Sunday, 16 April 2017

20.17 Blog #12: All Change, Ta: Gender Equality in Theatre

I’ve just finished reading All Change Please, Lucy Kerbel’s new book about achieving Gender Equality in Theatre (find it here).

This isn’t so much a review as more a reaction.  And when I say reaction, it’s only my own instinctive thoughts (in 20 minutes and 17 seconds, as per my blog rule).

I need to re-read it, even though Lucy’s book is very manageable.  It’s not hugely long (150 pages) and broken down into bite-size sections and subsections.  But when we talk about Gender Equality in any industry, it’s a vast discussion with a lot to explore.

My quibbles with the book are two, and that’s mainly because of the company I keep rather than my own skin in the game.  One is the book is hetronormative in the sense it sees a clear binary between female and male and (unless I missed it) doesn’t clock queer experiences.  And after centring my feminism through riot grrrl, zines, radical feminist poetry and radical feminist friends maybe I wanted some more confrontational language.  But I totally appreciate Tonic, Lucy’s organisation, are about working within the structures to question the structures, being practical and opening dialogue.  So I guess I’ll pop the petrol bombs away for today.

My experience with women in theatre was they were active inspirational educators.  My Mum took me to see theatre from as early as I can remember, and my Year 6 Teacher had studied Drama and wrote our school plays.  Drama teachers at secondary school were women, and my years spent learning in York Youth Theatre was defined by confident and inspiring women.  Tutors are University were sharp, intelligent and, admittedly, slightly bonkers.

Lucy talks about the way that women in theatre buildings tend to be found in administrate roles than artistic.  It reminded me that as much as I owe a huge debt to the women who inspired me to work in the arts, and I’m sure they are chuffed to be an inspiration, is it not the role of women to be the muse for men.  And each of these women were, and are, dynamic artists whose role extended (and continues to extend) beyond educator into theatre-maker.

My own current experience is being a Youth Theatre practitioner, and Lucy talks about the important role of young people in the discussion around gender equality in a whole chapter.  Youth theatre tends to be 60-70% girls, and actually Youth Theatre practitioners tend to mostly be women too.  In fact, I’ve heard it’s quite good to get men to work in this context to offer some diversity to the freelance pool.

I don’t need to repeat all Lucy’s insight into how scripts for young people are often male-heavy, and resign the girls to very mundane, archetypal roles.  This is reflective of scripts as a whole.  The Platform plays, as well as other writers like Laura Lomas and Evan Placey, have been trying to address this.  In my own plays for youth theatre, I’ve always deliberately set up, from the start, the goal that female characters will have a strong voice in the narrative.

There’s an argument that lurks often in Telegraph articles and the Facebook threads of white hetcis male directors and actors that this is a token gesture, that the story is what matters in plays is the telling of the tale and it’s the narrative drive and it’s the universality of experiences and other such dismissible gibberish so the boys can swagger and protect their platforms.

The fact is, the girls in the youth theatre groups I work with are passionate, enthusiastic and highly talented people and deserve to have roles which challenge them as much as the majority of male roles are diverse.  And if the female characters are defining the story, it encourages female actors to define the world.  With Harrogate Youth Theatre, next term we’ll be working on Bryony Lavery’s It Snows.  With a few edits (replacing the insult given to a character in the play called Huntly from C**tly to Runtly) I’m excited that the script puts an equal emphasis on female roles as male roles.

I’m a cisgender man, and very privileged to be afforded many opportunities in life and career not available to women with the same experience.  Like I was inspired, I’d also like to try and inspire.

I’m still very much learning how to achieve gender equality in the arts settings I work, but Lucy’s book is great additional tool to the conversation (or battle).

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