Men significantly outnumber women in key creative roles in the English theatre industry.
Work with artistic directors to increase the number of women in their casts, creative teams and artistic leadership.
Identified workplace practices and artistic predilections that perpetuate gender inequality, then made concrete plans for change in 11 theatre organizations.
Funding limited the project to 11 theatres.
Implement the plans and expand the dialogue to include other theatre organizations.
As a young director in London, Lucy Kerbel knew she wanted to address gender in her work, but she wasn’t sure how. Then, in 2010, she was selected to participate in Step Change, a professional-development program run by the National Theatre. During her year in the program, Kerbel shadowed artistic directors to learn about leadership and management in the industry. “Spending time shadowing artistic directors, I realized that a lot of them would love to see more gender equality, but the problem is they’re all so busy,” she says. “It takes time and commitment, and there’s a sort of nervousness around getting it wrong—plus the roof isn’t going to fall down on your theatre if it isn’t achieved, so it’s never urgent. It’s difficult to get it to the top of the agenda.”
Kerbel realized she could help theatres prioritize gender equality by creating an organization that would provide resources and do the legwork needed to make change. In 2011, she founded Tonic Theatre for just this purpose.
Tonic Theatre’s mission is “to support the theatre industry to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and repertoires” by partnering with theatre companies throughout the U.K. on a variety of projects. For Tonic’s first project, Kerbel led a study of opportunities for girls in youth drama. Second, she collaborated with the National Theatre to write and publish the book 100 Great Plays for Women. Most recently, she completed the organization’s third initiative, the Advance project.
For Advance, Kerbel brought together artistic directors, chief executives and senior creative staff from 11 influential English theatres to investigate why gender imbalances exist in their organizations and what they can do to correct those inequalities. The participating theatres vary in size and mission, but each is a leader in its particular niche in the English theatre industry: the Almeida, the Gate, the Young Vic, and the Tricycle (building-based London theatres); Chichester Festival Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and West Yorkshire Playhouse (large regional producing theatres); English Touring Theatre, Headlong and Pentabus (touring theatre companies); and the Royal Shakespeare Company (one of the two largest, most visible theatre companies in Britain).
Each theatre began work on the project in fall 2013 by formulating a research question about gender equity in their organization. For example, the Royal Shakespeare Company asked: “What is the ladder of progression for an assistant director, and is it different for men and women? What can RSC do to change any discrepancy?” Meanwhile, Headlong investigated: “Does our current commissioning model for writers suit men better than women? If so, what could we do about that?” And Sheffield Theatres articulated: “In programming a balanced repertoire across the year, what factors need to be in place to ensure a gender balance in the employment of actors?”
After identifying their research questions, the theatres began a six-month period of research and data-gathering. Kerbel and Tonic Theatre helped the 11 organizations conduct interviews with their own staff and with the staff at peer organizations, organize and conduct focus groups with freelance professionals, gather data and analyze statistics.
Through the research process, the theatres gathered the information they needed to answer their questions about how and why women are lagging behind in some areas within their particular organizations—but the research also helped Tonic discover some broader trends in the industry. The research revealed that many existing structures and practices in theatre organizations favor men. Gender bias occurs in hiring and promotion decisions throughout the field.
For example, women make up 60 percent of the stage directors registered on the Young Vic’s Directors Network, yet they directed only 24 percent of productions in subsidized theatres during the 2011–12 season. And, while women have made headway into prominent artistic leadership positions in the past few decades, they still only account for 37 percent of artistic directors, and neither of the country’s largest companies (National Theatre and RSC) have ever had a woman at the helm.
Gender bias also occurs in artistic programming. Tonic compiled a snapshot of the plays produced in 44 nonprofit and commercial theatres on one night in September 2014. Only 3 of the 44 plays were written by women, less than 7 percent. They also analyzed productions of new plays during a one-year period in a sampling of 12 London theatres and found that, although women wrote 42 percent of the new plays, most of their plays were produced in small theatre spaces. Seventy-six percent of the new plays produced in large spaces were written by men.
“I was struck by how deeply inequalities are ingrained in the very fabric of the stories we tell—the canon, Shakespeare, male-driven narrative arcs—and not just in the structures of power that deliver them,” says Almeida producer Lilli Geissendorfer, who participated in the project. In short, the stories that English theatres tell on their stages and the people they trust to tell them are disproportionately male.
Advance’s findings demonstrate that the situation calls for theatre professionals to acknowledge existing biases and commit to making real, substantive changes in how they run their organizations. Tonic and the participating theatres identified five key things theatres can do to address gender inequality: 1) start monitoring the numbers of male and female creatives they employ; 2) consider how they build relationships with artists; 3) develop mechanisms to better obtain honest feedback from freelancers; 4) work collectively to create a more effective pipeline for female talent; and 5) consider making gender equality a regular agenda point in staff or board meetings. By integrating these practices, theatre organizations can begin the process of making meaningful, sustained change.
After completing the research and grappling with the findings, each participating theatre articulated an action plan for making changes in their organization. The action plans vary in scope and detail. Headlong, which examined its commissioning model, devised strategies for changing the way their staff communicates and works with female writers. The Young Vic, which focused on fostering future women leaders, plans to design a professional-development program in which successful women leaders in the industry will mentor early-to-mid-career women down the path toward leadership positions. The RSC, which looked at the career paths of assistant directors, devised plans to enhance its mentorship of female directors. Sheffield made perhaps the boldest plan by pledging to cast equal numbers of male and female actors each season and strive to ensure that the female roles will be prominent and non-stereotypical. The plans of all 11 theatres focus on implementing concrete strategies for reducing gender inequality.
The theatres finalized their action plans in fall 2014, so the next step is implementation. Jeremy Herrin, Headlong’s artistic director, found the Advance process reassuring and empowering: “It feels that with the proper data we can work out where the blockages are, and we can do things about them. So rather than it being this big, generalized, slightly fearsome subject that no one wants to get involved in, it’s feeling [like] one we can do something about.”
Sarah Nicholson, general manager of Sheffield Theatres, agrees: “Advance has fundamentally given us permission to include the subject of gender in all discussions. It’s shone a light on the challenges we face and ignited conversations that are now taking place on a regular basis with regard to programming, creative teams and women onstage.”
Kerbel hopes to extend and expand those newly ignited conversations in the years to come. “Lucy is a complete hero,” says freelance director Maria Aberg. “I absolutely believe that the work she is doing with Advance will change the makeup of English theatre in the next 10 years.” Theatre professionals in the U.K. and beyond will be watching to see if those changes bring greater gender balance to the industry.
Paulette Marty is an associate professor of theatre, dramaturg and director at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.