Waking The Nation/ #wakingthefeminists

Approximately one year ago, I was in Brooklyn speaking over Skype with Serena Wilson and Trina Vargo as a semi-finalist for the Mitchell Scholarship before dashing off to the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School to work with a group of female students on a multi-disciplinary arts program called Emerging Voices. I was asked, “Why do you think there aren’t more female theatre directors?” I answered, “For the same reason there aren’t more scholarship organizations run by two women.”

I was very drawn to Trinity College/The Lir’s MFA in Directing for its strong ties and mentorship with very talented and successful female directors (namely Annabelle Comyn and Louise Lowe). I obtained my first Master’s degree- a MFA in Acting- at Brooklyn College under the guidance of a predominantly female faculty (Judylee Vivier, Mary Beth Easley, Rose Bonczek, Charlotte Fleck and Laura Smith). Having strong female role models has shaped my career for the better and inspired me to continue to push the boundaries that my predecessors have spent their lives pushing. Though still in its formative years (the first MFA group began studying in the fall of 2013), The Lir has demonstrated a commitment to developing female talent.

The Lir’s MFA classes since 2014:

Playwrights: 67% female

2014- 4 female, 1 male

2015- 4 female, 2 male

2016- 2 female, 2 male

Directors: 64% female

2014- 2 female, 1 male

2015- 2 female, 2 male

2016- 3 female, 1 male

Designers: 65% female

2014- 5 female, 1 male

2015- 2 female, 1 male

2016- 4 female, 4 male

These numbers look pretty impressive, but the long-simmering question “Does it translate to the real world?” erupted into a full boil in Dublin last week.

The Abbey Theatre was the English-speaking world’s first state-subsidized theatre. Also referred to as Ireland’s National Theatre, The Abbey is the most heavily supported by the Arts Council (a government agency), receiving €6.2 million in 2015, compared to the next largest allocation of €1.42 million for the Wexford Festival Opera. The Abbey recently announced the lineup for one of its most historically significant seasons yet- the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Out of ten plays included in the season, entitled Waking the Nation, only one is by a female author and only three are directed by women. The Dublin theatre community was understandably outraged and responded swiftly. In response to the criticisms, Artistic Director Fiagh McGonchail tweeted:

Fiach Mac Conghail Tweet

The suggestion that there isn’t enough female writing of merit crossing the desks of large, publicly funded theatres is initially offensive but ultimately symptomatic. My immediate community in Dublin has been very vocal in response. My colleague at The Lir, playwright and performer Erica Murray, recently wrote an open letter to the Irish Times where she expresses her disappointment in The Abbey’s programming. She closes her letter by asking “…Why should I go and support my national theatre when I cannot see the female voice being represented or respected?” Another colleague, MFA Director Laura Bowler shared a video response about the personal repercussions of an institute that should be representing her choosing not to.  “…Dead men are still taking precedence over living women. …Why educate if we can’t translate these words that live in us to the stage? …When you only listen to half of us you only get half the story.” My Dramaturgy professor, Karin McCully, is quoted on the Waking The Feminists blog as such; “…Women are everything in drama, the core of the conflict, the catalyst to action, the soul of inspiration, the poetry in action. That their talent as theatre makers should be so consistently ignored and sidelined threatens to undermine our other recent achievements towards equality and threatens to poison us at the roots.”

None of this feels unfamiliar. Year after year, statistics about the state of American theatre suggest that the population (and indeed, the actual audience) are nowhere near close to being represented by the theatre industry. Results were recently released by the League of Professional Theatre Women in a study called Women Count which analyzed 455 off- and off-off-Broadway productions of 22 different companies over five seasons (‘10/’11- ‘14/’15). Over the span of five seasons, 30% of the works were by female writers, 33% were directed by women and the numbers for design were even more abysmal (set designers 22-36%, lighting designers 8-16%, sound designers 14-22%). The only two roles where women dominated were costume design (61-79%) and stage managers (72% over the five years, compared to the 70% national average), suggesting that most of American theatre is at least confident in a woman’s ability to create clothing and keep things running behind the scenes (both ENORMOUSLY valuable tasks).  

The response of several artistic directors and theatre programmers was that they simply couldn’t find enough quality plays by women writers. The Kilroys created a list in 2014 and again in 2015 of the most recommended new plays by female and trans writers. Each play that made the list in 2015 received between four and twenty nominations from theatres, directors and producers across the US. Perhaps it’s time for Ireland to do the same?

Due to social, economic and cultural factors, the female creative resources have been buried a bit deeper than their male counterparts, but are no less valuable, vital and worth the trouble to mine for. After a week of raging debates through news & social media outlets, The Abbey released this response today (9th November 2015).

I’ll be attending the #WakingTheFeminists Public Meeting on Thursday, November 12th with the entire 2016 Class of MFA Directors, Designers and Playwrights from The Lir, led by our Contemporary Theatre Practice mentor, Professor Thomas Conway. The Waking The Feminists blog is a great spot to get the latest information. There’s a petition here asking for economic parity for women in theatre, sustained policy development on inclusion and equal rights and advancements for female theatre artists.

There is no route around the fight for gender parity in the pursuit of a theatre representative of the times it is derivative of. Any progression forward collides with this issue in Ireland, the US and the world. The voices we hear will only be as diverse as those to whom we pass the microphone.

Resources/ Further Reading:

Waking the Feminists Blog

Waking the Feminists Petition- Change.org

“Them’s the Breaks”: Gender Imbalance and Irish Theatre

Anne Harris- Why There Are Too Few Women in Theatre and Politics

The Women’s Podcast: Episode #9- Women at the Abbey Theatre, Cecelia Ahern

Laura Bowler- “We’re not asleep”

Erica Murray Letter to the Editor- Female Playwrights and The Abbey

Statement on Behalf of the Board and Director of The Abbey Theatre

Women Continue Being Underrepresented In Theater Despite Being Half The Population

League of Professional Theatre Women- Women Count Results

The Kilroys

The Kilroys Are Here: Women Playwrights Put Spotlight On Gender Disparity
Parity image from Getty Images.

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