Abbey Theatre urged to play role in seeking equality in arts

Waking the Feminists meeting hears call for equal advancement of women artists

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

 

Almost 600 members of the Irish theatre community gathered at the Abbey Theatre on Thursday afternoon to lobby for equality for women working in the arts.

The meeting was sparked by the announcement of the Abbey Theatre’s commemorative programme for 2016, Waking the Nation, in which one of its 10 programmed plays is written by a woman.

In the ensuing fortnight, women from across the theatre and the arts have been using social media to call for gender equality, under the Twitter handle #Wakingthefeminists.

There has been international support from foreign actors, such as Martha Plimpton, Meryl Streep and Debra Messing among others.

At the public forum on Thursday afternoon, 30 women spoke of their experiences working in theatre in Ireland, including writers Nancy Harris and Amy Conroy, director Sarah Jane Scaife, and campaign organisers Lian Bell and Sarah Durcan. Director Catriona McLaughlin commended the initiative: “Being fair takes work.” Actors Marie Mullen, Derbhle Crotty, Eleanor Methven and Janet Moran, who appeared on stage with her infant son, spoke about their experiences from the perspective of the acting community.

Mullen, speaking on behalf of herself and Garry Hynes, with whom she set up Druid Theatre, said: “If we had tried to get into the arts by the traditional route, neither of us would work in theatre today.”

The campaign also announced its initial objectives, which include the development of a sustained policy for inclusion, and economic parity for all working in the arts.

The event was chaired by Senator Ivana Bacik, who spoke about how the issues being raised mirrored “women’s invisibility in the public sphere and public life, their exclusion from politics and other areas of public life”.

Director of the Abbey Theatre Fiach Mac Conghail read out a statement from the Abbey, pledging the theatre’s commitment to addressing the issues raised and fostering change across the sector.

Community activist Kathleen O’Neill also spoke from the stalls about the importance of recognising that diversity of women’s experience. “Feminism is not homogenous,” she said, and encouraged the movement to reach outwards as well as reflect on their own industry.

Writer Evelyn Conlon urged the campaigners to “look to history”, including the occupation of the Mansion House before the 1937 Constitution was sworn into law, for models of protest.

In summing up, Sarah Durcan said: “We are not asking — we are demanding equality and economy parity. It is simple: commit fully to programming more women artists. In this national theatre, funded by a woman, cofounded by a woman with a queen on its emblem ... we must look at everything we do and root out the blight of inequality.”