Currently gender equality is debated more hotly than before, is there still an excuse for sexism? Not only is sexism still happening in the workplace, schools and in the media it’s also happening within theatre. In the UK there’s a 2:1 male to female ratio within British theatre (1). We may think that art creates positive liberal changes for society but sexism is so ingrained, it often goes unnoticed and when it is noticed it largely is ignored. Is sexism only prominent within regional theatres or does it go much deeper beyond the parts and into the playwriting? If this is the case what can be done about it?
Sexism within theatre may be due to the history of English theatre going back to Shakespeare, who was writing for all male theatre companies. In Elizabethan time period “actresses and prostitution were merely synonyms” (2) .It was taboo for a woman to enter the world of theatre as “In many Western countries women were forbidden to act on the respectable stage until a mere 400 years ago”(2),during this time period women “were played by male actors in drag while real women were banned from the stage” (3) to the Elizabethans the lack of women on stage wouldn’t be seen as sexist due to the patriarchal society banning women from the stage.
Shakespeare wrote the vast majority of the parts for men out of his 981 characters 826 are male,whereas 155 are female (1). Women don’t have as many lines as men, of roles with over 500 lines only 13% of these parts are female(1). Rosalind one of Shakespeare more loquacious heroines has 730 lines, Hamlet has 1,539 (1). Meaning there are fewer opportunities for women to develop their acting abilities; the foundation for much of theatre is Shakespeare limiting the roles for women.
Arguably the sexism that has stemmed from Shakespeare means we’ve become so used to not seeing women on stage as “classical play (are)..regarded as allies in..suppressing real women and replacing them with masks of patriarchal production” (3). Elizabeth Freestone suggests “we’ve been caught thinking that 30% women is good enough..there has been a sort of blindness to female actors due to the burden of the classical canon” (1), suggesting an institutional sexism within the theatre industry. Arguably Shakespeare didn’t think about the gender breakdown within his plays only what made good characters. As Twelfth Night demonstrates, Shakespeare plays around with gender roles as Viola and Sebastian both cross dress.
Tonic Theatre looked at a sample of plays and found that if a play was written by a man 65% of the parts were for males; when written by a woman this figure dropped to 48% suggesting women are more likely to split parts up equally.
In 2014 Maxine Peake took on the role of Hamlet, possibly a backlash to the sexism her interpretation was widely praised “though reviewers still focused on the presence of a female actor in that role” (8);possibly suggesting that critics still stick to the canon ignoring multiple gender possibilities. Maxine Peake’s performance of Hamlet has allowed the reinterpretation scripts and ideas, however by doing this the misogyny is ignored(9). Even in the twenty first century we still can’t erase Shakespeare’s injustices (due to the patriarchal theatre conventions he had to conform to) and write them off as a product of another time (9). When changing the gender canon we should still remember that sexism is still a problem within theatre; instead of challenging the problems we pretend they don’t exist in the first place.
Stella Duffy echoes this point, arguing when women “do not see ( themselves) on stage( they) are reminded yet again that the people running our world ..do not notice when we are not there. That they think men..are all we need to see” (1). This is also echoed by Phyllida Lloyd who suggests “It’s not a conspiracy by men to keep women off ..stage, it’s just they don’t notice when we’re not there”(5). Duffy then goes on to argue that “fringe theatre is better balanced” in terms of gender and “national theatre companies should lead by example” (1). According to the guardian in 2012 the National theatre had a record low of female actors, of all female actors employed on 34% of these were women. Tonic theatre who in 2014 took a snapshot of females in creative roles and found that of the 20 plays in the West End 29% of performers were female compared to 71% of male performers .From my own research looking through theatre programmes, graph one shows within touring companies the male to female ratio always has a higher proportion of males within the cast and overall. Particularly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s where there’s a 3:1 ratio. Within amateur productions ( graph three) there are gender differences, with a higher proportion of males. However in High Green Musical Theatre Company there is a significantly higher proportion of females, but within amateur theatre groups the directors have to work with volunteers who want to be involved. This suggests the theatre industry is more sexist within professional theatre, there are women who want to be involved but barriers stop them.
Phyllida Lloyd had an all female cast of Julius Caesar at the Donmar warehouse covent garden London, Shakespeare’s most male heavy play giving five females the male roles the share of female lines only increased from 0.67 to 14% (1) giving women a greater voice on stage. However 14% increase is a small as female characters don’t have many lines to start with. This is a positive step forward to challenge sexism however this was on a small scale in a lesser known location which isn’t as likely to make as much of a change like it would if it was performed somewhere like the National Theatre.
In opposition to this Nastazja Somers suggests most people “blame big guys at the top” however goes on to say she doesn’t see much diversity at the fringe (4), giving women a voice needs to start from the bottom and work its way up. But it may be a difficulty for this to happen because fringe theatre is often freelance, a hard place for women to sustain a career and children as there is “no pension, no maternity leave, a nomadic lifestyle and unsociable hours” (1) meaning that women are less likely to be represented. Arguably it is the role of big theatre companies such as the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare company to be inclusive of women so they will be able to sustain a career. Hynter (previous Artistic director at the National Theatre) suggests he “can’t..tell directors how they should cast”(1).Jonathan Church ( previous Artistic director for the Chichester festival theatre) argues regional theatres face huge pressures when programming 20th century or contemporary work for an auditorium”(1) , for this to be successful they need to attract big “names “ that have West End success such as “Coward, Ayckbourn, Stoppard, Hare, Rattigan: (who are) all men”(1).
Church can be criticised because he ignores the work of amateur groups who attract a large number of audience members despite a lack of “names”. He ignores that an audience member may attend to see a story not a particular actor. Arguably the theatre industry is sexist due to more parts being available to men, potentially gender-blind casting is taking place.Rosemary Squire suggests that sexism in theatre will never change unless quotas are introduced to encourage directors to employ more females, she then goes on to “No one’s going to stop(the sexism) unless they are told to” because after “a few decades, nothing’s really moved. There must be a forced cultural shift”(6) suggesting that it is not only female actresses who need to voice their want for sexism to end but also audience members ;a change of view from society as a whole is needed to achieve this(6). Playwright Duncan MacMillan suggests a “characters (arguably actors) gender is visible somehow, whereas if it was a male character (or actor) I don’t think we ( as an audience )would think twice..That surely reflects that we have certain biases and a certain type of theatre culture that notices when a woman is talking on stage about something other than men”(7) suggesting that there is an uproar when we distance ourselves from the male canon.
As well as the parts within theatre there are few female scriptwriters adding to the sexism. According to the New York Times, research was undertaken by Emily Glassberg Sands (an economist) who suggests “There is discrimination against female playwrights within the theatre community”, to do this research she undertook three separate studies; she looked at playwrights themselves. She reviewed information on 20,000 playwrights in the Dramatists guild Doodlle.com, an online database of playwrights, her findings again showed a 2:1 male to female split with men writing more plays. Arguably suggesting the theatre industry isn’t sexist if men are putting more effort into writing plays, agreeing with the statement that good scripts by women are in short supply.Ms Sands also discovered that women playwrights were more likely to write about female characters, however they were less likely to be produced adding to the 2:1 gender divide within the parts within British Theatre.
But study can be criticised as the source of Doodllee.com relies on the users and the information may be incomplete, therefore her results may not be valid.
For her second study Ms Glassberg Sands sent identical scripts to artistic directors and managers around the country split equally between male and female names. In her research she found that the scripts with female authors received worse ratings in terms of audience reviews and economic prospects compared to the scripts with male authors, despite them being exactly the same script.Adding to the evidence that the theatre industry is sexist,arguably a lack of female playwrights adds to the patriarchy. However the biggest twist is the results were driven by female artistic directors and literary managers, suggesting it is women themselves putting barriers up for other women who are trying to make it within the theatre industry. Suggesting it is not men stopping women progressing in the theatre industry but women themselves. Ms Sands goes on to say “Men rate men and women’s playwrights exactly the same”. This evidence suggests that the theatre industry is sexist to an extent as there are more barriers for women within theatre, but this evidence suggests women are putting up their own barriers.
For the final study Ms. Sands looked specifically at Broadway where women write fewer than ⅛ shows. She examined 329 new plays and musicals produced in ten years to see if the bar was set higher for women. The goal in any theatre is to make a profit, her research shows plays by women sold 16% more tickets than plays written by men and were 18% more profitable. However even though these shows earned more money they didn’t continue running any longer than less profitable shows. Ms Sands suggests this is clear evidence that the theatre industry is discriminative against women, but it could be argued that certain shows (if touring ) are booked in for different time periods therefore the fact that women’s plays sold more but didn’t continue may be due to this.
These studies could be criticised on a whole because they are small scale and don’t look at the amount of female playwrights as a whole. However according to the guardian the latest research show that little progress has been made with gender and play production, a decade ago 30% of new shows were written by women in 2013 this figure stood at 31%.The only area where women playwrights came close to male playwrights was work for children and young people where 40% of shows were written by women ,suggesting women are only successful within theatre when they stay within the stereotypes that society has told them to remain in. In September 2014 Tonic Theatre took a snapshot of the 20 shows being performed in the West End, only 4% were written by women amounting to just one Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap. The amount of female writers within non for profit organisations was only slightly bigger at 8% ;suggesting yet again there is sexism within theatre.
However there is a cultural shift happening within theatre, Tonic Theatre is a programme which brings together “brings together the Artistic Directors, Chief Executives, and senior staff of leading performing arts organisations” from May 2013 to October 2014 it piloted a scheme with 11 theatres to get them to look at the root cause behind the lack of women within theatre. From their research they found that there was a lack of women on stage due to out-dated structures linking back to Shakespeare, suggesting that if changes are left to occur naturally they will happen but slowly. It is also pointed out that women having babies is an excuse for the imbalances there are a range of factors which act as a barrier for women, like Squire suggests there is a need for quotas, “sometimes imposing..50:50 targets is the only way to go”. As a result of this scheme the cohort of the 11 theatres have outlined what they will do as a result of this scheme such as noticing the unconscious bias and becoming aware of its impacts. Secondly create symbolic relationships with artists and freelancers to support their career in a more sustained way and finally work collectively to achieve change. Sheffield Theatres was a worked with, in my own research (graph 2) in 2 out of the 3 plays women accounted for a smaller proportion overall however in Lady Chatterley’s lover this was only a small difference with 9 women to 10 men suggesting positive steps are being taken to close the gender divide. Also showboat ran from December 2015 to January 2016, when the plan for change had only just been implemented. Overall these steps are positive in achieving change to close the gender gap and stop sexism within theatre.
To conclude in many areas the theatre industry is sexist ; this is largely the case in regional theatres such as the Royal Shakespeare company and The National theatre because they have to attract big names to pull audiences in. There arguably is less sexism within fringe productions this may be because it is done largely on a voluntary basis and there is less pay, also their career is less stable than in a professional theatre company. Female scriptwriters also face sexism within the theatre industry as there are very few women who are able to get their script produced, there is a lack of female scriptwriters on Broadway, The West End and non for profit organisations. However Tonic Theatres initiatives are positive ways forward to reduce this sexism and eventually stop it.
(3)Ashton, E and Case,S (1988,2008)Feminism and Theatre.ed.[ebook]Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York:Palgrave MacMillan,p5-28. Available at :https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=OvMcBQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&ots=PYv7kKf1Oa&sig=rIjSojGrsBfT0OlsTFBBxFkQx-8#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 2nd Jan 2017]
(6)Barnett,E(2013) British theatre’s most powerful woman:sadly we need quotas for women.The Telegraph [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-business/10091323/Rosemary-Squire-British-theatres-most-powerful-woman-sadly-we-need-quotas-for-women.html[Accessed 26th December 2016]
(7)Crompton,C(2016)Sexism on stage- meet the women tearing up the script.The Guardian[online] Available at:https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jan/17/sexism-stage-female-playwrights-royal-court-theatre [Accessed 26th December 2016]
(5)Gardner,L (2015)In 10 years nothing has changed for female playwrights-it’s time to act. The Guardian [Blog] Available at https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2015/apr/28/nothing-changed-female-playwrights-uk-theatres-gender-equality [Accessed 5th December 2016]
(9)Gentry,R(2016)How should we respond to Shakespeare’s sexism.The Clyde Fitch Report [blog] Available at http://www.clydefitchreport.com/2016/01/shakespeare-sexism/ [Accessed 13th March 2016]
(1)Higgins,C (2012) Women in theatre:why do so few make it to the top.The Guardian,[online]Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/10/women-in-theatre-glass-ceiling [Accessed 5th Dec 2016]Wo
(4) Masso,G (2017)Nastazja Somers ‘Everyone blames the big guys but diversity has to start at the fringe’. The Stage [online] Available at:https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/interviews/2017/nastazja-somers-everyone-blames-big-guys-diversity-start-fringe/ [Accessed 13th March 2017]
(8)McManus,C (undated) Shakespeare and gender: the woman’s part .The British Library [online]Available at:https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/shakespeare-and-gender-the-womans-part [Accessed 13th March 2017]
(2) Wandor,M (1986) Carry on understudies:Theatre and sexual politics.ed.[ebook] London:Taylor & Francis e-Library,2005,p14-16.Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=21yQAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA14&lpg=PA14&dq=%22In+many+Western+countries+women+were+forbidden+to+act+on+the+respectable+stage+until+a+mere+400+years+ago&source=bl&ots=hYoCV6P4El&sig=QHaNcvZjKElHgkw8B0bg8POpmLY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwilms65-u_SAhWMDcAKHWMMDbcQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 2nd Jan 2017]