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Where are the women in British theatre?

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Women call for equal numbers of men and women in theatre companies. 

When Hampstead Theatre announced they were staging two all-male Shakespeare productions there was an explosion of frustration from female actors, writers and directors.

In a sector where women are underrepresented, these productions were another two that women could not be part of – and they sparked a debate about women’s role in the theatre.

William Shakespeare is arguably the most celebrated playwright in history, known for some of the theatre’s most famous characters.

When Shakespeare was writing his plays, they were for all-male companies, so although small parts were awarded to women, they were few and far between. Only 16 per cent of his 981 characters were female.

These days women are free to act, but it seems the theatre world has kept to his line.

Following the Hampstead Theatre’s announcement, the Guardian teamed up with Elizabeth Freestone, artistic director of Pentabus Theatre who had already completed some research on women’s participation in the theatre while an artist-in-residence at the National Theatre.

The latest study discovered that women are massively underrepresented in most areas of the theatre. They named this the 2:1 problem, for the fact that there are two men for every woman in the theatre.

This figure is quite astonishing considering Ipsos Mori figures produced for the Society of London Theatre  – albeit in 2010 – discovered that women made up 68 per cent of the audience.

The Guardian and Freestone looked at the top ten subsidised theatres in England and discovered that only 24 per cent of directors were women. In the creative teams collectively (directors, designers, composers), women made up only 23 per cent.

The survey discovered on that average women make up only 33 per cent of the theatres’ boards; only one, the Royal Court, has a majority female board.

Executive directors were much better represented at 67 per cent throughout the ten theatres, but that is the only area where women came out on top.

Men also dominate in acting: of actors employed by the 10 theatres, 38 per cent were female, with the National Theatre coming out worst at 34 per cent.

So why are women so underrepresented in English theatre?

When Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar opened at the Donmar Warehouse , it fuelled the debate further.

Lloyd is calling for all the major theatre companies to employ an equal number of men and women as a rule, even if it means gender-blind casting.

But should this rule be enforced?

The concern of some is that it may change the type of plays that will be written and might possibly hinder the creative process as a result.

Writing on the subject in the Guardian, Stella Duffy had several interesting points to make.

She wrote that enforcing equality in the theatre would actually make better theatre.

“We can stop worrying that more women will mean less artistically meritorious work.

“There are more roles for men and fewer male actors. There are fewer roles for women and more female actors.

“In practice this means that less able male actors often get more work. More balance of male and female characters means better actors in all roles, means better theatre.”

The statistics prestented by the Guardian show that while there are more men writing new plays, there are going to be fewer women acting in the plays, so it is clear something needs to change.

  1. Equality in the theatre? Of course! Just as we need more women in board rooms and elsewhere in business, so should we have more women in the theatre and at all levels.

    • … and more male nurses, primary teachers, and nursery nurses?

      • A slight tangent there 2ndnin, but why not? Men are affected by inequality as well. For as long as society prescribes ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles, both genders will be trapped and stunted.

        • I agree Jem which is why I added it. If we don’t address both sides I see there being a lot of resentment as one side’s options expand while the other’s remains the same… we need to get rid of ‘sides’.

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