale Project, a new work by Sian Ní Mhuirí, about Newbridge-born scientist Kathleen Lonsdale, running in Smock Alley after opening in the Riverbank Arts Centre in Newbridge. There should also have been a review of Hothouse, a new play by Dylan Coburn Gray with MALAPROP theatre, at Project Arts Centre. This latter was part of the extensive Where We Live festival for the St Patrick's Day holiday - all cancelled. Hopefully these shows will rise again. Strange times.
Looking around at the theatre landscape, currently in its shattered state, it is an opportunity to take stock in a moment of quiet.
It is now over four years since the key events of #WakingTheFeminists, the protests led by designer Lian Bell, at the near exclusion of women's voices from the centenary celebrations in the Abbey Theatre's programme for 2016. This was not the first major rebellion against the exclusion of women from artistic space. Notably there had been the protests arising from the near-absense of women in The Field Day Anthology in the early 1990s. But despite a lot of agitation and hand-wringing back then, nothing actually changed. There was always the wry joke that Irish feminism got the backlash without ever actually getting the lash.
But #WakingTheFeminists happened in a different context. Soon after the protests, the decision-makers at the Abbey and the Gate, the two largest Arts Council recipients of theatre funds, changed after lengthy tenures, and that was a key element in the movement's effectiveness. Advancement in the arts is based on opportunity. This is particularly true of the collaborative arts, like theatre, film or musical composition, where a vision cannot be realised without access to actors, technicians or orchestras; in other words, access to cash. The other element that supported the change was the fact that the burgeoning independent theatre sector of the noughties had groomed many women who were poised to seize opportunity.
Gate Director Selina Cartmell's 2020 programme, when announced last December, was notable in featuring several female directors - Oonagh Murphy, Annabelle Comyn, Blanche McIntyre and Louise Lowe. Contrast this with Michael Colgan's last season as director of the Gate Theatre in 2017, he employed all male directors, including Alan Stanford, Mark O'Rowe, Patrick Mason and Joe Dowling. Part of this trend is a demographic shift, Cartmell's team are younger, as well as more female. But to say gender is irrelevant is a denial of something very obvious.
The Little Foxes by American author Lillian Hellman was scheduled at the Gate for an April opening, now promised to appear at a later point. This is in some ways traditional Gate programming, putting on a tried and true classic from the American repertoire. The fact that the Arthur Miller/Tennessee Williams axis has been done to death has never bothered anyone, as their plays are constantly revived. But the only time I have ever seen a Hellman play in this country was in UCD Dramsoc in 1988, a production of The Children's Hour that starred a very young Derbhle Crotty as one of the schoolteachers.
Druid, under the helming of Garry Hynes, has produced three original full length scripts by women in the past two seasons, plays by Nancy Harris, Sonya Kelly and Cristín Kehoe. The Everyman and Landmark presented a tearaway success with Asking For It by Louise O'Neill, which played to audiences in Cork and Dublin. Plays by Lisa Tierney-Keogh, Gina Moxley and Deirdre Kinahan have popped up on the Abbey and Peacock stages. There have been more plays written or directed by women on Irish main stages in the past three years than in the previous thirty. The landscape has radically altered.
As a critic, I now easily see an equal amount of plays written and directed by men and women. The women's work is no longer confined to the fringes and edges. When #WakingTheFeminists happened, I suspected that, like previous gender-balancing efforts, it would fizzle out. Instead it has had the most profound and lasting effect. Irish theatre is a much richer space for this effort. The people behind it should take a bow.