2019 in Review: The Chasm for Female Playwrights Widens

6

The Overview

Hello ostracism, my old friend/ I’ve come to talk to you again…

And here you are too for what is always an agonising annual review of the staging of female playwrights on the most significant London stages.

I say “agonising” because not only are the results mostly god-awful and depressing but it always results in a wave of emails in my inboxes from affronted theatres – “we did put on a rehearsed reading from a female playwright in our rehearsal studios, you know” (that is actually a genuine response from one of the theatres – paraphrased only a little).

All I do is take the year’s programming from eight of these leading London theatres and assess the representation for female playwrights, in particular, British women writers. If you’re upset with this, don’t shoot the messenger. I may have got over the shock of having big names come for me but I want us all to wrestle with the subject of these lists – the ongoing, persistent and entrenched lack of support and programming of a diverse range of women writers on the big stages and at the big theatres – not the writer herself.

And, so, we get to the other “agonising” element of this list… How to frame the intro.

Is it getting better or is getting worse? Should this be an optimistic article or a pessimistic one? Or one paralysed with the lack of progress?

Whenever I see season announcements on Twitter, I see the struggling smaller theatres making massive strides forward in diverse representation. I see exciting new names amongst the creatives or theatre companies, or some overdue recognition and regard for names that I know have been grafting for years. And this makes me happy, immensely happy.

And I think, this is progress. We are moving forward.

And then we get to the big names. And I don’t see that progress. I see intransigence in the face of enormous public criticism and push back on male-dominated seasons. I see a lot of defiance. And, frankly, increasingly I see ADs that just don’t seem to care.

And that worries me. It depresses me. And it makes me realise we are deep into patriarchal misogyny and power structures.

It is also notable, with the change at the Donmar, that we now have a very significant gender split in ADs for those theatres making progress and those resisting it. The top three in this year’s list – the only theatres with a plus sign on diversity – are run by women; the remaining five – the bottom five – are run by men.

The discrimination is really beginning to show now. The question I want to leave you all with is, what do we do now?

The Method

Right, enough with the righteous ranting, let’s boogie…

As with last year, I picked what I figured to be the eight leading London theatres. I reviewed all their shows that have opened / will open in 2019 and listed their playwright and director. Using this (at times, dire) analysis, I’ve summarised the results below and ranked them best to worst. The theatres covered (in alphabetical order) are: Almeida, Bush, Donmar, Hampstead, National Theatre, Old Vic, Royal Court and the Young Vic.

And where theatres had exactly the same (poor) rating, I gave preference to those that had platformed British writers. Not that I’m getting all nationalistic but because it’s now pretty apparent that some buildings are importing, in particular, finished work from American women writers rather than supporting home-grown talent – and that this is often accompanied with a perception that American playwrights are just better writers. Which is a viewpoint I am categorically not here for.

The List

1 Royal Court Theatre

Vicky Featherstone’s Royal Court remains head and shoulders (and a fair bit of the torso) above the rest when it comes to supporting, championing and platforming female playwrights. Ever since I started this albatross of an annual article, Royal Court has been there or thereabouts, which is testament to how seriously the team at the Court takes diversity. And I personally don’t feel it is therefore a surprise when its seasons become the most exciting and most anticipated.

2019 sees the Court producing 15 plays across its two stages – seven at Jerwood Downstairs; eight Upstairs. And both stages saw over half their respective productions being written by women.

Hallelujah.

Downstairs, we’ve got four cracking shows from new names and living legends alike: Dismantle the Room (Nina Segal, Milli Bhatia, Ingrid Marvin), White Pearl (Anchuli Felicia King), Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. (Caryl, obvs), and A Kind of People (Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti).

Whilst Upstairs, the diverse name of women writers continues with these five: Superhoe (Nicôle Lecky), Inside Bitch (Clean Break), salt.( Selina Thompson), seven methods of killing kylie jenner (Jasmine Lee Jones), A History of Water in the Middle East (Sabrina Mahfouz), Midnight Movie (Eve Leigh).

Lap up that diversity.

2 Hampstead Theatre

Blimey.

I don’t know if the shocking rocket rise of Hampstead up this list is a wondrous thing or a damning indictment of those who haven’t (yet) turned themselves around. It feels like it was only last month that Ed Hall was writing open letters to The Stage, when called out for his lack of women writers, that the entire theatrical world was completely absent of talented female playwrights.

Well, look what shaming, constructive criticism and a subsequent change in AD can do for here we are, Roxana Silbert at the helm, and the Hampstead standing astride a programming list that saw 60% of its productions written by women.

And not just all packed off to the smaller Downstairs theatre either. For, on the Main Stage, there were six productions in 2019 and three of these were written by women: Cost of Living (Martyna Majok), The Phlebotomist (Ella Road), and The King of Hell’s Palace (Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig).

The joy continues Downstairs too where four of the six shows staged were written by women: Eden (Hannah Paterson), Wilderness (Kellie Smith), Either (Ruby Thomas) and Unknown Rivers (Chinonyerem Odimba).

What joy. Please, Roxana, may this be a permanent state of affairs!

3 Bush Theatre

And it’s probably no surprise to see Lynette Linton’s Bush Theatre up at the sharp end too.

Her predecessor, Madani Younis, was not a happy bunny when he saw his programming at the lower end of these lists in previous years. Just one of the many, it seems. But his legacy can be seen in much of 2019’s listings that include more women, and this is a great demonstration of what can happen when theatres take responsibility and have ADs wanting to bring about change.

Female playwrights have had a cracking 2019 at the Bush Theatre with 50% of the productions platformed across both the Theatre and the Studio coming from the hearts, souls and minds of women creatives.

In the Theatre, we’ve had eight plays across the year, two written solely by women, another two co-written or curated by women: Babylon (multiple creatives, curated by Tobi Kyeremateng and Ruthie Osterman), Going Through (Estelle Savasta; translation by Kirsten Hazel Smith), CLASS (jointly written by Iseult Golden & David Horan), and Chiaroscuro (Jackie Kay)

Whilst in the Studio, we’ve had five plays this year, three of which were written by women: The Trick (Eve Leigh), Yvette (Urielle Klein-Mekongo) and Exceptional Promise (Bisola Alabi, Salome Wagaine & Emily Aboud).

I also want to note that the Bush was the only theatre to actively platform work from non-binary artists too. And the Rest of Me Floats from Outbox Theatre ran on the main stage in Feb/March. I acknowledge the focus of this list is getting women a seat at the table but I do want to draw attention – and applaud – this action. And to get other ADs to take note.

More of the same in 2020, please, Lynette!

4 Young Vic Theatre

And, so, we come to our first controversial entry…

Now, if we are looking by numbers only, the Young Vic’s rate of return of 65% of its shows being written by women should place this theatre far higher up this list. Yet I have it placed down in 4th.

To be clear, this isn’t anything to do with the furore over the correct authorship of Tree (playwrights Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley created the concept). After all, this one came to public attention but who’s to say no other theatres are hiding similar claims.

No, rather this placing is because of the eight plays written by women – and a further one co-written – that YV platformed in 2019, a whopping five of these were in the tiny side studio, The Clare: Wild East (April De Angelis), The Town that Trees Built (Natasha Nixon and Kirsty Harris), The American Dream 2.0 (Emma Dennis-Edwards), Ivan and the Dogs (Hattie Naylor), and In a Word (Lauren Yee).

Only one play authored by a(n American) woman made it to the Main Stage – Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury – out of five shows that were staged there; and two solely written by women made it to the second stage, The Maria – Bronx Gothic by the American writer, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Megan Cronin’s Carnation for a Song. The co-write was Marina Carr’s adaptation of Blood Wedding on the Main Stage.

So, look, the YV may claim I am bias and exacting (and they will probably accuse me of being conflicted because of Tree) but I’ve penalised other theatres for similar before so I have a track record in this. I am not here for the passive or active classification of work by women as of higher risk and therefore to be parcelled off into the smallest of arenas. No. We are here for the Main Stages and we are not going anywhere until we get them.

But I can’t help but noting that, somewhat ironically, had Kwame actually respected the authorship of Tree, YV would be further up the table. *sips tea*

5 National Theatre

This, though, for me, is the absolute shocker.

Let’s not mess around here – the National Theatre is the nation’s theatre (the clue is in the name) and for it to continue to have such shocking return rates for women writers is a disgrace.

In 2017, seven out of the 21 plays produced across all three of its stages were written by women. Same again in 2018. And for 2019? It’s gone DOWN. Actually deteriorated. Only FIVE of the 20 plays put on across the NT’s three stages in 2019 were written by women, with a further two classified as co-writes.

What the fuck is going on??!!

Let’s at least recognise those few that made the cut: on the Olivier we had Small Island by Andrea Levy & Helen Edmundson and My Brilliant Friend by April de Angelis & Elena Ferrante. There were six plays in total platformed on the Olivier so less than half came from women with a third a co-write of sorts: Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of the novel, The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

It’s even worse in the Lyttleton. Six shows in 2019; only two written by women – Top Girls (Caryl, still obvs), and Rutherford and Son (Githa Sowerby). One a living legend, the other dead.

Not exactly diverse new voices but I wonder if this is more a challenge to the pre-eminence of white male voices in the deified theatrical canon (which is a laughable concept at the best of times). If so, I would expect to see such poor representation offset by some radical works in the Dorfman…

But no.

Eight plays in the Dorfman in 2019 and one – ONE – written solely by a woman, Annie Baker’s The Antipodes, and another, Anna, written by Ella Hickson in collaboration with sound designers Ben and Max Ringham.

And I say again, what the fuck is going on at the NT? 2021 is this big year at the national when gender parity will apparently be reached but, and I said this before (somewhere), if this so-called parity is achieved by platforming established white names, or a large quota of plays from abroad, it won’t be parity; it will be the elite and privileged consolidating their base, letting no new names in.

6 Donmar Warehouse

A year of change at the Donmar – Michael L taking over from Josie Rourke as AD – but this hasn’t manifested itself in much of a change for women writers trying to break through at this theatre. Not yet, anyway.

Josie was, for reasons I’ll never fully understand, not a champion of women writers so it was no surprise that of her last two productions, only one was partly written by a woman – Dorothy Fields writing the lyrics for Sweet Charity.

But Michael L has come in – four new productions this year – but still only one written by a woman, [BLANK] by Alice Birch, which gives the theatre one and a bit shows from women out of six staged in the year. That’s not a great rate of return.

Looking ahead to 2020, another Caryl Churchill is due in February but, look, I love Caryl as much as the next person but I do want to see the Donmar stretch itself a bit more when it comes to platforming women. I am rooting for ML and his team, I really am, but, for me, there’s a lot hinging on the next season announcement.

7 Almeida Theatre

Last year, Rupert Goold broke out with a fever, staging three plays from women writers out of a total of six (two were American writers but small steps, people). Anyway, that fever has certainly broken as 2019 sees the Almeida back in its position where it seems most comfortable – at the bottom of this list.

Six plays again this year. How many from women, I hear you cry? ONE. That’s right, ONE. Let’s hear it for (American writer – obvs) Anne Washburn who wrote Shipwreck. What keeps the Almeida off rock bottom (no surprise who has that honour again – for the millionth year in a row) is that Cordelia Lynn adapted Chekhov’s Three Sisters in a production directed by Rebecca Frecknall so credit for that.

But, look, we can all get a bit flippant about the Almeida as it is a bastion of white maleness and we all know it but this can’t go on, it really can’t.

The sad thing is, I know the Almeida really hate me for all this but I do this because I give a damn. I’m only listing their own programming back at them. Why should one of the major theatres in London be a closed shop? Why should women be openly discriminated against and all we can do is shrug?

8 The Old Vic

Well, if all we can do is shrug at the Almeida, I really don’t know what the hell we are going to do about the Old Vic, I really don’t.

Kevin Spacey was the worst AD for female playwrights, only platforming a single play solely written by a woman in the whole ten years at the helm. Matthew Warchus is, frankly, no better. In 2017, the Old Vic was rock bottom with a big fat zero and last year it only scraped up to 7th. This year, though, it has reclaimed the bottom spot so sarcastic standing ovation for them.

Six plays in 2019 and only Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison, adapted from the Luke Harding book, was written by a woman. By way of comparison, two Arthur Miller plays were staged – The American Clock and All My Sons – so it’s good to see that a dead white man in no need of further reputation enhancement got more work staged at the OV than an entire gender.

I’ve got a feeling the OV may point to the scheduled staging of SYLVIA as evidence that it does support women creatives but that show, which was cancelled due to further work needed, was replaced by a Duncan Macmillan play so I don’t give credit for that. YOU CAN REPLACE ONE PLAY BY A WOMAN FOR ANOTHER PLAY WRITTEN BY A WOMAN, YOU KNOW.

Matthew Warchus ain’t in this for diversity. There’s no evidence of any such thinking in his programming. Again, we may have to face up to the fact that another London theatre is for white men only. The question is, what the hell do we do about it?

Post your comment

3 comments

  1. Posted by Rose Collis, at Reply

    Victoria, thank you so much for your excellent work – now, and in previous years. Of course, it confirms what all female writers/performers like myself suspect and know. And if it’s like this in London, you can imagine what it’s like in the rest of the country….
    Unfortunately, I can’t see how the situation is going to improve within the major NPO venues which receive millions annually of ACE funding, unless the ACE is going to take them to task. And there’s little hope of this, given the ACE’s recent announcement that, from now on, it is only going to set ‘diversity’ guidelines, but will NOT be monitoring whether NPO venues and companies actually follow the guidelines and deliver on diversity promises and policies.

  2. Posted by Patrick Stoakes, at Reply

    The “we do the canon so women will be underrepresented” doesn’t really work, and specifically not for the National. When the National started they got Kenneth Tynan to draw up a list of canonical plays that they could perform. There are at least 13 women playwrights on that list – not many admittedly – but in its history the National has put on plays by just two of them. Producing new women playwrights is essential but so is reclaiming history.

  3. Posted by Billy Smart, at Reply

    Won’t the National always come out lower on such a list because – unlike the Court – a large percentage of its productions have to come from the classical repertory (not much of which is by women dramatists before 1900), though? It might be more representative to divide the National (and RSC) repertory into new plays, recent plays and classic plays and draw conclusions from the quantity and percentage of each category.