Theatres agree to ‘gender-blind casting’ and more female playwrights

Leading theatres, festivals and groups sign up to policy to increase female involvement

Ruth Negga will play Hamlet at the Gate Theatre. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA

Ruth Negga will play Hamlet at the Gate Theatre. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA


Ten of the country’s leading theatres, drama festivals and theatre companies have agreed to a range of gender equality policies, which in some cases will see “gender-blind casting” or ensuring that half of new shows will be written by women.

The gender equality policy for the theatre sector, to be launched by Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan on Monday, arose from the Waking the Feminists campaign that ran in 2015 and 2016 to address the under-representation of women, including writers and directors, in Irish theatre.

The Abbey and the Gate theatres in Dublin, and Druid in Galway, have signed up to the policy statement, which will be officially unveiled by Ms Madigan at The Lir National Academy for Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin, another of the organisations to have agreed to sign up.

Each organisation involved in the process has tailored a policy statement with different commitments.

The measures adopted in some cases include a commitment the boards of the organisation will have a 50-50 gender split, “gender-blind readings for plays”, “unconscious bias training for all staff” and a commitment to achieving “gender balance in programming within a five-year period”.

The organisations have also agreed to add “dignity at work” clauses to their employee charters and to work within third-level institutions to encourage gender parity where there is unequal representation.

Agreement to abide by “gender-blind casting” would encourage theatres and drama companies to consider casting more women in roles traditionally performed by men.

One of the most anticipated productions of this year will be Oscar-nominated actor Ruth Negga playing Hamlet at the Gate Theatre from September as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Female canon

Academic Dr Brenda Donohue, in research commissioned by Waking the Feminists, found that women were underrepresented in every role across the top 10 funded theatre organisations except costume design.

In directing, 37 per cent were found to be women; in writing, it was just 28 per cent, while the lowest level of female participation was in sound design at just 9 per cent. The study found that to achieve parity in all roles, women face a gap of 8-41 percentage points.

The 10 organisations have agreed in a “re-examination of the female canon” to consider works by female playwrights who have been overlooked and whether they should be staged.

Others to adopt the policy include the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork, Dublin Theatre Festival and the Cork Midsummer Festival. Theatre companies Corn Exchange, Rough Magic and Fishamble have also signed up.

The grass-roots Waking the Feminists campaign was formed in November 2015 in protest over the male-dominated line-up at the Abbey for its 2016 centenary programme, Waking the Nation, which had only one female playwright and two female directors involved in 10 shows.

Demands for change

Allegations of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment against former Gate Theatre artistic director Michael Colgan – claims he has denied – last year added to demands for change.

Ms Madigan has expressed a willingness to put gender equality on a statutory footing should female representation in theatre not increase voluntarily as a result of the policy statements adopted.

Lian Bell, campaign director of Waking the Feminists, described the policies as “a really significant step in embedding gender equality as an ethos into all of those organisations”.

The policies were not just a statement of intent, she said, but would also make organisations accountable so people could look back in several years to see if their intentions have been met.

“All of it is a work in progress; it is not like, ‘That’s it, we can dust our hands and it is finished,’ ” said Ms Bell. “All these policies have to be kept on the table, and live; they cannot go on a shelf and say we that we have done that.”