Theatre is still very much a man’s world. Misogyny is rife and many of the top jobs are filled by men.
As a result, male playwrights are programmed far more and those plays have more male characters in them.
At Burn Bright we want to champion writers who identify as women, and help level the playing field, so that one day at least half of the plays on anywhere in the country are by women. The problem of the under-representation of women’s voices is systemic at its core – there are many factors which combine to create the situation we are in now – some of which I go into below; and they all need addressing. As a side note, in this article I think many of these points could relate to any minority group in theatre (not that women are a minority) – and though those communities face additional discrimination and barriers, I think if these issues were addressed in relation to them it would certainly help. I’m far from an expert, and I’m sure there are many people more qualified to write this than I am, however I’ve been writing and producing shows for twelve years, and I’m definitely still considered to be ’emerging’; I speak from personal experience and what I’ve heard from other women working in theatre.
People don’t get into writing if they don’t see opportunities for themselves – young artists are inspired when they see people ‘like them’ succeeding. Each year, the incredible Victoria Sadler does a round-up of theatre, detailing the numbers of women writers programmed in London’s big producing houses – it makes for pretty dire reading. Simply put, artistic directors need to shape up and commit to programming 50 per cent women playwrights and moreover, do this per space, so the women don’t end up relegated to the studios while the men dominate the main houses. At Burn Bright in our small way we are trying to build opportunities for women writers, in the hope that other women see that and are inspired. We recently commissioned a series of five plays (Better in Person) by five writers who identify as women and showcased them on Zoom – for some this will have been their first commission – and hopefully a good step along the way; we plan to do a lot more.
The ‘old boys network’ doesn’t seem to exist in the same way for women, often the doors feel very much shut, and getting that much hailed ‘coffee’ with someone up top seems very challenging. Additionally the confidence in asking for these meetings seems to be lacking in women who underestimate their deserving for such meetings. As a result Artistic Directors and companies need to work harder and be more active in reaching out – see work by women on the fringe and actively seek out and invite women in. At Burn Bright we are trying to build our own network via our Time Bank, allowing women writers to book in a red-tape-free way, sessions with industry leaders to ask questions and develop relationships. This has so far been a huge success and women are meeting top-level people who they may otherwise never have met.
Writing speculatively is very difficult unless you have a financial buffer and someone to look after your kids. A lot of ‘writing opportunities’ involve a significant amount of free work up front – full length scripts for competitions and pitch documents for briefs; even trying to find these opportunities requires a constant finger on the pulse and a lot of research and social media time. Many women (and minority groups) are unable to risk this time writing something that may not happen; I certainly really struggle to justify writing instead of being with my little boy unless it is paid work, and I can’t afford to do it instead of paid work. It costs me to write speculatively as I also have to find and pay for childcare. It would help if theatres developed relationships with women writers that didn’t involve blind submissions – if they saw their work when it was on and kept them in the loop. They need to hire women with a view to and a commitment to production, rather than constant rounds of development which often goes nowhere. Competition briefs should be for scripts that have already been written, and in an ideal world, childcare would be taken account of in as many ways as possible. We’ve made a commitment at Burn Bright that when we’re seeking submissions from writers it can be any scene they’ve written – we trust ourselves to be able to get a grasp of capability from that, and trust the women who submit to be able to turn their hands to different projects.
Gatekeepers in theatre are often men. This means they don’t necessarily relate to women’s stories, and ‘women’s stories’ seem to be considered a genre in themselves – ridiculous since we stand at 51 per cent of the population. Just because the male gatekeeper doesn’t relate, it doesn’t mean a lot of women who could be in the audience wouldn’t. The gatekeepers need to diversify. Plays by women are often seen as ‘risky’; I’m not sure why. This means women’s plays are programmed for shorter runs in the smaller spaces. Because of being seen as ‘risky’, women have to prove themselves. They are not allowed to fail for fear of never being programmed again, and also for fear of doing lasting detriment to the imaginary genre of ‘plays by women’. This mentality keeps women small – writing small plays for small spaces. Women need to be encouraged to write big, take risks, fail and be given another chance – because that is how you learn and grow.
The industry is in absolute turmoil at the moment. We at Burn Bright hope that as well as building back up, producing theatres are looking at re-building differently. Who do they need and how do they need to run things in order to have true representation – of women yes, but also across every other community that deserves to be seen and heard. Not tokenism, not short-term ‘initiatives’, not endless panels to discuss the problem, but real and permanent change. When we commissioned five writers for Better in Person, they were hugely diverse in their life experience, and as a result wrote stories that reflected that – covering disability, queer relationships, older generations, inter-racial relationships and plenty more. It’s not that hard, not at all ‘risky’ and audiences are ready for it.
About the author
Sarah Henley is mainly a theatre writer with work including Streets, Muted, Another Way, Essence and Burkas and Bacon Butties. She’s been nominated for a few awards, had a play published by Nick Hen Books and has produced work at the VAULT Festival and various fringe theatres in London.
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