Last week, in preparation for the discussion at Above the Arts on Women in Theatre, as part of Verve Festival, I decided to scan back through the last 12 months of reviews on The LGBTQ Arts Review to see how the gender imbalance in plays out in LGBT theatre. Admittedly, it's impossible for us to get to every LGBT show on in London, because there are simply too many (hurrah). However, it was no surprise that we covered 31 shows with male protagonists and / or about male sexuality, and only 9 with females. Trans stories are also incredibly rare.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since then, trying to ascertain precisely why there’s such a lack of female representation on London’s stages. I have many theories, and imagine there are a number of contributing factors, one of which could be that female sexuality is still policed a great deal in 2016, by society, our media and our culture. Another reason, suggested to me by a friend was that it occurs because historically male homosexuality has been systematically persecuted more than female (having never been easy for either, but there has never been a law making female same sex sexual relationships illegal - they tried to pass one, but the it was defeated in the house of Lords). This push of male stories on to the stages and in to theatres being the result of that oppression. I have no doubt this is a factor, but I think there are more reasons. I began to question why queer women’s stories are not making it on to the main stages, or even in to the larger fringe venues.
I also work for FemaleArts, where we aim to highlight gender disparity in theatre, ultimately it’s a larger problem in our society, which needs tackling from the roots, but we do what we can within our sector. We focus on promoting women and celebrating women’s achievements in the arts and calling out cases of gender inequality when they arise. Although I appreciate LGBTQ Theatre is fairly niche, the same gender imbalance feels magnified here. The fringe is, as always, diverse but the NPOs, larger houses and even bigger fringe venues are not, particularly in terms of women's voices, with a particular concerning absence of queer women's voices.
I’m curious as to at what point the barriers occur. I've had many infuriating debates stating that we live in a meritocracy. Spoiler alert: we don't. It's not a meritocracy if certain groups face barriers to the opportunities available. Barriers arise for women (and minority groups) before they've even got to the stage of writing. Playwright, Lucy Avery, called a brilliant session at Devoted and Disgruntled called 'Just Hit Send’, which explored a range of different theories behind the lack of female playwrights in NPOs and larger theatres, which stemmed from Avery’s observation of own reluctance to send off her scripts to call outs, due to a concern they wouldn’t be ‘good enough’, something, she discovered her male peers felt far less often than she did.
There is some hope for queer women, with Tipping the Velvet on at the Lyric Hammersmith last year, and whispers that the Broadway production of Alison Bechdel’s Tragi-comic ‘Fun Home’ will come to London next year, there are moments of representation to be celebrated, but there’s still far to go.
Another interesting conversation that arose during the discussion was on the history of feminist theatre, and the question ‘is it important to know about feminist theatre from the past, in order to inform our work now?’ To which I think, yes. I've spent the past year researching the history of LGBT and Queer Theatre in order to be able to figure out what progress we’re making, and where we’re at on our journey. I also think it’s important to not always grumble or shout about what isn’t there, but to celebrate what is and what has been there. The closure of the Drill Hall in 2012 saw a shift in the landscape of the LGBT and Queer Theatre. It had previously been a pioneering venue for experimental and Queer Theatre. Gay Sweatshop, formed in 1974, performed there frequently - and at one point declared a 50/50 split of gender within their casts - addressing the gender imbalance in theatre isn’t a new thing, and I think it gives us strength if we know that, as Naomi said during the panel, we should see ourselves as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, and building on the work that’s gone before. Many will argue that the closure of the Drill Hall didn’t affect much, as we are now at the stage where this work is seeping in to more mainstream theatres, therefore there the need for a specific alternative and queer venue isn’t as great as it used to be. My concern with this though, is that when queer arts move in to more mainstream venues, they begin to cater for a more mainstream audience, leaving those on the edges marginalised once again, which is what I suspect we may be occurring when we see a rush queer male voices on our stages, with female and trans voices being there far less often.
Amie Taylor (@LGBTQArts / @FemaleArts / @AmieAmieTay)
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research