There have been too many times in the past and many more recently when I've sat in the theatre thinking - there is nothing for me here... and often there is nothing for thinking people, and especially thinking women. Knowing that London audiences for theatre are predominantly female, the lack of representation of women and women's voices and stories on stage seems perverse. My research into the London theatre of a century ago tells me that people felt the same way. However, the links created within the theatre profession by the suffrage campaign gave women the opportunity to stand up for themselves en masse and try to create a professional space for women's work - both on and off stage - that could compete at a commercial level.
A rare and precious opportunity to talk about this at length emerged at the June Feminar held by London Feminist Network last month. Myself and Rebecca Mordan from Scary Little Girls were invited to talk about women in theatre - a huge topic! - and more particularly our experiences of the industry. When we planned the talk, it was both cheering and disheartening that we had much in common to say about our experiences after drama school and early in our careers.
It's a sadness, really, more than anything.
When you train to be a performer you learn about the industry.
Of course you have to know your casting 'type' - what you might be seen as and therefore how you should pitch yourself. For women, the opportunities available are few and decrease with age and, stupidly, experience. So many talented women can't afford to stay in the business and support themselves through acting. Of course there are lots and lots of talented female writers, performers, designers and theatre makers. The issue is that they are not appearing on large stages regularly and therefore cannot attain the public profile, mainstream support, transfer opportunities and experience that would allow them to compete commercially with their male counterparts.
The revelation in 2012 that the artistic directors of the two institutions which receive the most public funding had never directed a play by a woman stunned me. Yes, that's right - neither Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre or Gregory Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Company have ever directed a play written by a woman. When challenged by the Guardian newspaper about this, neither Hytner or Doran seemed contrite or even particularly interested - with Hytner describing this element of his career as "irrelevant".
The National Theatre received over £17 million from the Arts Council England in 2012-13 and the RSC over £15 million in the same period. At the National, it's not just Hytner's responsibility - as an organisation their track record on producing female writers and employing female performers is poor. That their artistic directors don't care enough about women's writing to programme more work or directly champion it themselves is shocking. Their casualness about it is depressing.
Some consternation was expressed during the recent Equity elections that Malcolm Sinclair, running for a second term as President of the Actors' Union, was a member of the all-male Garrick Club. The issue was obvious - as unequal representation affects so many women on and off stage it is perhaps not helpful that the President of Equity, who professes to support gender equality, is part of one of the oldest and most influential theatre clubs that remains all-male, despite recent attempts to change the rules. Discrimination is deliberate but it is also passive as well as active - and the difference between the opportunities available for men and women in all aspects of the business shows that it is as strong as ever. It is not because there are fewer actresses or existing parts for women. There should be as much work for actresses as there is for actors. Women have historically not been allowed to network in the same ways as men in our profession - a profession which acknowledges that it is not 'what you know but who you know' - and I could make a strong case that the Garrick is still an example of this, particularly in keeping the memory of theatre women and their work alive and accessible.
Propeller, a theatre company run by former National Theatre director Peter Hall's son Edward Hall produces Shakespeare with all-male casts. They recently lost their core funding... something which I think is not a bad thing because - where differences in class and race and, to a certain extent, sexuality have been acknowledged and sensitivities heightened the same does not apply to gender. Women are not a minority, and yet men can stand for women on stage, can 'be' women on stage - and there is a huge history of this that remains in popular culture - thus making actresses and female performers redundant. Despite having women on their team and backstage, Propeller present all-male Shakespeare and have a massive education programme they are proud of. The Propeller productions I have seen have been well cast and well produced - but I have felt uncomfortable at them. Their current campaign to regain their funding trumpets their work in education and the fact that, for so many children, this is their first introduction to Shakespeare. This worries me - it says to those children and the adults with them that men can portray women better than women, that a male view of female experience is sufficient and that male appropriations of 'femininity' - a social construct - represent femaleness. It's wrong and I see no justification for it at all. I wouldn't want a similar all-female company touring at the same scale - but would rather see a company that includes both men and women using the creative resources that Propeller have in abundance to present a much less weird picture of the plays and the industry to audiences. And how about producing some plays from the historical canon written by women?
There are plenty!
As playwright Stella Duffy wrote in her blog here - the notion of hiding behind 'historical accuracy' to justify all-male Shakespeare is ridiculous. I worked on one of the seasons at Shakespeare's Globe in the late 1990's and remember the pains that were taken to keep everything backstage historically accurate - particularly in prop and costume making and maintenance. It may have been a conceit, but it seemed to be a genuine attempt to engage with and explore elements of Tudor and Stuart performance conditions. Perhaps there were actresses in the building gnashing their teeth at the all male Twelfth Night and I was too naive to notice... in hindsight I'm sure there were and I was. How interesting was the outcome for the audience - how much did they know and care what was accurate? Not a lot, I would imagine. A conceit then, and one to which I wilfully contributed - thrilled to be working in the theatre and in that theatre especially and not yet aware of the gender inequalities in any meaningful way. For me, it was a one-off.
I wouldn't see the bigger picture until it had been repeatedly drummed into me by years of working in the business.
Planning the Feminar last month, Becca and I wrote an alternative timeline of theatre women - creating links through the history of theatre and performance that easily run parallel to those of the male playwrights, actors and producers that dominate traditional histories of theatre. It's great, made us feel really positive and we hope to use it again! The discussion around it was intense, valuable and challenging. Many of the attendees of the Feminar were not theatre professionals and expressed that they didn't think of theatre as capable - as a medium - of engaging with the issues they were interested in or of representing women like them on stage. When I told them about the Actresses' Franchise League and the Woman's Theatre they were amazed - and when Becca spoke about the feminist companies of the 1970's and 80's they were invigorated. Who is working on this now, they asked? Lots of people. But not on our big stages and in the prime positions that could force change. Not because they are not good enough, but because they are not allowed to. That's why it all seems bleak.
Generations and generations of people in the industry have prevented women from working as much as men - either by active and open discrimination or by ignoring the inequalities in the industry whilst sometimes playing along with the wringing of hands about why there is discrimination.
The former is refreshingly honest actually. At least it means there is a recognition of the issue.
The latter, unfortunately and insidiously, prevails.
Perhaps we can take inspiration from our alternative timeline - whilst wishing fervently of course that there was no need for one - and wake up to the change that needs to happen for a fairer and better industry for both theatre professionals and audiences, female and male. It won't just happen - it has to be created.