2018 Theatre in Review: Challenges for Female Playwrights Continues

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So, here we are again. My annual review of the number of female playwrights platformed at London’s leading theatres in 2018.

Now, just like last year, this can be published now as theatres have announced their programmes for the rest of the year. And, just like my 2017 review, the results are depressing. In fact, I’m alarmed. The discussions around the desperate need for greater gender diversity in playwrights on the big stages has been around a while but we are struggling to gain any change – or even momentum for change – from what was already rock bottom.

At what point are we going to stop excusing difficulties around attaining gender parity and state clearly that there is discrimination against women writers in theatre?

Now, this may come as a bit of a shock – after all, haven’t there been an awful lot of plays by women writers this year? There have been a few, yes. But because we have celebrated the few so loudly perhaps this has blinded us to the fact that male writers still have plenty more plays on than women.

Then add to the fact that my review highlights the ongoing issues with that ever familiar trick of the plays by women being shown on the smaller stages. And, in another form of the “ooh, women-written plays are a bit risky, aren’t they?” we will see that that plays written by women are often put on shorter runs even when they do make the main stage.

So, anyway, let’s cut to it…

As for 2017, I have assessed the programmed plays at, what I consider to be, the major London theatres, extending last year’s total of six theatres reviewed to eight. The theatres included in this assessment are, in alphabetical order: the Almeida, Bush Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, Hampstead Theatre, National Theatre, the Old Vic, the Royal Court, and the Young Vic.

For each of these theatres, I took the full programme of plays that were scheduled to open in 2018, worked out how many were written by women, and then ranked them according to the percentage of female versus male playwrights. That list is below.

Now, just for clarity, absolute numbers weren’t all that was taken into account in the list – I also looked at where those plays were staged (main stage or other), I considered the diversity of the women writers platformed (we cannot have progress being packaged up as white middle-class university-educated women only). And we need to stop leaning on familiar names; larger theatres need to start welcoming and championing those women writers who are making waves elsewhere.

And when it comes to increasing that diversity, I want to see British women included rather than names from overseas. Now, I appreciate this is controversial – after all we don’t want to get all Brexit-y here – but where there is the rare glimpse of a non-white writer on British stages, it’s not uncommon for that writer to be from elsewhere (usually the States) rather than the UK. There are some incredibly exciting British-Asian and British-African women writers out there, amongst many other British women of colour, and we should want to see and hear from them.

I thought these considerations may be important in the final say of things but, frankly, these little decisions have made fuck all difference to the final result. The ranking is below and it’s not good news.

Yes, a couple of repeat offenders have made noticeable skews towards platforming women writers, but this hasn’t been supported by a depth in diversity. Add to that, previous high-flyers are falling away, and persistent offenders continue to shun women writers.

This makes for a sad state of affairs.

This isn’t an easy article for me to write – projects that I have started in the wake of last year’s article have brought me closer to buildings and theatres, which will make conversations after this article even more awkward. But the truth is that I started those very projects because the situation for women creatives in this industry was shit. And, I’m afraid, this analysis demonstrates the extent to which the top of the industry is not making enough strides to open doors and continue to support women writers from all backgrounds. Or at all.

So, let’s get down to it…


1. Hampstead Theatre

Yes, you read that right.

Now, let’s be frank, it’s a worrying state of affairs when Hampstead leads the way in celebrating women writers yet here we are.

I’m pretty sure none of us expected this, certainly not after Artistic Director Ed Hall wrote his open letter to The Stage where, snapping back at those who rightfully called out his building for their marginalisation of women playwrights, he wrote, “if you believe you can write a play as good or better than Gloria or Alligators then let’s talk.” (The inference being he hadn’t read a good enough by a female playwright in the whole of 2017.)

Well, something must have come over the man as 2018 saw a flood of women writers on both stages at Hampstead with a solid stab at platforming diverse new voices too. However, even though I am pleased to see Hampstead lead the way in 2018, its is worrying how much of this has come from bringing in American writers rather than supporting British ones. It seems Ed Hall only likes American women and still doesn’t think British women can be routinely relied upon to write a good enough play.

On the Main Stage, there were four productions from women writers in 2018 from a possible six (Dry Powder, Caroline or Change, Genesis Inc., and I or You). Great returns, but only one of these (Jemma Kennedy) is a British writer. The rest are from the pens of American women.

The situation is better at Hampstead Downstairs, which continues to be one of my favourite stages in town. Six plays out of the eight opening this year were written by women – all living and working in Britain and Ireland – with at least half of these coming from women of colour – new voices with new stories.

So, not perfect but there’s no doubt there are some great signs – and great names – emerging here in 2018 so that’s worth some applause. More of the same for 2019 please (whoever is AD)!


2, Young Vic Theatre

Second place sees the first year for Kwame’s Young Vic and that’s a bit of a surprise as this has been a transitional year for them – the new team is taking shape and only starting to develop their plans. There’s a good number of women playwrights but, dig a little deeper, and there are concerns.

Five plays opened on the Main Stage this year and two of these were written solely by women (Fun Home, The Convert), and a third, Twelfth Night, has been adapted by both Kwame and Shaina Taub. Great, right? Only Fun Home was written by American Lisa Kron (based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel) and The Convert was written by American, Danai Gurira. And though I’m excited to see how Twelfth Night is remixed, Shaina Taub is an American writer too.

Add to that, two plays showed in The Clare – Winter and Things of Dry Hours – are from overseas writers too. The first was translated by Ann Henning Jocelyn (Swedish, now lives in Ireland) and the second was written by Naomi Wallace (American).

So, you see, on the surface there is a really high number of women, and some good diversity too, but nothing for British women playwrights at all. And they need the support.


3. Almeida Theatre

This issue of having to scratch beneath the surface rears its head at the Almeida too.

Their announcement that the summer season would be dominated by women writers certainly raised a few eyebrows. After all, the Almeida has not exactly been known as a great supporter of women writers recently. And certainly, the decision proved successful with Ella Hickson’s The Writer being one of the most talked about productions of the year.

However, that old chestnut ‘diversity’ continues to be an issue at the Almeida with there being a noticeable whiteness to the women writers platformed, and (yet again) overseas writers being preferred.

In 2018, six plays opened on the Main Stage, three from women – The Writer, Machinal and Dance Nation. And the latter two were written by American writers (Sophie Treadwell and Claire Barron).

I do want to applaud the Almeida for their efforts in such a short time as they have been close to the bottom of these lists in previous years, but support for women writers must be supported both in breadth and depth. I would love to see such ratios for women writers at the Almeida continue but also to see plays written from British women of colour who bring so much to the table.

Note: At the time of writing, the Almeida had not announced the play that would be opening in December 2018.


4, Royal Court

Somewhat of a surprise and a little disappointing to see the Royal Court slip so far from the top spot it held last year – a sobering reminder that what has been gained can so quickly be lost.

Eight plays opened on the Main Stage at the Court in 2018 and four of these were written by women. Seems good, right? But again let’s need to dig a little deeper as this is our first encounter of where plays from women are given far shorter runs than the usual.

Of these four plays from women, two were only on for a couple of weeks (Debris Stevenson’s Poet in da Corner and Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes from the Field) when usual run period at the Court is about four weeks, or just over.

That leaves Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too and debbie tucker green’s ear for eye as the other two plays from women on the Main Stage. The former writer is now, sadly, dead and we need to promote more working-class writers in her place, and whilst I’m always happy to see new work from dtg, she is a very well-known writer.

And why this emphasis is important to me is that, this year, the Court didn’t balance out the familiar names with a swathe of new, diverse women writers in Jerwood Upstairs. Here, of the eight plays that opened in 2018, only three were from women – Anoushka Warden, Cordelia Lynn and Ellie Kendrick. Not the most diverse line up.

It’s a real shame and a clear demonstration that the fight for women playwrights continues.


5. National Theatre

It’s hard to know what the hell is going on at the NT with regards to diversity in playwrights. Whenever Rufus is asked, he constantly refers to a commitment to diversity by 2020, as if women have just got to sit tight until this magical date. Because certainly, we are now just over a year away from it and the National Theatre is showing no signs of progress whatsoever when it comes to female playwrights.

Twenty-one plays this year across its three stages. How many written by women? Seven and a half.

Seven and a half. I mean, Christ alive. That’s barely scraping a third. And this is the nation’s theatre. Where the hell are they suddenly going to hit equity from???

And, obviously, under scrutiny, the data gets worse.

Six plays ran in repertory on the Olivier stage in 2018, only one of these was from a woman – Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown – and Anais is American. A seventh, Chris Bush’s adaptation of Pericles, was the only british woman on the Olivier but this extraordinary play was only  given three performances. Three.

Five plays ran in the Lyttleton in 2018 and only one of these was from a female playwright – Polly Stenham’s adaption of Julie.

So, that’s three plays; where were the other four and a half plays from women? Shuffled off into the Dorfman, obviously – Annie Baker’s John, Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night, Laura Wade’s Home I’m Darling, Nina Raine’s Stories, and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s The Prisoner co-written with Peter Brook.

First, only three of those five women are British, meaning only five British women got plays on at the NT this year. But, second, there’s an interesting further point as I say “shuffled off,” but Rufus was asked about the women writers not being on the Olivier in a press conference and his response was, forgive me for the paraphrasing, that some of the women writers had actually requested the Dorfman even though they were offered the Olivier and he wanted to respect that request.

Now, there’s a lot to unpack in that disclosure – interesting how playwrights are avoiding the Olivier; it is a tough and exposing stage for any work and, certainly, new work has struggled on this stage under Rufus Norris – but here’s the thing, if the women you have commissioned are reluctant to use the Olivier…commission more women.

Here’s a little secret: YOU DON’T HAVE TO STOP AT 50%!!! And you certainly don’t stop at a third.

If you want/need to put women on your main stage but none of the ones you have commissioned want to use it, go out and find yourself some more women!! So, I’m not really hearing that as an acceptable excuse, to be honest.

Oh, and one last thing – British writers and especially writers of colour, deserve much more support from their national theatre. Fifth place is a shocker for the NT, it really is.


6. Bush Theatre

Much like David Lan’s Young Vic, Madani’s Bush Theatre has quickly become synonymous with diversity. However, inclusion of gender diversity in that is not supported by the facts. As was the case for David at the YV too. I noticed this last year, the paltry number of women writers at the Bush, but as the theatre was not included in my annual round-up, it didn’t get much of a mention.

But it does now.

Audiences and the industry alike have good reason to be excited by programming at the Bush, but this review focuses squarely on women writers and these have been woefully underrepresented at the Bush in 2018.

At first glance, you will see that there have been nine shows at the Bush this year and only three of these were written by women (Leave Taking, Yvette and The B*easts). That’s not good returns in absolute terms but, look closer at the details and it gets worse.

Urielle Klein-Mekongo’s Yvette was only on for a few days so, in truth, the Bush has only had two plays from women running for any notable length of time. Two out of eight. That’s poor.

A 25% return on gender representation in its writers for a theatre that prides itself on diversity? Must do better. Much better.


7 Old Vic Theatre

And so we really are down at the very bottom now.

The Old Vic and the Donmar seem to be in this ongoing battle to be the last on this particular ranking list. Last year, the Old Vic was rock bottom; the year before was the Donmar. And now the two have flipped around again with the OV managing to scrape itself up from absolutely zero last year.

At first glance, the Old Vic’s three out of nine plays being written by women puts it on a (low) par with the Bush (SYLVIA, 17c, Wise Children). But the OV gets pushed below even the Bush because it too is putting women writers on shorter runs. At the Old Vic, in particular, it is the male writers who are considered worthier of longer runs, or more likely to deliver plays that will sell out longer runs.

Annie-B Parson’s 17c is only running for four days – FOUR DAYS – and the much-heralded SYLVIA is running only for three weeks. Compare these with the eight weeks given to Jack Thorne’s adaption of A Christmas Carol, and to Joe Penhall’s Mood Music. And to Stephen Beresford’s adaptation of Fanny and Alexander.

And to Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.

The Old Vic doesn’t trust women writers, it seems.


8. Donmar Warehouse

 

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But even the woeful state of affairs at Matthew Warchus’s Old Vic can’t compare to the non-existent returns for women writers at Josie Rourke’s Donmar Warehouse.

Often, when I’m in discussions informally and at events about how to improve opportunities for women creatives in theatre, I routinely hear the argument that if only we had more women in more senior roles, this would change in an instant. And every time I offer the almost complete absence of women writers during Josie’s tenure at the Donmar as a counter-argument.

Feminism is not as simple as putting women in the top jobs. Josie Rourke has been/will have been Artistic Director at the Donmar for ten years when she leaves at the end of the year. In this time (what’s that, approximately sixty productions??) she has only ever platformed two original plays by women. Two. (Splendour by Abi Morgan and Amy Herzog’s Belleville.) In comparison, she has programmed four plays from Brian Friel alone.

In 2018, there were no new plays from women writers in the Donmar programme, and no female playwright completed an adaptation for the stage. Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ran, yes; but this was adapted by David Harrower.

There is no doubting Josie’s commitment to supporting women creatives in other ways – her all-women Shakespeares have been rightly heralded, and women directors continue to be platformed (including three this year). But that support, for reasons I don’t understand, does not seem to have been extended to women writers.

And it’s a sad state of affairs when we have to look at the arrival of a male Artistic Director – here, Michael Longhurst – to see if that changes opportunities for women writers at a theatre.

Note: At the time of writing, the Donmar had not announced the play that would be opening in December 2018. (VS – this is a correction to the previous statement that said Measure for Measure would be the last show in Josie’s tenure. That is not correct; her final show for the Donmar will be in the first half of 2019.)


Let’s be frank, if this doesn’t get better in the next twelve months, we’ve really got to consider whether the whole structure is so systematically discriminatory against women that rather than try and force women writers to bend and contort themselves to fit into this broken system, we should just break it all down and start again. Because there are no acceptable excuses anymore. 

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