Female Playwrights and Quotas: What Are We So Afraid Of?

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Many of you have read and shared my recent article on the poor rate of return for female playwrights on some of London theatre’s biggest stages, and I thank you for that. I smile to myself a bit as I write that as it was an odd journey – I sat on the article for about three weeks, unsure what the benefit would be to publishing it (were the findings really news?). Plus, I was fearful of any backlash or criticism that would be levelled at me personally.

Then when I did find the courage to finally make it live, well, for about six hours, no one read it.

I actually went to bed that night thinking the piece had just withered away unnoticed. I convinced myself that maybe this was a good thing, that my reputation as a troublemaker and a drum-beater had already burnt enough bridges and that, perhaps given my anxiety, it was for the best.

But then I got up the next morning and it was clear that had not come to pass!

Obviously, I got the few expected responses – criticisms, the odd subtweet, and I think there’s a commentator on the blog still arguing that I’ve got it all wrong. And I’ve no doubt even stronger words and opinions have been said about me and the piece behind closed doors. But I’ve always felt a responsibility to speak out for female playwrights.

I’ve written articles on the subject before and I’m forever highlighting the low levels of female playwrights in season announcements on social media because the culture of silence is understandably pervasive.

We cannot expect women writers to constantly speak out against the closed doors and inner circles that prevent their success. Why would they do that? They need work; they can’t risk biting the hand that (on the rare occasion) feeds them. That’s an unfair expectation and therefore I have always felt it’s important that me and other observers take the flak for them. After all, if I want the situation to change then I must speak out.

But on sharing this particular article, not only was my inbox flooded with private messages from female playwrights of dreadful and depressing experiences, but there were also those prepared to share their thoughts publicly. If you haven’t read them yet, I would recommend reading Camilla Whitehill’s and Sara Joyce’s TLs.

It was yet another wake-up call to how pervasive this issue is and it only serves to bolster my opinion that only quotas will correct this.

But let’s look at this another way, why don’t we have quotas right now?

This issue… I mean, we’ve been on about it for years now, haven’t we? We all know the work is out there from women writers so why are we still having this discussion? Why don’t we just bring in quotas and get this issue done and dusted once and for all? After all, no one likes to be named and shamed, we’re all a bit tired, and I think, by and large, we all want this to change.

So, why no quotas?

You see, whenever quotas come up, the powers that be shirk and squirm. They tell us it isn’t necessary, they tell us progress is coming. Well, I’m telling you now that progress isn’t coming, and if you think it is, it’s got the pace of a glacier. So, let’s just bring in quotas, get this sorted and move on. Why not? What is everybody so afraid of?

Well, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there are two primary reasons why we do not have diversity quotas in theatre:

1 Because men, especially White men, will lose work. Stages are finite. For some to get programmed, others will not. This is not a universal win-win. If quotas are brought in, that means there will be fewer opportunities for male playwrights. The work we bring in for women, the fewer plays we will see from familiar male faces. Why would men actively work towards diminishing returns for themselves? It’s understandably not in their interest to do so.

More than that, theatre, like any industry, has its established networks. And, like any industry, these established networks tend to be largely male and largely White. Women are not present in high numbers; indeed, it’s part of the reason why we’re frozen out. When women aren’t in the room, we don’t get considered. And when women aren’t part of the networks that run theatre, their ideas aren’t entertained.

Quotas will bring in new faces who are outsiders to these nepotistic networks. That means quotas will mean less work for theatre’s friends and colleagues. And why would you want to throw your friends under a bus? You wouldn’t, would you? No one would.

2 Because the establishment truly believes female playwrights = lower quality work and/or less relevance

Let’s not mess around here – men do not recognise their own bias. They do not see that their viewpoint is a skew. Instead, they consider their outlook to be rational, fair, considered and – most importantly – universal. In comparison, the world or a story from a woman’s point of view is seen as niche, even more so when it’s from a Woman of Colour, an LGBTQ+ writer, or a writer with disabilities.

By way of an example, there’s (yet another) sad anecdote, this time from Sarah who has written in the Comments to my previous article of a conversation she had with two male Artistic Directors who believed a play about a king was “universal” but a play about a transgender person would be “tokenism.”

Well, there we are, as Emily Thornberry would say.

But fundamentally the fear is, if quotas are brought in, the quality of work will fall. It is a perception – conscious or unconscious – that women, currently, are just not writing plays to the quality that men are. And don’t take my word for it, Ed Hall has made his position on that perfectly clear. What we would be foolish to believe is that his opinion is unique.

That is, unequivocally, why we don’t have quotas. That’s why we hear casually sexist comments such as, ‘these things take time.’ No, they don’t take time. High quality writing from women is already here and it is routinely overlooked and ignored. It’s overlooked because it doesn’t fit the current model of the ‘right kind’ of play, or the expectations of a ‘great, universal story.’

The thing is, even if we buy into this sexism that women writers are just not as good as men right now, when do we suppose this will change? Next year? Five years? I’d argue, probably never. Here’s why:

First, because men have had years and years and years (centuries!) of support, encouragement, second chances (third chances, fourth. Fifth). The system has enabled male playwrights forever. Women have never had that level of inclusion and safety nets. Given Stephen Hawking believes the human race only has about another hundred years left on the planet, I think we can safely say women will never experience the extent, breadth and length of support that men have received in theatre.

If you believe, truly, that men are writing better plays, it’s nothing to do with gender and everything to do with opportunity – opportunity provided not by talent but by privilege. To shortcut a woman’s route to that level of support, only quotas will do.

But crucially – second – if the industry believes that the work being created by women right now isn’t good enough, they’ll never believe it. Why? Because this is a perception issue, not a factual one. Women don’t need to get better. Not really. The high quality work is already there. What women writers really need is support and buy-in, an enthusiasm from those at the very top to see the world and its issues from their point of view. And a willingness in the current establishment to challenge their own ideas of what makes for a great play.

The work is there; it is simply that it is not recognised. We need to get away from the notion of women as niche. If you are reading work from a female playwrights and thinking, ‘this doesn’t speak to me.’ Guess what? It probably doesn’t. It may have nothing to do with the way you see the world or its supposed universal themes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a cracking piece of work.

I know that there are theatres and production companies who are genuinely making concerted efforts to address this. Tonic’s work has been rightly supported and highlighted. Headlong announced their 50/50 commitment back in 2015, Gate Theatre and Stratford East have both stated they have good representation from female playwrights, and I know there are women-focused companies such as HerStory and New Match Collective that have been created to help address the imbalance.

This is great and worthy but more is needed from those at the very top. They should be trailblazers. They should be the ones taking the weight, wanting to change – not being pushed into the twenty-first century by pressure from below.

Some of the theatres in my article are making headway – Royal Court is obviously consistent in its platforming of women playwrights, and the Almeida has recently put more women writers under commission.

However, I must point out that I am very aware that those few shows from female playwrights that are platformed, the vast (vast) majority come from the pens of White women. Women of Colour have an appalling rate of return, as do other intersectionalities such as LGBTQ+ and women with disabilities. As Jingan Young observed on Twitter, “British Chinese writers…remain invisible.”

So, when I say quotas for female playwrights, I mean it. But I also mean that that door must not be forced open for White women only. When this door is pushed open, it must be for all women – not just the privileged few.

But, fundamentally, what I am clearly taking an age to get around to is this: I welcome the idea of gender quotas with open arms not just because it will help right wrongs, but also because it would bring in a flood of new voices and new ideas.

Isn’t that exciting? Doesn’t that get the blood pumping through your veins? Just think of all those unheard voices and fresh outlooks. Think of all those dynamic new shows, what ideas could be borne from bringing in a wider population of creatives from every background. New writing and new voices is the lifeblood of theatre – don’t we want more blood in our veins??

For all the prejudice and sexism, I still fundamentally shake my head with the resistance to quotas, because to resist quotas is to shun the world as it is today. Why are some in theatre if they persist in turning their back on a world teeming with unheard stories and voices? Does privilege really mean that much to them?

It’s such a disappointment to me. I love theatre – it’s only love that makes me want to take the blows I have for repeatedly writing about the lack of support for female playwrights. But it does sting when an industry you love is making it more and more evident that it doesn’t seem to be in the business of listening. Without quotas, I’ve a fear I’ll be writing that annual review year after year after year – and always with the same results.

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