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Opinion: ‘For the love of God, give me diversity!’

Does the blame for the lack of female playwrights in top theatres lie solely with artistic directors? Emily Oulton argues not

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Last week, a rather revealing new blog post from popular arts and culture writer Victoria Sadler circulated the theatrical Twittersphere. The post, depressingly titled ‘2017 in Review: The Lot for Female Playwrights Worsens’, set to highlight and expose the monumental lack of work by female playwrights being programmed in what Sadler calls “the leading London theatres.”

This is Sadler’s third annual piece on gender imbalance in theatre programming — and her findings suggest that this year has made London an even bleaker environment for women playwrights. Sadler’s original purpose behind writing these articles was to provoke what she calls “the shame factor,” figuring that — once exposed — theatres would revisit how and what they programme. This relates to how we often like to idealise our media — that it will expose, challenge and eventually change the status quo. Alas, as Sadler notes, calling someone out on something is likely to make them dogmatically continue on with programming the plays they want to.

Throughout the article, Sadler analyses data that she has gathered from theatres in this order: The Royal Court, the National Theatre, the Young Vic, the Donmar Warehouse, the Almeida, and the Old Vic. The descending order represents the number of female playwrights programmed in each theatre — starting with the very optimistic Royal Court figures at half representation, right down to the Old Vic whose number of female playwrights was at an impressive zero. So yes, there is definitely an issue here.

However, theatre shall not live on playwrights alone — and that’s the sore-thumb flaw in Sadler’s article. Georgia Snow, in The Stage last year, pointed out theatre’s largest audience demographic is aged 65–74. This audience, although there will obviously be exceptions, is likely to comprise of the more traditional theatregoers — and as we’ve all learnt, theatre tradition is fundamentally male. So perhaps these London theatres are only catering to their clientele? It’s a sad fact that if Matthew Warchus were to programme a season of Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, and Timberlake Wertenbaker, then he is likely to alienate a large swathe of his audience demographic. It’s a complex tug-of-war between audiences and theatre-makers that will take years to rectify. So, rather than condemning artistic directors, it is surely more helpful to involve them in the conversation. Attitudes are slowly changing but we’re not going to see an improvement in a short three years like Sadler wants to expect. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of the necessary evil of quotas and the upcoming generations to keep the wheel of progress spinning.

Sadler also suggests rather unhelpfully that if men don’t understand women’s plays, it’s because women aren’t writing for men. This is a problematic manipulation of information. Does this mean I can sit and have a great time at Raine’s Consent and Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide but should shake my head and tut at Yerma because it’s written by a Spanish man? And God forbid enjoying Angels in America because that play was written by a man and about men! Isn’t the whole point of this that we’re trying to bridge the gap, and surely by making sweeping statements like that, we only serve to perpetuate the problem? Additionally, I struggle with the concept of telling a male playwright that “this isn’t your story to tell.” Stories have been bent, blended and borrowed since the beginning of time. By Sadler’s logic, I shouldn’t be allowed to be writing about the trenches of the Somme or about the Australian male rugby team, nor Shakespeare to be writing about teenage Italian star-crossed lovers. We should spend less time being offended by cross-demographic writing and more time on bridging gaps between the demographics. Sadler’s article is helpful and thought-provoking, but her approach seems to only transfer condemnation from artistic director to artistic director. There is certainly much to be done in British Theatre, and in the words of Prior Walter, “The Great Work Begins.”

Read Victoria Sadler’s article here.