2017 in Review: The Lot for Female Playwrights Worsens

4

So, here we again. It’s my second (third?) annual review of the lot of female playwrights at the leading London theatres. But it’s September, I hear you cry! Fair point, readers, fair point. But the theatres have now announced their full roster of shows for 2017 so we have all the data we need.

And, frankly, the data makes for a depressing read when it comes to female playwrights.

I’m finding this all very frustrating. When I first started writing explicitly about the poor level of platforming of female playwrights some three years ago, it was at the beginning of what has been a growing wave of concerns and initiatives to improve diversity in British theatre and, in particular, create more opportunities and support for female playwrights.

Many stats were produced – my own included – which demonstrated how skewed theatre was in favour of the male bias, in favour of male playwrights. And, you know, I thought the shame factor would work, I really did. Sure, we had dinosaurs such as Nick Hytner throwing his toys out the pram when called out – and indeed I was personally on the end of a bit of vitriol from some people far higher up the food chain who were all for shooting the messenger rather than checking their own privilege – but I thought, once we got past the diva tantrums, the shame factor would work.

I figured, come the cold light of day, theatres would look at their stats, they’d look at their schedules and think, ‘Fuck, that’s not good, is it? We need more female playwrights. Get me some female writers.’

Well, whatever has happened behind the scenes at theatres in the past couple of years, that clearly hasn’t been the universal response. Below is my analysis of the male/female playwrights split at London’s leading theatres this year and the results, well, they’re shameful. With the very obvious exception of Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, London theatre remains very much a boys’ club.

It’s getting to the point now where I have to say I’m becoming pretty depressed about the situation. Not only is this constant smacking of my head against a brick wall getting me down but I can’t even get excited about theatre programming at the moment. Why should I? What theatres are platforming shows that speak to me? Why do Artistic Directors continue to think that the world told from a (White) man’s point of view has universal appeal? It doesn’t. It’s a skew. And a boring, tired skew at that. For the love of God, give me diversity!

Right, so after that colourful intro, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. As with last year, I picked what I figured to be the six leading London theatres (don’t even @ me about Hampstead. The backwardness of that place and its Artistic Director has made it almost entirely irrelevant). I reviewed all their shows that have opened / will open in 2017 and listed their playwright and director. Using the (dire) result of this data, I’ve summarised the results below and ranked them best to worst. The theatres covered (in alphabetical order) are: Almeida, Donmar, National Theatre, Old Vic, Royal Court and the Young Vic.

As ever, if you can pick apart my evidence, knock yourself out, but don’t for a second think you’re going to find enough holes to convince me that actually London theatreland is drowning in works from female playwrights. It’s not. Female playwrights are not being supported and they’re not being platformed. As far as I’m concerned, we need to wheel in quotas because we are not breaking the walls of this misogynistic crap. Not even close.

It must also be noted that those few female writers who are being platformed are mostly White. The state of affairs for Women of Colour is even more concerning.

As I’ve said before, don’t give me that crap about ‘these things take time’ – women didn’t take up playwriting in the past two years. Pull your finger out and start platforming women. And, men, if you think women aren’t writing interesting enough plays, maybe its because they’re not writing for you. Challenge your own perspective on the world and consider that those stories that don’t speak to you, well, they may well speak to the other fifty percent of your audience.


Royal Court Theatre

Right, well, let’s at least start on a positive note. Vicky Featherstone’s Royal Court led the rankings last year and they do so again this year. Frankly, the competition wasn’t even close but I do want to draw attention to some great decisions.

Seventeen plays were programmed for the Royal Court 2017, and of those ten were written by women. Terrific, just terrific. And that included a blend of famous names – hello, Caryl and debbie – to ongoing support of names on the rise – Alice Birch – and explicit platforming of works from emerging writers – Katherine Soper, Natal’ya Vorozhbit and Liwaa Yazji.

It’s also important to point out *where* these plays were shown too. Often, plays by women can be shuffled off on to the minor stages to, you know, lessen the perceived risk. Not at the Royal Court. Nine plays are scheduled to open on the Main Stage in total this year and, of those, four were written by women. That’s a great rate of return and is a clear demonstration of how seriously Vicky Featherstone and her team take diversity.

That’s not to say that it’s all been smooth sailing – Vivienne Franzmann’s Bodies was a problematic White Woman’s take on the global surrogacy industry and it has been questioned why Sam Mendes and Jez Butterworth, both English, felt a play about the Disappeared was their story to tell, and which in turn has raised concerns on reductive stereotypes. But even taking this into account, the Royal Court is making great efforts to deliver diverse stories.


National Theatre

And, frankly, after the Royal Court, it all nosedives a bit quickly.

Rufus Norris… What’s going on here, eh? He isn’t turning out to be quite the supporter of diversity that was promised and, indeed, expected. Not that it would have taken much effort to improve on his predecessor but that’s not a good enough bar. Given its place and role, the National Theatre needs to be a leader in diversity, not running to keep pace. And the results for 2017 are as disappointing as they were last year.

The National Theatre has three stages so plenty of opportunity to platform work from female playwrights but of the twenty-one shows that are opening there in 2017 (I’m counting Barber Shop Chronicles twice for its two runs as that’s still an active decision taken not to platform another work) only seven were written by women. Seven.

Seven out of twenty-one. Woah, that’s not good. And more so when you realise that Salome was the only work from a female playwright scheduled on the main stage, the Olivier. All the rest were shuffled off into the Lyttleton (Ugly Lies the Bone, Jane Eyre) and the Dorfman (Mosquitoes, My Country, Consent, Us/Them).

And I don’t want to hear any snipes about quality here, particularly with Salome. I’ve sat through some really poor work from male playwrights and they have no issues getting platformed again and again. Plus, Mosquitoes and Consent were amongst the best shows of the year so don’t give me any of that crap.

(In fact, that is a major issue in itself. Male playwrights are allowed to ‘take risks.’ Their creativity encouraged and a whopping failure is little more than a bump in the road in their careers. Women? Nah, we don’t get any second chances.)


Young Vic

The big shocker when doing these lists is how poorly David Lan’s programming has been in terms of female playwrights. Considered such a bastion of diversity and supporter of new voices but he has not been supportive enough of female playwrights. Last year it was terrible and 2017 has not been much better.

Sixteen shows in 2017 across three stages at the Young Vic. How many do you reckon came from solo female playwrights? How many?

Two.

I know.

Nina and Yellowman are the only plays that were written solely by female playwrights. And obviously neither of them were shown on the main stage.

Female playwrights did figure as co-writers in three other productions at the YV – See Me Now, where Molly Taylor worked with sex workers to capture their words, Katherine Viner worked with Alan Rickman on My Name is Rachel Corrie, and Eve Leigh worked with Seiriol Davies on How to Win Against History. (Correction: Eve confirms she was dramaturg in this play, not co-writer. Apologies.) But obviously none of those were scheduled for the Main Stage either.

It’s such a shock that it’s hard to know where to begin as we all rate David Lan so highly but facts speak themselves, people. And this is not an odd year. The Young Vic just is not supporting female playwrights.  For all the plaudits that will be showered upon David when he leaves, his successor needs to start improving the lot for women writers.


Donmar Warehouse

Ah, Josie Rourke… Proof if it were ever needed that institutionalised sexism and misogyny cannot be defeated by simply having more female Artistic Directors.

What Josie Rourke’s problem with female playwrights is, I don’t know, but it speaks volumes about how poor the situation is for women writers that even though Josie has only programmed a single play from a female playwright in her entire tenure – Abi Morgan’s Splendour back in 2015 – the Donmar is still not at the bottom of this list.

How, I hear you cry. Fair question. Simply because this year the Donmar has hosted two plays that had some help from women in the writing – Josie herself worked with Hadley Fraser on Committee and, this October, Elinor Cook’s take on Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea opens.

So, women aren’t actually allowed a free rein at the Donmar – it seems they’re only allowed to tinker a bit with another man’s work. But hey, such is progress. *eye roll*

Yet the Donmar, to its credit, does have a better rate of return with female directors – Polly Findlay and Yael Farber both helming shows this year. I just wish they could extend this support to female playwrights.


Almeida Theatre

So, in a list of surprises at least there are some things you can always rely on, like the Almeida being almost a closed shop to anyone that isn’t either White or a man.

I suppose it is, in fact, a shock that the Almeida isn’t rock bottom but by ensuring that the much-anticipated The Twilight Zone is being adapted by Anne Washburn, they have saved themselves from that ignominy. Which I’m sure matters to them immensely.

Six shows this year, five written by men (Graham, Crimp, Bartlett, Shinn and some bloke called Shakespeare) leaving Anne adapting a male-written TV show as the sole female representative. *shakes head* Not good enough.

It is so frustrating, this, because I want to support the Almeida – they can be so dynamic and I like the risks that they take – but they are persistently awful when it comes to supporting female playwrights. There seems to be the annual token effort but you don’t see anything more than the odd one here and there.

It was good to see Lyndsey Turner direct The Treatment but the Almeida really needs to step on the gas when it comes to female playwrights, especially so with regards to Women of Colour. I keep hearing noise about pipelines and commissioning but that needs to start coming through soon if the Almeida is going to start denting its own reputation as the bastion of White men.


NO PICTURE AVAILABLE

Old Vic Theatre

So, as you can see, it takes some real effort to be worse than the Donmar and the Almeida so put your hands together for a very slow hand clap for the Old Vic.

Five shows opened this year. How many from female playwrights? Yup, you guessed it. 

Zero. Absolute zero.

Jack Thorne has two shows at the Old Vic this year – his adaptations of A Christmas Carol and Woyzeck. He alone got more work than my entire sex did in 2017 at the Old Vic.

Matthew Warchus… You really should be ashamed. For all the talk about a new era at the Old Vic, he seems to be following in Spacey’s footsteps effortlessly. Spacey managed to squeeze in one – ONE – play from a woman in his ten years. (It seems Kevin Spacey only sent his famous elevator back down for men). So far, Warchus has only platformed Yazmina Reza’s Art – and even that was adapted by Chris Hampton – and Tamsin Oglesby’s Future Conditional. One in 2015, one in 2016… That once-a-year malarkey smacks of tokenism.


So you see, it’s hard out there for female playwrights, it really, really is. Somebody give me something positive to hang on to. Here are my previous posts for those interested. At some point, maybe, I won’t have to write these posts anymore:

2016: 2016 Theatre in Review: Female Playwrights

2015: Female Playwrights and Gender Inequality; No Avalanche for Female Creatives Just Yet

Post your comment

12 comments

  1. Posted by Pauline Bleach, at Reply

    Oh yes and I’ve had comments that Waiting for Manot can’t be profound or absurdist because it’s two women

  2. Posted by Pauline Bleach, at Reply

    As some one who had written produced a play Waiting for Manot for Sydney Fringe (19th 23rd Sep) the numbers dont really add up for Female playwrights getting the support they need from audiences and visibility they need to become the level of playwright they need to be.

    I’m prefectly happy for someone to come give me a chance and go nah. But there seems no path to any sort of judgement never mind success in this industry.

    If you want to get really depressed look at the Irish statistics when women founded the national theatre.

    70%of self produced plays are by women. 7% of professionally produced plays are.
    Woman man up 70% of the industry but only 10% of writers directors dramaturgs

    At least we are still allowed to write.

  3. Posted by David, at Reply

    Chris,

    I think the confusion is over whether the problem is with nurturing new talent (i.e. new writing) or with programming as a whole. Encouraging new female playwrights is part of the solution to the wider problem I was trying to allude to. In answer to your hypothetical question, I believe a season that has 70% of plays told from a white male perspective is a bad season, and yes, I do think we should be raising awareness of the shocking lack of diversity in a season like that.

    Indeed, I think theatres should go further and truly examine what the ‘canon’ and the ‘classics’ are. Does the fact that they are almost 100% written by white males make this collection a sexist, racist concept? And who even (historically) decided what was a classic or belonged in the ‘canon’? (my guess is that a bunch of well-off white academics probably isn’t too far from the truth). Is the mission “promote the classics” inherently a sexist and racist mission?

    Now I don’t know the answers to those questions, but they’re the questions that need to be asked and answered before blindly accepting that plays from the ‘canon’ should be prioritised over the voices of women and those from BME backgrounds.

  4. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Hi Sarah – that’s such a sad, sobering anecdote. Thank you for sharing. I wish I had something more positive to say – it’s tough going out there, isnt it?

  5. Posted by Chris Holbrook, at Reply

    David,

    Just to clarify what you said below, could we take a hypothetical example of a theater and its programming?

    Imagine a theater (not unlike many that Victoria mentions) which programs ten plays a year, six of which are from the canon (say, a Shakespeare, Pinter, Chekhov, Ibsen, Molière and Shaw). Then, for the remaining four, which are contemporary works, the artistic director chooses three plays by women and one by a man. That’s a 75 percent women playwright percentage for new works, but if you include the “canon” plays, it’s 30 percent.

    If I’m reading your comment rights, and Victoria’s, we should read this year of programming as “depressing” for the prospects of women playwrights, and that we should do what we can to “shame” this theater into doing better. Is this what you are really saying?

    Or, should we maybe take in consideration the mission of the theater (which, by the way, is often not dictated by the artistic director). Should we maybe judge a theater that only produces contemporary work differently than a theater that is devoted to the classics?

    It’s a legitimate question, I believe, and it’s one I tried to broach in my original comments.

  6. Posted by Sarah, at Reply

    Once had a conversation with two male artistic directors, one English and one American, in which they said that a play about a king was “universal” and a play about a transgender person would be “tokenism”. I argued each were as statistically unlikely to reflect the actual personal situation of anyone in the audience, so wasn’t it about drawing more universal conclusions from the particular situation? No, apparently, it was about a story of male power being cooler than a story about a lack of it. They argued “Someone can write the best play ever about a transgender person, but why would you want to put it on?”. We were at a cocktail party, I couldn’t begin to unpack that.

  7. Posted by David Stansby, at Reply

    A wonderful, necessary, but sad article – I find it deeply depressing that in 2017 a basic 50/50 level of equality can’t be reached in the top theatres in London.

    Also a response to Chris’ comment above:

    The idea that what you call the ‘canon’ or ‘classics’ should be ignored when looking at gender equality I think is at best a priveledged viewpoint, and at worse deeply offensive to minority writers.

    By prioritising plays from the ‘canon’ over all other plays elevates them to some mythological status. Implicitly you are saying that we should all accept that a play from the ‘canon’ should be regarded as superior to any play written anyone else, specifically minority writers, no questions asked. I think that is a deeply offensive view to take. As you say, the ‘canon’ is ‘nearly 100 percent plays written by white men.’ It does not matter whether the play was written 5 days ago or 500 years ago. If it was written by a man it was written from the male perspective. We should be platforming plays written from the perspective of Women and Men equally. Putting on plays from the ‘canon’ should not be an excuse to hide behind for poor gender balance when programming a season.

  8. Posted by Anonymous, at Reply

    Manchester Royal Exchange commissioned 7 international female playwrights https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/sep/26/female-playwrights-manchester-festival-childbirth-birth more of this please!

  9. Posted by Eve Leigh, at Reply

    Hey hey! This is a great, vital piece of work – thanks so much for doing the numbers, it makes me want to burn buildings down and write my face off. Just wanted to correct a misattribution – I didn’t co-write How to Win Against History with Seiriol, I dramaturged it. It feels worth mentioning that How to Win was first commissioned by the brilliant Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Rachel Briscoe at Ovalhouse, taken to Edinburgh by Aine Flanagan (whose company shouldered the risk) and only then programmed by the Young Vic. So Seiriol’s gorgeous, hilarious, queer-as-fuck show was brought into the world with the support of a small army of boss female theatremakers. (And some boss male ones as well.)

  10. Posted by Jax, at Reply

    BLOG RAGE!

    Thank you for actually supplying the metrics, I just thought it SEEMED like there were less female playwrights, but surely that’s just my conspiratorial paranoia.

    It makes me want to work harder, and fend off the temptation procrastination. So thank you.

  11. Posted by Wendy Brooks, at Reply

    I started going to the theatre in London in the 60’s and saw many brilliant pieces at The Royal Court-it was streaks ahead of the other theatres you’ve mentioned and it was exciting. I don’t live in London now but if I’m in London I’ll go the The Globe and pay a fiver. To be honest the lack of progress for female writers reflects the lack of progress in the industry. Outside of London it seems to a diet of Alan Ackbourne, murder mysteries and the musicals about dead pop stars or groups. I think there could be some good stuff in small theatres but it’s a long time since a play that wasn’t written by Shakespeare excites me. Don’t give up we need more experimental theatre that isn’t just for tourists visiting London-maybe you could look at other cities?

  12. Posted by Chris Holbrook, at Reply

    I’m all for holding theaters accountable for what they program, and, in certain cases, naming names and calling out theaters for ignoring or refusing to program the work of women playwrights, especially if you judge the theater and its artistic director over a period of time.

    However, I think it’s simplistic to make this a numbers game. Victoria Sadler doesn’t mention that many of these theaters are committed to producing, for lack of a better, sexier word, the cannon, and that a huge share of their seasons are devoted to the classics–that is, nearly 100 percent plays written by white men.

    Quibble with or attack this policy if you want. But I think you, ironically, do a disservice to young women playwrights when you include these “canon” plays as part of your equation. You’re painting a darker picture than exists, discouraging women playwrights who are fighting hard to be heard and produced, making it seem that the doors of London’s biggest theaters are closed to them.

    The Donmar Warehouse produces classics. So do the National and the Old Vic. I doubt they have a quota system, but I think it’s fair to say that roughly half of what they produce are the classics. By my math, for those theaters and all others, you should only judge the theaters on their new content. If the National Theatre features 21 plays this year, and, say, 10 are from the cannon, then, in my view, we need to judge them on the remaining 11. And producing seven works by women out of 11 new plays is good and encouraging.

    This is not a defense of any theater that, over time, repeatedly slights or ignores women playwrights. Instead, it’s a much more realistic way of evaluating theaters, one that doesn’t implicitly demand that theaters drop the cannon in order to prove their support of women’s voices.