Lian Bell: #WakingTheFeminists still waiting for the Abbey

‘If Fiach Mac Conghail wants to change things, here’s his chance. Accept the mistake. Don’t just say sorry. Do sorry’

Women from all areas of theatre attend the ‘Waking The Feminists’ event at the Abbey Theatre. It follows criticism of the Abbey's 'Waking The Nation’ programme and the #WakingTheFeminists social media campaign. Video: Bryan O'Brien / Paula Geraghty

 

On the evening of Thursday, November 5th, a group of theatre professionals met at the offices of Rough Magic Theatre Company. Following the launch of the Abbey Theatre’s Waking The Nation programme a week before, which displayed a greater than usual bias against women directors and playwrights, I had been furiously corralling the online explosion of commentary, testimonies and rage.

The call for the Abbey to respond and change grew louder each day. I needed help. I contacted people I knew would be able to work with me in taking this discussion off the internet and into real life – respected leaders of arts organisations and theatre companies, freelance producers, actors, directors and writers.

By the following Thursday, we had pulled together the most extraordinary event any of us have ever worked on. We demanded – and got – the use of our national theatre’s main stage to hold a two-hour public meeting featuring the powerful testimonies of 30 women working in all areas of theatre, in a packed auditorium.

The 450 tickets were snapped up online in under seven minutes. More than 100 more women and men sat on the floor of the bar and foyer to listen to an audio feed from the stage. Hundreds around the world watched via live stream, and more than 1,800 have since watched the video on wakingthefeminists.org

On November 19th, I delivered a petition to the stage door of the Abbey with 5,500 signatures calling for the director and board to lead the way in establishing equality for women artists. All of us are still waiting.

After the public meeting, #WakingTheFeminists quickly broadened the call for equality to include all publicly funded theatre organisations, and have begun discussions with key companies, including the Gate and Druid, about how they can increase opportunities for women artists.

We welcome the fact there is now a subcommittee of the Abbey board tasked with developing a gender-balance policy, and we will meet them and the chair, Bryan McMahon, this week. But it’s not enough.

No further response

As Garry Hynes of Druid (an ex-director of The Abbey) puts it: “It was encouraging in some small way that the Abbey Theatre responded to the initial wave of strong reaction from WakingTheFeminists with an acknowledgment that the issue had been mishandled. It’s perplexing and shocking that the board of the national theatre, its chairman and its director have failed to follow through on that first response.”

The board and director acknowledged publicly that the programme announced for the first half of next year “does not represent gender equality”. We need a declaration by McMahon and the board that they will address this inequality for the latter part of the year.

Many may wonder why we are making such a fuss about the Abbey’s terrible track record in gender equality. Apart from the issue of the fair use of public money (the Abbey gets half – €6.2 million – of all the State funding for theatre), and apart from miserably failing its own mission statement as a national theatre to engage with and reflect Irish society, it is a question of who gets to tell our stories – yours and mine.

A national theatre, at its best, is a creative space for us as artists and audience to look at the past in new ways, lay bare the present and imagine a future. If the national theatre is not allowing women’s voices to be heard, then they exclude half the nation in the creative imagining of our world, doing both artists and audiences an unforgivable disservice.

The word “commemoration” rattles dryly around the country in the lead-up to next year’s centenary events. Commemoration. Remembering together. Memory itself is a creative act; everyone’s memory of an event is different, as is everyone’s story of the event. During the past weeks, through the voices of a multitude of women and men speaking up as feminists, this word came to life for me. I realise how important exposure to a spectrum of stories is – next year more than ever.

Plotting a course

Change within large organisations can be slow – a big ship takes time to turn. But these are exceptional circumstances. Also, it appears no one has touched the wheel of this particular ship; it is still resolutely, unapologetically, navigating the same course as it was a month ago.

The director, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, admitted at the public meeting that he “did not ensure that our 2016 programme would reflect the experience of the nation as a whole”. He expressed his regret – not in itself an apology – and appears to have done nothing about it since. That is simply not enough.

Ex-director of the Abbey Lelia Doolan puts it succinctly “If Fiach Mac Conghail wants to change things, here’s his chance. Accept the mistake. Don’t just say sorry. Do sorry.” As theatre professionals, those of us gathered as #WakingTheFeminists know that more women’s work can be put on stage during the symbolically important year of 2016, but only if the board and director of the Abbey actually do something – and do it soon.

It is the Abbey’s responsibility to reflect the nation, with the use of public money, and the board’s responsibility to ensure that it does so. We’re not asking, we’re demanding.

Lian Bell is a freelance set designer and arts manager

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