Presentation for Clásicas y modernas conference, Mérida, Spain 20 July 2017



Gracias por la invitación para hablar en este evento. Siento no poder hablar español. Por eso haré mi presentación en ingles.

I am going to talk about the place of women in theatre in Scotland and our campaign to gain gender balance in creative roles.

I will set this talk within the context of this festival in Merida, and how classical Greek theatre can provoke thinking and discussion in gender politics in theatre today.

In Scotland, we do not have a tradition of playwriting going back centuries. Playwriting in Scotland has flourished only in the last 40 years which means contemporary work, new writing is at the heart of what we see in the theatre. This does not mean that we have no access to the great plays of Shakespeare or of other English writers. We can find these in the Scottish theatre repertoire along with the great American plays and the European classics in translation. Today’s playwrights also take their inspiration from the Greek plays. Of course what all these playwrights have in common is that they are men — and I will come back to this.

The Work

In Athens 2,500 years ago Aeschylus wrote a play about a group of women fleeing persecution and forced marriage in Egypt. They made the dangerous journey by boat and reached Argos in Greece where they sought sanctuary. They would rather die than go back.

The King of Argos was torn – should he in all humanity offer them safety or would this put his country in danger from a vengeful Egyptian army? He put the decision to the vote amongst his people – the first reference to democracy in theatre – and the women were permitted to remain. The play ends with the lines:

We pray to you O Zeus

Give equal power to women

And from this blessing let justice flow.

The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus, adapted by playwright David Greig was presented last year in the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh with a group of women from the city taking the leading role as the chorus or suppliant women. Greig had just become artistic director and this was his first production making a strong statement of intent about his artistic policy.

The Suppliant Women was written by Aeschylus when Athens was facing a migrant crisis. Large numbers of foreigners were coming to live and work in the city. For the male citizens of Athens it was suddenly unclear who should be regarded as ‘a citizen’ and who should be consigned to second-class status.

Today, Athens and other European capitals face a similar challenges. Here we have a play which deals with Europe’s biggest crises- refugees and democracy. Now, as then, women and women’s plight is at the heart of both.

In a paper given at a conference in Florence last year, Greig described theatre as a ‘constructed space’ in which we explore moral dilemmas through fiction. We develop empathy with characters and situation. We enjoy conviviality, participation and a sense of community in the sharing of the drama. Finally experience transcendence through excellence.

Grieg concluded:

‘It’s interesting that what is, essentially, the first play also contains, essentially, the first mention of democracy. We are also told that the democratic process in Athens first took place in theatres.

The constructed space and the democratic space were born at the same moment. This double birth seems to speak to a self-evident truth which is this: without access to the constructed space we cannot have true democracy. Unless we are able to encounter each other within art, then any vote taken is taken in ignorance. Democracy becomes mob rule. Without the constructed space to restore us to humanity, democracy merely becomes another form of violence.’

Of course we need to remind ourselves that in the time of Aeschylus theatre was a male-only event. That at least has shifted. But if democracy and theatre go together then we need to look at the place of women in theatre.

Last year in Scotland another play, or rather plays, by Aeschylus were produced: The Oresteia. Zinnie Harris adapted the trilogy under the title ‘This Restless House’ and she turned it into one about women and feminism.

Her focus was on the experience of the two key female characters, Clytemnestra and Electra, who are presented as important female archetypes for our time. One critic described Clytemnestra in this production as ‘furious, loving, glamorous, intensely sexual, maternal yet utterly imperfect’. Electra was described as ‘a shockingly abandoned victim of the war between her parents, a small, strong figure’ who suffers ‘pain, and [the] conviction that she can never escape the furies pursuing her’.

If you want to see this production, it is being re-mounted for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

So when we talk about feminism and gender equality in Europe, we should remember that this echoes through theatre for thousands of years. It is, and remains, an issue of representation, about democracy and difference and that arts and culture have a crucial role in engaging an audience in raising awareness and challenging the status quo.

And we can learn from each other.

 Report on data

 In 2013 I made a presentation in Lyon to a meeting of the French campaign, HF, about the position of women in the arts. Meetings like this and campaigns like HF are inspiring and help to give us confidence to do something. Sometimes I am sure you secretly think ‘is this enough?’ We all have a lovely time but does it change anything? Well, I am here to tell you that it does.

Inspired by my French sisters, I and others organised a meeting in Edinburgh entitled ‘Women in Theatre – where next?’ We invited one of the leading members 0f HF to join our platform. Over 100 people turned up mainly but not exclusively women – playwrights, actors, directors, producers of all ages.

There were several developments from that gathering. New theatre groups were formed, a season of theatre was curated called the F Word, and a Facebook page was set up for women writers and performers to share information and raise the profile.

I decided that my role should be to work on lobbying and advocacy with the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland (who manage and distribute government funds to the arts in Scotland). In this, I collaborated with the trade unions and theatre management organisations.

Our first priority was to improve data collection and publication. In fact that remains our main priority. We are asking that theatres that receive public funding report on gender balance within the creative roles.

Naively we thought that all we needed to do was meet with the (female) Chief Executive of Creative Scotland – explain what we wanted, ask her organisation to coordinate the collection of these data, and we would work with the theatres to make sure everyone signed up and realised how important it was.

Over the next two years we battled to get this done but to no avail.

So here is what we did. We did it for ourselves.

I identified theatre companies in Scotland who received regular Government funding. A group of volunteers counted the number of women in creative roles in 2014/15 using web and programme sources.   I then analysed the data of 24 theatre companies which included 1698 roles.

The results were as follows:

  • 39% of creative roles across all categories went to women.
  • 38% of theatre companies had women in artistic leadership roles.
  • 4 out of 24 theatre companies were artistically led solely by women.
  • Women were cast in 46% of the 811 roles.
  • Women made up 47% of directors and assistant directors of shows.
  • Women wrote 39% of the plays.
  • 29% of set and costume designers and 6% of lighting designers were women.
  • Women made up 11% of composers, musical directors and sound designers.

The report was called ‘Where are the Women?’. Or Où sont les femmes ?

The reaction to the report from women was interesting with many telling me ‘it’s not as bad as I thought it would be’. True that in some areas, we are in striking distance of 50:50.

However there is still work to be done. I mentioned at the start that new work, new writing, is central to the repertoire in Scotland. You might assume, therefore, that women would have a greater number of opportunities. However we know from other research into playwriting that the larger the commission, the more likely it is to go to a man. So there is a lot to look at behind these initial figures. 


For me it said that data gathering is not that difficult; it is the starting point not the end point for a discussion on gender balance. However despite women being in key roles in the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland, there is a reluctance to see data as important. As I said in the report:

When we ask the question, ‘where are the women?’, the answer is: in positions of power but not exercising it for the benefit of women working in creative roles in professional theatre.

What is happening now? I, and others, are still arguing with policy makers. I have met with the Minister for Culture and put our case.

But why are we relying on others? I have contacted all the theatres included in the report and sent them their own data. I have presented the case to them to go that extra distance to build more diversity into their programme and many are responding.

Recently a woman working in the arts with a background in event management – set up a closed group on Facebook called ‘Women in the Arts Scotland’ and within weeks it had attracted thousands of members (as of today 17,312 members) including women from all different disciplines. Meetings are being arranged; online debates launched.

This is, to use an old-fashioned term, about consciousness-raising. I am convinced that what we need is for one or two major theatre companies to take gender equality seriously and give a lead. Others will follow.

And this is why David Grieg’s approach at the Lyceum is so important. The Suppliant Women was written by a man and adapted by another. A man directed it and the music composed by another with all male musicians performing. There were two professional male actors and one woman. Yet the play was dominated by 36 women from Edinburgh brilliantly choreographed by a woman with their costumes (and the set) designed by a woman. I know that the theme, the gender of participants and the balance in the creative team was no accident. Greig is committed across his whole season and indeed his tenure as artistic director, to ensure women have a fair representation. This is leadership.


What I have learnt is that nothing is new — the Greeks got there first but the battle goes on. We need to inspire each other and just get on with it – and do not expect that the position of a few women in powerful positions will change everything.

However theatre is not only about numbers it is also about who we are and how we carry ourselves. It tells our story and excellence has to be at its heart.

I leave you with this thought. The eminent American historian Linda Nochlin in her 1988 paper ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ asserts:

‘Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however an intellectual position.’

No good just getting the numbers, we need to tell a good story too.