Women in Theatre

It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone working in theatre has at least one good production horror story. Whether it is a piece of set gone awry, a woefully mistimed cue or a major costume malfunction, theatre seems to be one of the only industries where mistakes don’t just happen, but are also detailed and collated to be revealed at inopportune moments: in a snarky comment in the next day’s notes, or three drinks in at the final night afterparty.

Sometimes, however, those horror stories are a lot more serious; The Stage’s flagship Harassment and Bullying in the Theatre Industry report, published last year, revealed that more than half of women working in the creative industries had encountered sexual harassment or bullying at work. With the rise of #MeToo and ELA 50:50, the entertainment industries are now more than ever having to interrogate their feminist praxis. And closer to home, virtually all my female/non-binary friends in theatre have had some sort of experience of misogyny in the workplace. To get more of an insight into all this, I interviewed a handful of women and non-binary people working in theatre.

The most common theme which came up in the interviews was not being taken seriously by male colleagues. “Particularly as a young woman working with professional theatres or theatre companies, I've had people ask to speak to our producer or 'the person who deals with our accounts' after I've told them I was the producer”, said one anonymous interviewee. “When dealing with hire companies who are predominantly male, I often get talked down to or told I’m wrong or ignored when I suggest that something is unsafe”, said another. “It's not just fighting a creative battle but also fighting a battle to prove yourself, to prove that you are as good or as capable. It takes twice the emotional effort in many ways.” A lot of this likely arises from unconscious biases - “I think the unconscious bias is the worst, in that it just means women/nb people are just assumed to be less capable, and that treatment is always going to make you feel more nervous (or just very pissed off)”.

Beyond microaggressions, a significant minority of respondents reported higher-level abuse. “Many [networking] groups I’m part of are full of men making misogynistic/sexual posts about women, such as comments wishing to see women undressed… and sometimes even jokes about sexual harassment/rape”. Likewise, “just generally being a female producer you get things about not being as committed because one day you are going to go off pregnant”. And before the #notallmen-brigade arrive: “being passive is almost as bad as actually being the source”, said one interviewee. Others agreed: “I think it can be easy for men who think they've never 'seen' discrimination take place to think that it doesn't exist or is 'getting better' without them taking an active stance. I've encountered a lot of heavily male-dominated spaces and I think people underestimate how imposing that is sometimes, especially when it's clear that you're not being taken seriously or patronised”.

For those experiencing intersectional oppression, the picture is even bleaker. “I feel like for a community that celebrates gay men, there are never any mentions of gay women? Like why aren’t we celebrated and openly embraced?”. Equally, “trans characters are non-existent, and most casting calls are still for ‘men’ and ‘women’ and in general just don’t take into consideration how people identify.” Looking to other axes of oppression, with only 5.4% of those working in the creative industries identifying as BAME and only 1% identifying as disabled, it is clear that theatre has a serious diversity problem.

Another major issue cited by interviewees was the narrow range of roles available to women and non-binary people. “Women are funny, women can be strong and complicated and varied… [yet] male characters are far more strong and developed.” And “the result of so many roles for women being poorly written (along the saint/whore dichotomy) - and this being in stark contrast to the vast range and depth of roles available to men - is a snowball effect” whereby women are seen to be less capable than their male counterparts. This issue is more apparent for women who are in any sense gender non-conforming. “I’ve often felt people casting don’t know where to put me, seeing my butchness as a hindrance, something that gets in the way of their performance”, reported one interviewee. “I am always afraid to tell people I am gay in case they type role me into the very few (and very narrow) non-hetero female roles in theatre”, said another. Despite all this, multiple women noted resistance from their male colleagues at institutional attempts to rectify this: “male-identifying members of a theatre company back home complaining about the lack of roles available for them within the youth company. The members in question didn't realise (or listen when we tried to explain) that what they were experiencing is what many women in in the industry face throughout their career. They felt entitled to leading roles, and were angry when this was not always possible.”

Overall, the experience of being a woman or non-binary person in the creative industries was summarised nicely in one interviewee's assertion that “it’s just that little bit harder. If no one listens to your suggestions nothing gets done because theatre must be collaborative, but it often becomes a place to stroke egos, rather than create something amazing”.

So where do we go from here? What can our (white, cisgender, heterosexual) male colleagues do to make being a woman in the theatre industry slightly less soul-crushing? Firstly, recognising the imbalance already in place: “I think in general I wish men acknowledged and understood the problems that women still face, rather than simply dismissing the struggle women face as something of the past”. And part of this comes from thinking about their own privilege, “that being a straight white man automatically entitles them to more opportunities, and ignoring this is a big part of the problem. By recognising or acknowledging it, they are not putting themselves out of a job/opportunity, but helping to make the industry more inclusive and accessible”.

With recognising one’s privilege comes pragmatic action. “Classic but: check yourself! Especially in production roles - if you are questioning someone's expertise by undermining them or 'showing them how to do something', take a minute to question why it is you need to do that. Have they asked for help/royally fucked something up, or do they just seem nervous/you aren't sure that they can do it?”. Or, as another interviewee put it more succinctly, “fuck off and stop trying to undermine and test me to see if I know my stuff”. In a similar vein, multiple interviewees shared the sentiment that men need to “listen to us, hear our suggestions, try them out [because] you’re not the only person in the room, and you definitely can’t do it without us”, and use their privilege to “call other men out for mean/sexist/inappropriate comments, as well as stepping in when a woman/nb person is being belittled”.

And above all, men can help rectify the imbalance through generally supporting their non-male colleagues and making room for woman/non-binary-fronted success. “Be happy and supportive when female/nb colleagues succeed or are faced with exciting opportunities! Support women when they want to try new roles, seek to listen and understand the struggles of others and do what they can to support it, even if it is as simple as sharing a female/nb led show on Facebook. They need to be willing to discuss and step back to allow space”.

The current everyday reality of being a woman or non-binary person in theatre may be one marked by workplace patronisation, uncredited emotional labour, condescending reviews and a woeful lack of representation. However, it is only through drawing attention to these issues that we can move forward to a more representative and equitable industry. To an industry where plays written by women and non-binary people are programmed in main-house slots, where female/non-binary technicians don’t have to wade through a sea of patronising men to get a roll of LX tape, and where theatre horror stories can return to being light-hearted japes about lighting rigs.

Clodagh Chapman

Image courtesy of RashDash.