Following the publication of Where are the Women, I was invited to present at a seminar on gender equality in Lyon.
In Athens 2,500 years ago the Greek poet 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.
I can’t run any more
I’m broken, exhausted,
By their captains.
My black heart is broken.
I’d rather die
With a noose round my neck
Than let a man touch me
A man who disgusts me.
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.
This play, The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus, adapted by David Greig was presented this month 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 became as artistic director earlier this year and this was his first production making a strong statement of intent about his artistic policy. Here we have a piece which deals with Europe’s biggest crises- refugees and democracy. And, now as then, women and women’s plight is at the heart of both.
Earlier this month a new exhibition opened at the National Galleries in London entitled Beyond Caravaggio. One of the paintings featured in the exhibition is Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi in the early 17th century. As well as being a brilliant and dramatic painting this is also a self-portrait and depicts the artist taking revenge on her abusive art tutor who raped her.
Also in London at the moment is an exhibition of 1970s feminist avant garde art at the Photographers Gallery.
As the blurb for the exhibition states:
Operating across the public and personal realms – as well as using their own bodies as central motifs – these artists sought to address broad political issues and confront patriarchy and sexism in art and society. In doing so they created new, positively assertive female identities.
Women are still grappling with the same issues [..]: the confines of the domestic sphere, the objectification and sexualisation of our bodies, cultural notions of beauty, and stereotypical gender roles. [..and] also the demand to be taken seriously as artists in an industry that venerates the male and excludes the female from the canon.
And one final example. At this year’s Edinburgh festival, Julia Taudevin performed with musicians in her own play, Blow Off – which she called ‘guerilla gig theatre’.
The play deals with a young white woman who has reached the edge. It is an angry piece, which is a result of what Julia herself describes as ‘growing up with no space to be told you’re allowed to be angry as a girl – no space to be anything but nice.’
It features a normal nice middle class white girl who takes her revenge on patriarchy and capitalism through an act of terrorism – by blowing up the place where she works – the 17th floor of an office block.
So when we talk about a new wave of feminism in Europe, we should remember that this is a fight that has been going on for thousands of years – from ancient Greece, through the renaissance, the wave of feminism in the 1970s and today. 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 May 2013 I made a presentation to the HF recontre here in Lyon about the position of women in the arts in Scotland. Meetings like this and campaigns like HF are inspiring and help to give us confidence to do something. Sometimes I am sure, however, that 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.
In 2013 I suggested that little had changed over the decades I had worked in the arts. Women, while often in the majority when it comes to roles such as administration, marketing and front of house were rarely to be seen in positions of power and this was further reflected in creative roles in making and performing work. I was particularly concerned that things had gone backwards. There was a view that the ‘women’s issue’ had been solved and there was now a focus on other excluded groups – black and minority ethnic, disabled artists etc. A key problem was a lack of data on which to build our campaign.
Inspired by HF, I and others organised a meeting in September 2013 and invited Blandine Pélisseur to join our platform to address a public meeting in the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh entitled ‘Women in Theatre – where next?’. A week before the event, the Traverse contacted me to tell me they had had to move our meeting from the smaller studio into the main auditorium. 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 a 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 – Equity and the Scottish Society of Playwrights and with the Federation of Scottish Theatre and Playwrights’ Studio Scotland.
Our first priority was to improve data collection and publication. In fact that remains our main priority. We are asking that theatres (in the first instance) 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 (new female) Chief Executive of Creative Scotland – explain what we wanted, point out that these data used to be published by them, 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. Many excuses were given: ‘we (Creative Scotland) have to focus on ethnic diversity – that’s what the government wants; data are not important; we do collect data on employees (very few writers and actors are ‘employees’); and my favourite – gender for some is not a binary concept.
So here is what we did. We did it for ourselves.
I identified theatre companies in Scotland who received regular Government funding. I put out a call on social media and via Equity and gathered a group of volunteers who 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:
In 2014/15, in Scottish publically funded theatres:
- 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 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. We know from other research into playwrights that the larger the commission, the more likely it was to go to a man with subsequent profile and money. 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; and if it can be done for theatre, it can be done in other areas. However most significant – and I quote from the report:
There is one very big difference between the situation today and that which prevailed 35 years ago when I started campaigning on this issue. In the past one might have looked to the gender of those with the power and influence over public funding in the arts and seen only men. Today we have a woman as First Minister whose Government is committed to ‘delivering gender equality in the public sector’; a woman as Cabinet Secretary; a woman at the head of the civil service in Scotland; 50% women on the board of Creative Scotland; a woman as Creative Scotland’s CEO and women as Head of Arts, Head of Theatre and Head of Equality and Diversity in Creative Scotland.
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.
For me this is one of the more shocking aspects of the report.
What is happening now?
I have met with the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and put our case. Since our meeting she has contacted me to say Creative Scotland is undertaking research on gender (and other equality areas). However, disappointingly the methodology they are planning to use for this work is poor and will not give the information they and we need.
But why are we relying on others? I have contacted all the theatres included in the report and sent them their own data. I explained that no theatre had been identified in the report –all results were aggregated- because I could not provide a context for each one and, as this was only one year, no pattern could be identified. However why don’t they gather the data themselves and publish annually on their website or in their Annual report?
I have had a positive response to this but as I have no authority, it is difficult to get the companies to move from warm words to action.
I have huge support from other women and from the Federation of Scottish Theatre who are taking the lead and encourage all their members to take this up. The issue of gender equality will be the topic of their conference in December. One of the companies they are planning to involve at this meeting is Tonic Theatre.
Tonic Theatre is based in England doing pioneering work with theatres. Its aim is to support the theatre industry to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and repertoires. It partners with leading theatre companies including the National Theatre in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Tonic’s approach is to explore working methods, decision-making processes, and organisational structures – and identifying how, in their current form, these can create barriers. They devise practical alternative approaches and work with theatres to deliver them. Essentially, their goal is to equip theatres with the tools they need to ensure a greater level of female talent is able to rise to the top.
This is, to use an old fashioned term, about consciousness-raising. I am convinced that what we need is for one or two major 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.
Last time I spoke here in Lyon I quoted a saying ‘Feminism is like housework. You have to re-visit it every ten years’. I fear that feminism is indeed like housework and it is a never-ending task.