Gender equity in theatre

By Monica Prendergast, September 2015

A recent report suggests not enough has changed for women in theatre.

Earlier this year, the Playwrights Guild of Canada, in partnership with many other professional theatre organizations, released a report called “Achieving Equity in Canadian Theatre.” This report was preceded by one in 2006  called “Adding it Up: The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre.” Both reports make for some infuriating reading for anyone concerned with gender equity issues in general, and how these inequities are evident in Canadian theatre practices in particular. 

The evidence is clear: While women make up well over half of theatre students and audience members in this country, less than a third of actors, directors and playwrights working in the profession are women. As the new report’s writer Dr Michelle MacArthur says in its executive summary, “This study shows that the rough 70/30 division of men and women in the artistic triumvirate—artistic director, director, and playwright—has generally remained unchanged for the past 30 years.” The greatest inequality is in playwriting. In the 2013/2014 season across the country, 63 percent of plays were written by men, 22 percent by women and 15 percent by mixed gender partnerships. 

These statistics are depressing and are also reflected in other forms of entertainment. It still remains the exception to the rule for a woman to write or direct a Hollywood feature film, for example. Men continue to dominate in all leadership areas of the performing arts. What to do?

The “Achieving Equity” report offers numerous action items. Education has a role to play in designing more equitable curricula that include a gender balance in the choice of plays both taught and performed. More mentorship and networking amongst women theatre professionals may create more opportunities for women to support each other’s professional development. Theatre companies and one-off theatre projects need to be more vigilant about equity in their planning, hiring and administrative practices. Advocacy and awareness actions include highlighting plays written and directed by women that also feature women protagonists. All of these are worthwhile goals. 

As a result of reading this report, I could not help but wonder how we in Victoria are doing in regard to gender equity. Our theatre community is relatively small, but a review of the 2015/2016 season is a good indicator of how we are faring in relation to the dismal status quo. 

I looked through the upcoming seasons offered by the Belfry Theatre, Langham Court Theatre, the Phoenix Theatre at the University of Victoria, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, the Canadian College of Performing Arts, and the 2015 season at Theatre Inconnu (which has not announced its 2016 season to date). Here are the results in the form of comments and a very unscientific report card grade:

 

1. Belfry Theatre: Of the four mainstage productions, two are written by women (Tracey Power and Joan MacLeod) and two are directed by women (The Chelsea Hotel and Putting on the Ritz). This is a great balance of 50/50, although it is thrown off a bit by the addition of the Christmas show remount of A Christmas Carol that is written by a man (Charles Dickens) and is adapted and directed by Michael Shamata. But overall the Belfry has planned a very equitable season and earns a grade of A.

2. Langham Court Theatre: Things are not looking quite so good here. Only two of six shows are directed by women (Wendy Merk and Heather-Elayne Day) and a woman playwright writes not one play. Granted there are a number of terrific roles for women in the season, including a play with six women characters (Female Transport). But the gender equity that is most often good at Langham is not in evidence this year, leading to a grade of C-.

3. Phoenix Theatre: The Department of Theatre also features a male-dominated season with only one of four plays, the Alumni show, created and co-performed by former student Kate Braidwood (Loon). All three in-house productions are written by male playwrights (Bertolt Brecht, Michael Frayn and Tennessee Williams) and are directed by men. This leads to a grade of D.

4. Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre: Blue Bridge is dealing with a deficit situation and has announced a return to a summer season only in 2016. The three plays on offer next summer were all written by men (Eugene O’Neill, Oscar Wilde, and George S. Kauffmann and Morrie Ryskind). As directors for next year have not yet been announced, we can only hope that most or all of them are women. Giving Blue Bridge the benefit of the doubt, their season rates a C grade.

5. Canadian College of the Performing Arts: This school has six shows coming up. Unfortunately, not one of them was written by a woman and only one director next year is a woman (Sara-Jeanne Hosie). One play, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is at least adapted (by a man) from Muriel Sparks’ novel. Alongside the poor results from the Phoenix, I worry about the message being sent to young women who are training for careers in the profession. CCPA earns a grade of C-.

6. Theatre Inconnu: With its 2016 lineup unavailable, this company gets bragging rights about its 2015 season that features two of four plays written by women (Linda Griffiths and Erin Shields) and three of four plays directed by women (Jocelyne Lamarche, Wendy Merk and Karen Lee Pickett). This gets Inconnu’s Artistic Director Clayton Jevne (who did not direct at all this year) an A+ grade for gender equity.

 

The other issue to be examined for this report is the number of men who head theatre companies in Victoria. Four of the six companies above are run by male artistic directors, with the exception of Langham Court and Phoenix Theatre that both select plays and directors via a committee structure inclusive of women members. The Department of Theatre at UVic is now chaired by a woman, Dr Allana Lindgren. She is the first woman chair in the 17 years I have lived here. Long overdue! 

Other women theatre leaders in Victoria include Janet Munsil, artistic producer of Intrepid Theatre and its Fringe, UNO and OUTStages Festivals. Puente Theatre has always been headed by a woman (founder Lina de Guevara followed by Mercedes Bátiz-Benét). SNAFU Theatre is run by Kathleen Greenfield and Ingrid Hansen, and Karen Lee Pickett is the artistic producer of the Victoria Shakespeare Festival. Not too bad overall. 

We can all do our part in making theatre more inclusive and equitable, not just for women but for minorities as well. Let your voice be heard, talk to the theatre leaders in town. We need to get this conversation going, to let the men who sit in positions of power know we are seeing their choices, and to invite them to act as allies in the ongoing struggle to bring down the barriers for women in theatre.

 

The “Achieving Equity” and earlier “Adding it Up” reports are available online at http://www.eit.playwrightsguild.ca/

Monica is pleased to bring a woman’s perspective to local theatre reviewing. You can catch her reviews on CBC Radio Victoria’s On the Island (90.5 FM) as she alternates with reviewer David Lennam on Mondays at 8:20am.

This story has been edited from its original version. We originally stated that only one play in the coming season at Langham Court Theatre will be directed by a woman. There are, in fact, two.