Women in Theatre: Feminism in the Make-Believe World


While researching a medieval history essay on women’s rights to control their property and reading a book on female emancipation for modern history, the question of women in theatre sprang into my mind during one of those multiple moments of procrastination. When we think of theatre we often only think of the actors on the stage, moving around a dimly or brightly lit space. Very seldom do we pull away from the captivating story for long enough to consider the gender of the actors, the production team or even more importantly perhaps, the play- wright. To suggest that there may still be inequalities in theatre is a taboo subject often hidden in those dimly lit areas of the stage away from prying eyes. However, this is not the age of Shakespeare in which young boys played the female parts; this is not the age of the French Revolution where the majority of females on stage were used for propaganda purposes as a way to sexualise the Republic of France. We can talk about this issue, right?

In 2012, a Shakespeare production took to the stage at the Hampstead Theatre in London, sparking outcry. Why you may ask? Well, it would seem that in doing so, the production company had got into a time machine and travelled back 500 years. They had casually pushed all women off of the stage to create an authentic Shakespearean performance. As a historian, I have no problem with historical accuracy, but have we gone too far when the attempt to recreate something authentic gets in the way of equality? Actor, writer and director Stella Duffy would say that we have: “When we do not see ourselves on stage we are reminded, yet again, that

the people running our world (count the women in the front benches if you are at all unsure) do not notice when we are not there. That they think men (and yes, white, middle-class, middle-aged, able-bodied men at that) are all we need to see.”

Elizabeth Freestone, artistic di- rector of Pentabus Theatre, and The Guardian joined forces to investigate the statistics of women in theatre. Their discovery was that there is a two to one ratio of men to women in the theatrical world and that this problem starts at the board level. Their study of directors revealed that a mere 24 per cent were women and in the 36 year history of the Olivier Awards (to 2012), women had only won twice for best director, that being Deborah Warner in 1988 and 1992.

So is this to say that women are inherently bad playwrights, directors and actresses? That is what the figures would lead us to believe. Playwright Zinnie Harris blames people’s mentalities for this phenomenon: “It is some- how harder for people to embrace a play written by a woman, whatever its quality. There is something slightly unseemly about filling stages with our voices, whereas men have a sense of filling Chekhov’s or Ibsen’s shoes. The woman who raises her voice becomes shrill and hectoring; the man becomes authoritative.” Harris also blames the media for condemning women who do not quite reach the intended mark, while letting men off more easily in their criticism.

The Olivier Stage, National Theatre, London
The Olivier Stage, National Theatre, London

To return to Shakespeare, only 16 per cent of his parts were written as being female, a slight anomaly considering that give or take a few per cent each generation, women make up half of the population. I do not intend to criticise Shakespeare in any way, he was a man of his times and I adore his plays. However, many people would murmur, ‘he’d never get away with that nowadays.’ And this is the point. We see inequality in theatre as a thing of the past. But it is not. And like any area of life that is unequal, it is time to do something about it.

President of the Feminist Society, Jo Boon, shared her thoughts on the history of women in theatre and the current situation: “If you look at many of our courses from primary schools to postgrads there is a distinct absence of literature produced by women in all genres. This is largely an historical problem and can be explained in many ways: access to education, access to production, social acceptability of a career and independence and the ways we value the ‘literary canon’. We continue to value great names such as Shakespeare and, while I personally think Shakespeare should be valued, we ignore much else in the process.

“Having said this I also have a slight problem with adding categories into courses such as ‘female authors with a female focus,’ as it undermines the importance of such work. We don’t have a category of ‘male authors with a male focus’ because this is most of literature.

“Women are also often stereo- typed within plays, one classic being the innocent virgin juxtaposed with the femme fatale. There are many more stereotypes than this but increasingly the literary scene is be- coming more nuanced and there was a huge range of inspiring plays produced, directed, written and acted by women at the Fringe Festival I took part in this summer. This pattern is being replicated the world over and within our own town in St Andrews. We have some extraordinarily powerful female playwrights, some seriously talented actresses and our tech teams are largely headed by women. Many of our theatre groups, including Mermaids, are headed by women and paving the way to an inclusive and vibrant theatre scene.”

Jo Boon also told The Saint about FemSoc’s exciting new production: “The Vagina Monologues were written by Eve Ensler and launched in 1996, continuing to this day in various forms. It is an episodic play made up of a series of monologues (which change and can be added to) about women’s vaginas, relationships to their bodies and much more. Some of them are super fun, about everything from experimental sex to loving your own body and some are very serious, for example there is a powerful, tragic and very moving one about gang rape. They were performed in St Andrews two years ago and were a huge success so we are bringing them back again this year.”

A production team has been selected and auditions will be held soon. The performance of The Vagina Monologues will happen in February, because throughout that month the rights to the work are free as long as all money raised by the performance is donated to a charity which empowers women. FemSoc are yet to choose which charity they will be supporting but are open to any suggestions.

As Ms Boon points out, our theatre scene in St Andrews is a pretty equal place with women taking on roles in every category. For example, for The Drowsy Chaperone out of a production team of ten, eight including the director, producer and choreographer are female. Significantly, the President of Mermaids is Joanna Bowman. And this is where I can see hope for more widespread equality.

Duffy argues that smaller scale productions, like fringe theatre, are better balanced. But it is the national companies who should be leading by example and they are not. This is a heartbreaking situation.

It is our fundamental responsibility to make the world a fairer place, and where is a better place to target than the magical world of theatre? It is my hope that the national companies can learn to emulate places like our University and move the issue of the unequal opportunities for women in theatre out of the dimly lit areas of the stage and into the brighter lights.




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