Thursday 18 January 2018

Theatre: A year on: what the Abbey feminists left in their wake

Hashtag discrimination: A #WakingTheFeminists meeting outside the Abbey last November Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Hashtag discrimination: A #WakingTheFeminists meeting outside the Abbey last November Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Maggie Armstrong

A year ago, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht sent out a press release. The Abbey Theatre's 'Waking the Nation' season for 2016 was to feature "an exciting roll call of new Irish voices and major revivals of some of the great plays from the Abbey Theatre repertoire". The list of plays that followed were all written by men, except for one play by a woman, "a monologue for children".

A kind of tempest blew up, conveyed via a viral hashtag that made it into the real world at a public meeting in the shipwrecked Abbey. Women told their upsetting stories of exclusion, discrimination, sexism in a fusty man's world. Now a whole movement, #WakingTheFeminists, has thrown light on the dismal representation of women in Irish theatre.

You might agree that hashtag campaigns are most irritating. You can sleepwalk your support: stick a Twibbon on your profile picture, or simply type in a slogan and you've championed the cause (you might even get a retweet!). Likewise, listening to university-educated women bemoan their lack of opportunities is hard to stomach. Like listening to actors complain in interviews about how underpaid they are (we don't hear the cleaning staff talk about these things). So it shows how bad things had got that the most beautiful and privileged people of the nation managed to show us they were underdogs.

The #WTF campaign has been supremely progressive, warm-hearted, tough love. It exists outside the internet, too, having gathered public events all through the year and won the international Lilly Award in New York. In its wake, the Abbey has set up a gender-equality committee, producing all kinds of important guiding principles for a fairer theatre sector in Ireland.

On Monday, #WTF is holding another act in this unending play. 'One More Thing', a public meeting (sold out, but periscoped), will stage more testimonies, celebrate progress made over the past year and present new research and goals for the future. Most of us will be at home, some in maternity hospitals (this is my last column for a while), but even if we're not in the Abbey's new feminist club, let's wonder, what feels different after 12 months? Are we the richer for having this sprawling group throw its civic energies into bettering the soul of Ireland, into filling its theatres with new voices?

What does feel different is that underlying perception that since there weren't female playwrights out there, woman mustn't be very good at writing plays. Women do best in the costume department, as bluestocking stage managers, or in supporting roles on stage. Playwriting is a muscly, manly domain.

It isn't true that women aren't good at writing plays. What is true is that they aren't as good as male playwrights. How could they be, without enough chances to show us what they've got? As playwright Nancy Harris points out: "Plays which are not produced simply do not exist."

And yet, just because a play is by a woman, that is not enough reason to stage it. #WTF is the movement that launched a thousand press releases from women saying "in light of #WakingTheFeminists write about ME, I'm a woman in theatre". The hyped new plays by women this year got severely mixed reviews. They were not the stuff of classics, they barely constituted good nights out (here is not the place to name them). Women might have to play years of catch-up before we have a female Dion Boucicault, a lady Enda Walsh, a Seana O'Casey.

We also might reconsider the playwright's place in the pecking order of a production. The trouble in the Abbey was the under-representation of female playwrights. But theatre is by nature collaborative. Plays might be marketed on the name of the playwright, but the memories you take away won't always be the words they wrote.

Unless you go to the theatre to listen to people talk on and on (Othello, Donegal, The Wake, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and The Plough and the Stars filled that need this year at the Abbey), you go to see colours, lights and movement, and hear music and feel. We have to dispel the myth of the playwright as lone genius.

And we might call time on plays written by and directed by men with all-male casts, as have been rolled out this year (The Kings of the Kilburn High Road, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Made in China). There were flashes of beauty in all these, but since #WTF, I for one have lost my appetite for musing on masculinity at the theatre. I'd rather go on a stag night in Carrick-on-Shannon. We can't blame men for writing about their experiences. Yet we shouldn't tolerate unimaginative stagings of their plays. It is 2016 - cast women in men's parts, or helicopter in a female director.

So what can you do, if you aren't in that feminist club but believe in theatre and support equality? How's about before the year ends you seek out one piece of theatre created (mostly) by a woman and go see it. Judge it against the plays by men you've seen, but don't expect Seana O'Casey, yet. Expect way better.

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