Women make their way to centre stage in Irish theatre


Good roles can be hard to find, respect must be hard won, and heavy lifting can still cause problems - but much has changed in the theatre world

‘All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”

But how many parts does a woman play on the modern Irish stage?

A landmark research project in the UK recently exposed a two-to-one inequity in the British theatre, concluding that there are double the amount of men as women employed across the various theatrical professions.

If Ireland has historically lagged behind the rest of Europe in many aspects of gender politics, how does it fare in its treatment of women who tread the boards? How do women involved in Irish theatre right now feel about their place in the current theatrical landscape?

The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards have highlighted the increased visibility of women in Irish theatre over the years. We ask some recent and current nominees for their point of view.

The director: Annabelle Comyn

I worked in the UK for 10 years in the early part of my career and, although I didn’t consider it at the time, the statistics were loaded in favour of my male contemporaries.

I worked hard and got entry as an assistant director at some of the top theatre companies in London, but I think the real challenge [for a woman] is how you progress beyond that, to the next level of your career.

It is always difficult to assess whether I was discriminated against for being a woman, as it is rarely blatant and transparent, but I felt that once I was no longer looking to be guided, nurtured, taught, this led to greater tension. I think I became a risk factor once I wanted to direct my own work.

In part, this might be to do with the fact that the canon of work produced both in Ireland and Britain is predominantly written by men.

Putting a young female director in a rehearsal room with mostly men in a play written by a man predominantly about men is sometimes a step too far within theatre’s historical and cultural framework. Unfortunately, this legacy means employers can have a loaded and difficult decision when considering women directors, especially for the first time.

And so I have found, for myself and other women directors, that it takes many more years to build up a level of trust.

Of course the knock-on effect is that you are still considered young when you hit 40, but more importantly, it means you get on the financial ladder years later.

I would guess that this is true across the board for women directors, actors or designers.

Annabelle Comyn is nominated for best director for the Abbey Theatre’s production of The House. Her production of Major Barbara will run at the Abbey Theatre later this year

The writer: Deirdre Kinahan

I started writing in 1999, when there were far fewer women writing for the stage than there are now. At the time, only one in four professional productions were of plays written by women, so I founded my own company, Tall Tales. We devoted five years to commissioning female playwrights and producing work by women writers from around the world whose work hadn’t been staged here.

It has changed a lot now: there is a whole generation of new female writers and that’s brilliant. The last thing [a culture] wants is a homogeneous voice, so whether that’s reflecting different genders or class background or ethnic background or aesthetic impulses, that diversity is only a good thing. Now the problem isn’t so much being a woman as being a playwright.

It is just really difficult to get new work staged, and it’s starting to kill off playwrights, particularly those in mid-career. The despondency among writers I know is palpable. If you can’t get your work staged, what are you supposed to aspire to?

At the moment, the only real option seems to be to self-produce – or to go abroad – and most of the contemporary female writers – Nancy Harris, Abbie Spallen, Ursula Rani Sarma – are based in London, where there is much better support for writers in general.

The truth is it’s very difficult for everyone writing for the stage, male or female these days, although if you looked at the stats it would probably hold that it is still tougher for women.

Deirdre Kinahan’s Halcyon Days is nominated for best new play. It tours in June and July

The actor: Grace Kiely

In some ways, it’s bizarre being an actress based in Galway, because the expectation is that you would go to Dublin or London, because that is where the work is, but I have actually been very lucky and manage to get a good bit of work here.

That said, I definitely think for anyone trying to become a professional actor, it’s a case of make your own work, because otherwise you will be waiting your whole life to be cast. The truth is there are so few roles, especially for women.

There are hundreds of actresses and just no parts, no work for you. If you’re a man, at least there isn’t that problem.

I was really lucky being cast in The Mai. Marina Carr is someone who writes brilliant parts for women. The play spans four generations of women, each with their own crisis – so there was work for a few of us [actresses].

I played Millie, and she is both 16 and 34 in the course of the play, and that was even better, because it was like I got to play two parts at once.

The best thing about being nominated for an award, though, is that you know that it was seen by people, that you don’t have to bring it to Dublin for people to think it was worthwhile.

Grace Kiely is nominated for her role as Millie in Mephisto Theatre’s production of The Mai by Marina Carr. She is currently touring with Moonfish Theatre’s Tromluí Phinocchio/Pinocchio – A Nightmare

The lighting designer: Sinéad McKenna

As a whole the theatre is a supportive environment, but it [the technical aspect] would be still quite male dominated, and I have definitely encountered a version of sexism over the years, particularly when I was starting off in crewing.

I would have been [overlooked] a lot more as a woman, where people would tend to go for man who may be able to lift heavier things, that sort of thing, but I have generally closed my eyes to it because for a good crew, the job is the most important thing, it doesn’t matter who is calling the shots.

That said, maybe I am guilty of reverse sexism sometimes because I am always really happy to work with women; they tend to have had to work a lot harder to get where they are, so they are usually extremely conscientious. And honestly there are things I would prefer someone else to do, like if there is a heavy lamp that needs to be carried up a ladder, I’ve no problem asking a stronger guy to do it. You’d be more likely to encounter it [sexism] at the administrative or producing end of things, people who would doubt your skills or give you a pat on the back if you get a job.

The other thing is that it’s not a very family-oriented profession. There are definitely upsides, but there’s no stability and you do notice a lot of women in the profession don’t have children. That might not be a conscious decision, but the work is so sporadic and requires such passion, that you do wonder if you can make being a mother work, too.

Sinéad McKenna is currently lighting designer for Coiscéim’s Pageant, which opens at the Project Arts Centre on February 23rd. She has been nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award three times and won in 2002 for Ladies and Gents

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