Theatre Blog: Women Don’t Have to Justify Their Place at the Table

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Ever since I started writing about the lack of diversity in commissioned playwrights at London theatres, I’ve regularly been asked to provide comment or sit on panels about the issue. Often, these start the same way, with the review of (usually, my) data followed by questions and discussion around ‘what women could bring to the situation,’ and how would theatre chane with their inclusion.

Often these questions are more well-meaning than they sound, a sort of ‘Now, look, we know we need more women playwrights/directors/creatives, but what would they change? Why is it important?’ Sometimes it’s a lazy discussion opener – well-meaning but unhelpful – and sometimes it’s not well-meaning. Occasionally I do sense a veneer of resentment as the questions come from the lips of those on the defensive, a sort of thin-skinned rebuke about any implication that men can’t write or direct women characters with any depth or nuance.

Having to defend my stance is bizarre. Why am I having to justify the inclusion of women? But occasionally, perhaps in naivety or being caught flat-footed, I’ve bitten and found myself in a cul-de-sac having to defend identity politics and the importance of shared experiences. A sort of self-inflicted position that is partly true but also almost completely irrelevant to the point I am making.

Now that I am (quickly) getting accustomed to the questions, and I am a lot more aware of when that trap door starts to creak open, I thought I’d set my thoughts out in writing.

And here they are:

As women, we do not have justify our place at the table. We do not have to give any reason for our inclusion, nor are we required to ‘bring something new.’ Equality is our right, not a privilege to be extended to us.

We comprise over half the world’s population. Our exclusion from any room is criminal, and the continued discrimination that women face in theatre – institutionalised or unconscious bias – is no exception to that.

So, in summary, next time I’m asked, I’m going to reply with, ‘we do not need to give you a reason. Instead, let me hear your reasons for keeping women out.’

Because that really is the point, isn’t it? Given that we do not have equality – or anything like it in theatre, increasingly so for women who are not White or who have disabilities – there needs to be a reason for that exclusion and we need explicit transparency about that.

Linked to that, I often see others falling into the same traps I’ve been in, spelling out all these wonderful changes that could happen if women creatives were on a level playing field with our male counterparts: more nuanced characters, greater depth and interrogation of the female experience, thereby appealing to wider audiences, bringing in new faces….

And so our inclusion, yet again, is validated through economic benefit rather than an equitable and fair representation.

But, listen, diversity is not women’s burden to bear. It is not the business of women to deliver what is missing. It is not for women to right all the wrongs. I was particularly reminded of this recently when Vicky Featherstone became the leading (and only vocal) figure from the major London theatres to explicitly speak out on issues of sexual harassment in our industry, and set up events that would bring about lasting and meaningful change.

Where were the men? This was a criminal state of affairs of their doing. But no. In a tale as old as time, it was left to the women to clear up. Again, women making good the damage men have done.

Throughout human history, women have been gendered into roles of repairers and menders – holding together family units, the silent supporters of men as they hold the reins of power, or carers of the sick and elderly alike. We have always been there as healers – but that is not our responsibility. Though we may fix a broken system, it is not our responsibility to do so.

But back to the need to support and platform more women creatives…

The result of a greater diversity may well be more nuanced characters, a more accurate representation of our world today, and more relevant, urgent work. Or it may not. The support of more women creatives may create a flood of stellar and challenging plays and musicals. Or it may not.

The simple truth is that I don’t care what women bring. Diversity and relevance are not our responsibility or burden to bear either. Nor must women be seen to be first among equals, delivering meaningful change to vindicate our inclusion. As far as I’m concerned. Women could produce endless schlock; it would make no difference to me.

Like many other, I have my hopes, even expectations, on the change that women may bring. But this is not for me to burden women creatives with. They already have enough of a challenge as it is just to get a break.

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