Irish theatre has the opportunity to act as a trailblazer in championing gender equality and creating a model that can be used by other sectors, according to the Waking the Feminists campaign.
Speaking from the podium in Liberty Hall on International Women’s Day at the second Waking the Feminists public meeting since the movement’s conception last November, set designer and arts manager Lian Bell called on Irish theatre to introduce both equality and diversity at policy level.
“The ideology of gender equality needs to permeate the very fabric of companies from top to bottom,” said Ms Bell, lead campaigner for #WakingtheFeminists. “This is about all areas of theatre, but it’s not just about theatre. We have opportunity for this sector to be seen as a trail blazer, for bracing change and championing gender equality in a way that can be used as a model and as a case study for others.”
The Waking the Feminists movement was sparked by the announcement late last year of the Abbey Theatre’s commemorative programme for 2016, Waking the Nation, in which only one of its 10 programmed plays was written by a woman.
Waking the Feminists is calling for a sustained policy of inclusion and action plan, equal championing and advancement of women artists and economic parity for all working in theatre. The group has committed to giving up its time and resources for free to work on the campaign over the next year and hopes to achieve equality in Irish theatre within five years.
Representatives from the country’s seven key theatrical organisations were invited to speak at Tuesday’s meeting and reflect on equality for women in theatre. Loretta Dignam from the board of the Abbey said the theatre had established a gender equality sub-committee and was working towards developing a “comprehensive equality plan”.
Festival director of Tiger Dublin Fringe Kris Nelson warned that “an indirect, implicit kind of equality is not enough. It needs to be explicit.”
Director of the Gate theatre Michael Colgan admitted that while the majority of the Gate's theatregoers were female, most of the plays produced were not written by women. He added that he hoped the theatre could "give a platform to female playwrights on their journey".
Over the past decade, fewer than a third of directors taking part in the Dublin Theatre Festival were female , while under a quarter of the plays shown in the festival were written by women, according to the festival's director Willie White.
After bringing the audience to tears of laughter while outlining the most popular questions asked of female technicians, including ‘is that a hammer in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?’, actor and writer Sonya Kelly highlighted the extreme highs and lows of working in theatre.
“We are in the business of creating heightened feelings,” said Ms Kelly. “This feverishly passionate industry has borne wonderful creative relationships.... at its most positive, the manner in which we engage with each other has the capability to do this - to exalt, mentor, burgeon. At its most negative, it can demean, subjugate, intimidate and paralyse.”
‘Breaking the mould’
Film producer and member of the Irish Film Board Katie Holly thanked Waking the Feminists for putting pressure on film to acknowledge inequality in its own industry and to publicly commit to making changes.
In the last five years only 20 per cent of projects funded by the Irish Film Board were written or directed by women, while only 19 per cent of funding from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland went towards female directors, said Ms Holly.
“Irish film is riding high right now. And I know that with that there will be resistance to breaking the mould. That we should fund the best, rather than according to gender, but I also know we need to challenge what’s seen as best and find equality in the diverse.”
Also speaking at the event, Irish Times journalist Una Mullally reflected on the abuse and violence countless women experience on a daily basis.
“No matter what you’re wearing, no matter what time of day it is, no matter what you look like, no matter where you are, women are open to attack on the street. And I’m sick of it.
“This is a country where 26 per cent of women have been victims of physical or sexual violence by a male partner or another man,” said Mullally. “That violence is not perpetrated by one small marauding gang of men. It’s much more widespread than that.
“I’m sick of protecting men from a male culture of violence, a culture of exerting power, of keeping women in their place with threats from micro aggressions and straightforward attacks. We’re not making this up. It’s real.”