“When the right people are in power, then change can genuinely happen.”
When Josie Rourke was appointed artistic director of Donmar Warehouse in 2012, she was the first woman to run a major theatre in London. Vicky Featherstone was appointed the first female head of the Royal Court Theatre in 2013. A year later Erica Whyman was named deputy director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, based in Stratford-upon-Avon. Last year Emma Rice assumed leadership of Shakespeare’s Globe, and when she steps down in 2018, her replacement will be Michelle Terry. As of this year Jackie Wylie will lead the National Theatre of Scotland, and Selina Cartmell the Gate Theatre in Dublin.
Should we be surprised? The pipeline bursts with qualified visionary leaders running companies that produce great work, sometimes on modest budgets, often regionally or on the “Off.” But as Whyman puts it, “The ceiling is quite high. London has had a lot of female leadership in the last 20 years, and it hadn’t translated into the big jobs. It’s about not having access to high-profile work wherever it may live, whether that’s a West End show, the National Theatre, or the Royal Shakespeare Company.”
All relevant studies done in the U.S., U.K., and Ireland show industry-wide disparity is at its most egregious where the following are the greatest: profile, capital, opportunity, remuneration, philanthropic and governmental support—i.e., the places where mainstream careers are made. The presence of women is typically inversely proportionate to resources. So it does indeed matter when women are leaders of not one but six of the biggest theatres in Britain and Ireland.
I recently interviewed five of these groundbreakers—Featherstone and Whyman in the U.K., Rice in New York City, and Cartmell and Wylie by phone. Each is a unique visionary, but I learned that they do share certain elements beyond gender. All were appointed while under the age of 50. All are white, and though not all come from privileged backgrounds, all attended university and all have advanced degrees. Most benefited from residencies at high-profile theatres, and from bursaries: Featherstone assisted Jude Kelly at West Yorkshire Playhouse under a regional directing scheme; Erica Whyman was awarded the John S. Cohen Bursary for Directors at the National Theatre Studio; and Cartmell was Julie Taymor’s mentee as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Wylie, Whyman, and Featherstone were all Clore Leadership Fellows.
All but Wylie, who is exclusively a producer, had celebrated freelance directing careers, with stints at the majors—the National, RSC, Royal Court, Bristol Old Vic, the Gate—and all had leadership experience. Rice was Kneehigh’s artistic director for five years, joint artistic director for another five; Wylie ran the Arches and in 2008 was the youngest artistic director of a major venue in Scotland; Cartmell ran her own company, Siren, which creates large-scale interdisciplinary work that tours internationally. Whyman was artistic director of Southwark Playhouse and Gate Theatre, and chief executive at Northern Stage in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. And Featherstone transformed Paines Plough into a nationally recognized purveyor of new work, then did it again with the National Theatre of Scotland (Black Watch), which she founded with “a mobile phone and a Muji notebook.” (The Globe’s appointment of actor/writer Michelle Terry is an anomaly, as she has no directing, producing, or leadership experience.)
What follows are excerpts from and paraphrases of our conversations.
SUSAN JONAS: How did your education or training contribute to your vision?
VICKY FEATHERSTONE: At Manchester University, we were enshrined in a politicized, ’80s separatist feminism. One of our professors was an expert on the suffragette plays, and a massive part of our learning was about suffrage and activism, about Augusto Boal and theatre for change. We were reading Caryl Churchill and that last great swathe of female playwrights—Pam Gems, Louise Page, Sarah Daniels.
EMMA RICE: I trained for an A level in design and then went to a college which was the lowest level of entry for academia. It was the opposite of elite, of Oxbridge. Every week we’d make a play. We’d write, design, light, and act it. This group of maybe 20 ordinary working-class people from the inner city spawned a generation of hugely successful theatremakers: Jonathan Church, Dorothy Atkinson, top agents, production managers, BBC producers. Nobody expected anything of us, so we were free; we were always moving between art forms.
In drama school (Guildhall) that wasn’t encouraged. I remember feeling invisible. I worked incredibly hard and I stood at the front, and I remember thinking, “Gosh! The naughty boys come in late and mess about, and you can feel the world light up when they enter!” I remember wishing somebody could see what I had to offer.
When I trained at Gardzienice [Poland’s Grotowski-inspired center for theatre practices], we would meet at dusk and work until dawn. It was brutal. But I found something in myself—as a performer but also as a theatremaker. I saw what the cost of making theatre was for this troupe. From then I thought I could never just do “a job.” I needed to have a life that mattered. Or do something else.
ERICA WHYMAN: I come with a fancy degree in philosophy [first class from Oxford] and I have this French side. I just fell in love with France. In Paris I trained with Philippe Gaulier [French master clown and Jacques LeCoq disciple]. Somewhere in my heart I’m still a philosopher. That’s what I thought I would do, but I couldn’t tolerate being on my own reading. I am in essence still that person. Really rigorous ethical thinking is what the world has gotten very bad at. Theatre can enable that conversation.
What role does confidence play in the success of women in theatre?
WHYMAN: A very open, progressive male artistic director whom I admire was looking for a producer and he said, “I’m fed up. I don’t have good candidates and I don’t have enough women applying.” I said, “Do you think the job description is making women think they can’t do it?” He had this lightbulb moment. He said, “I never in my life considered whether or not I could do the things in the job description. I just thought about whether or not I wanted the job.” That’s a significant part of why we don’t move forward more quickly—across all sectors.
RICE: I didn’t decide to be a director. Kneehigh said to me, “Direct a show.” That’s when the feminine came out in me—I said, “No, no, no. I’m happy just supporting from the sidelines…” But these two men said, “You’re a director.” I wasn’t thinking about my career; I made very instinctive personal and artistic choices all the way through. It was a natural journey driven by seeing a story I wanted to tell.
CARTMELL: Garry Hynes [artistic director and co-founder of Druid in Galway] ran the Abbey. It was a short tenure [1991-94], but when I moved to Ireland in 2003, there was a path, knowing another woman had run one of the big theatres. I thought, okay, that is possible.
WHYMAN: Women are generally more qualified by the time they get positions of significant influence, but that’s partly because we want to be.
Do you feel that women in leadership have greater responsibility than your male counterparts for ensuring greater diversity and gender parity?
FEATHERSTONE: My responsibility and my power are about moving forward. I always get asked, “How is it that your program is always gender-balanced?” but I’ve never once thought about it. In terms of diversity, I realize as I get older that it’s not about having patronizing projects. It’s about saying, “You want to do something? Here are the keys.”
RICE: The effect of Shakespeare is to make us perceive that it’s okay for 13 percent of the characters onstage to be women. A few female voices, no matter how beautiful they may be, are not enough. My mission is to give women work and get women paid, and because I have the power, there’s no barrier to it. As Amelia Earhart said, “The best way to do it is to do it.”
WHYMAN: It’s not only that we need more women artistic directors; we need more feminists. If you start from the position—with any inequality—that only representatives of the underrepresented group can change it, then it will take forever. Greg’s feminism [Gregory Doran, RSC artistic director] manifests itself not just in the artistic choices we make but also with my being in his office, with explicit permission to challenge him; that acknowledges change won’t come unless you are in a difficult conversation about it.
WYLIE: I’m really keen to support women, rather than pulling up the ladder behind me.
RICE: Our generation has risen to the top, and we’re using our power wisely. We’re more aware of our responsibilities and we’re thinking about what we can do socially as well as artistically.
Are there obstacles specific to the programming of plays by or about women?
FEATHERSTONE: It is in our DNA to appreciate and marvel at stories about men. Stories with male protagonists are epic and public and make us understand the world. The characters of King Lear and Hamlet are quite abhorrent, really, in terms of their greed, their lack of clarity, the way they treat people to get what they want. Willy Loman is an unlikeable character, and so is Tom in The Glass Menagerie. But we pity their pain. Yet flawed female heroes are rejected. Plays with a female central character and which— formally— may not give us comfort, but instead disrupt, can become cultishly admired, but they are still not entering our DNA. The critics’ immediate response to Blasted by Sarah Kane was rejection. Then later, academic reappraisal made us look at that play as a work of genius, one that changes the face of playwriting— not only for women, but more generally.
WHYMAN: We are still judging quality according to the views of this tiny handful of elderly white men.
FEATHERSTONE (discussing her improbable West End hit, the raunchy Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour): The question was, “How do we get these young women who are 17 and sexual beings to communicate sexuality and desire without our looking at them in a sexualized way, without our demonizing them, so they have agency over their sexuality?” It is one of the most deeply feminist things I’ve done.
Why are theatres, including the great purveyor of classics, the RSC, not producing classic plays by women?
WHYMAN: I saw a very sexy, atmospheric production of The Rover, but I found it extremely difficult to watch because the audience loved it from beginning to end. Those female playwrights were trying to prove to their male counterparts and to their audiences that they had the right to tackle the same subjects as the men, and that means the treatment of rape in particular is extremely challenging. Susanna Centlivre’s The Basset-Table (1905) is a good example; it’s a wonderful piece of writing with great characters, but the ending of the last act is premised on a woman learning a lesson because she is threatened by rape. There isn’t anything dark or satirical about that. What we need to stop doing is saying, “This is a fascinating comment on gender,” and say instead, “It’s a very funny play.”
One of our first commissions was to ask Helen Edmundson to write about Queen Anne. She was written out of history, and she was an actual queen! We chose to start with this instead of a play by Susanna Centlivre, because we knew we would get a play that spoke to our times. In terms of the repertoire, I think we should be doing both and so we are going to. So watch this space.
CARTMELL: The challenge that I have here at the Gate is that it was established as an international classical theatre, and the classical canon is dominated by men. Yes, there are some amazing plays written by women, but until we can get philanthropy and income streams, this is a Catch-22 situation. You need 75 percent capacity to break even, and we have these ridiculously long runs, so to put on an unknown female classical play is a challenge. I’m more interested in redefining the canon through adaptations of classics; it’s a way to get to 50/50 balance. For example, Marina Carr’s Hecuba and By the Bog of Cats, her version of Medea. They are some great contemporary classics by women: Annie Baker’s The Flick, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, Little Foxes…
WHYMAN: We produced a new version of Hecuba by Marina Carr. It’s about beheading, refugees, people washing up on the shores, and in the same exact part of the world, between Turkey and Syria. The ending is reimagined: Hecuba chooses not to exact her revenge and kill the king, to not continue the cycle of violence. The annual Christmas show commission—a big piece of writing for a huge company on a wonderful stage with all the bells and whistles we can deliver—was Wendy & Peter, Ella Hickson’s feminist reading of Peter Pan. That’s 1,000 seats with a 14-week run for two years in a row.
Can you talk about about how you will achieve greater diversity through goals, strategies, and programming?
RICE: The plays met me through history and said, “Take us!” so I threw them in the air and made them land in 2016. I set a goal for 50/50 female/male casting, and we got to 48 percent in the first year. There’s no formula. I just think, What if?
WHYMAN: A journalist was talking to me about Glenda Jackson playing Lear and cross-gender casting. She asked me if it had become “too fashionable.” I told her that it would be too fashionable when she could sit across the table from me and tell me that the men are being ignored, or there are no roles written for them after a certain age.
FEATHERSTONE: For me it’s always about representation. Who are the voices we are letting in? We are never close to where that should be.
CARTMELL: Given the statistics of the “Waking the Feminists” report [a report on gender disparity in Irish theatre], that is something I want to address. Six of the seven directors here are women, and most of the casts and creative teams are well balanced.
WYLIE: I’m committed to a 50/50 ratio. Our board has a clear policy about assessing gender equality. Our chair makes sure it’s part of every discussion and in everything we do, but we’re also determined to represent the most complex national identity, rather than a narrow version of Scottishness. We welcome refugees here. We can be at the heart of expressing national cultural values of a progressive, inclusive, tolerant Scotland.
WHYMAN: Greg and I have committed to 50/50 commissioning across all three RSC stages. Tonic [a gender-parity support organization] has really helped us research the career trajectories of female assistant directors and directors. We have a lot of assistant directors here. More than 50 percent are women. They are middle-class, mostly white but not all.
We have strong, confident women who’ve looked after very large productions, opening them on Broadway or China or Australia—and very few of them continue to direct. So that was our question: What is happening? That had some employment-related answers. The fees for directors are not enough for anybody to live on. A lot of women just contemplating the idea of owning a home or having a family don’t pursue a career in directing. Those that continue to direct found it incredibly difficult to juggle work with family commitments. We also discovered that when someone left to have a family, she disappeared, often forever, into the career gap. So we thought: Let’s have them back, and let’s not ask what the last big thing is that they did, because we know the last big thing they did is have children.
Every few years it seems there’s a headline,“Is This the Year of the Woman?” but the ratios remain relatively unchanged. Can we trust that this time progress will progress?
WHYMAN: The pendulum must swing. Excuses are running out; it’s not okay to say we’ll wait for that to get fixed. If the general population believes that liberal values are luxuries, the silver lining is perhaps that within the cultural sector that is strengthening our resolve to defend them.
FEATHERSTONE: We are definitely part of a less myopic conversation now about how theatre can feel more representative, and theatre has to feel more representative to justify itself.
CARTMELL: When you see other women being able to lead organizations, you realize it is possible.
RICE: I think it’s happened. They don’t have the same conditioning we had; they are fearless. Their work is ferocious. Women are unstoppable now. This interview won’t need to happen in 10 years’ time.
A glance ahead at what’s on tap for these artistic leaders.
The Globe: For her farewell season, Emma Rice offered a festive, gender-bending Twelfth Night featuring Katie Owens, whom Rice calls “my muse,” as a puny, mustached Malvolio and drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste; Boudica, a new/ancient play about the warrior queen; a Much Ado set during the Mexican Revolution; and a King Lear directed by Nancy Meckler, the co-artistic director of Shared Experience, known for innovative adaptations of classics.
After leaving the Globe in April 2018, she’ll work with her new company, Wise Children, to develop ensemble work for national and international tours. The company, which will have a residency at the Old Vic, will open the theatre’s 2018-19 season with a new adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children. Integrated into the company’s mission is specialized training for independent artists, with an access scheme dedicated to diversifying the creative workforce.
The Gate: Selina Cartmell’s first season at the Dublin mainstay is themed “The Outsider,” opened with a immersive, site-specific production of The Great Gatsby, partly inspired by Trump. Seats were ripped out, with the entire building transformed into Gatsby’s mansion, with live music and a party in full swing. “Guests” were invited to participate and dress in period costume. Also of note is next February’s staging of the aggressively male Look Back in Anger by director Annabelle Cromyn, who plans to reassess the roles of the women. Also on the calendar are Tribes by Nina Raine, Assassins, and the Christmas show, a new version of The Red Shoes by Nancy Harris. The first artist-in-residence at the Gate will be a company, ANU Productions, run by directors Louise Lowe and artist Owen Boss, which focuses on site-specific explorations of history.
RSC: The season began with Kingdom Come, a portrait of 1640 London and the bitter end of the political order, created by Gemma Bricks and Wendy Hubbard. Next year includes The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich (originally titled The Beau Defeated), a comedy of manners by an 18th-century contemporary of Aphra Behn, Mary Pix, directed by Jo Davies. And Erica Whyman will direct Sam Kenyon’ s Miss Littlewood, a new musical about the great, iconoclastic director and founder of the legendary Theatre Workshop, Joan Littlewood.
Royal Court: Of the eight plays here next season, six are written by women, six are directed by women, and one is co-directed by a woman. The season includes five plays about war and conflict by women from Syria, Ukraine, Argentina, and the U.S. (Julia Jarcho).
National Theatre of Scotland: The theatre had two productions on at the Edinburgh Festival, which epitomized Jackie Wylie’s agenda of a complex diverse identity for Scotland. Eve told of a trans woman called “Daddy” by her daughter and “Granny” by her grandson, and Adam told the true story of Egyptian refugee Adam Kashmiry, a trans man who had to flee or risk death. Adam featured a digital world choir of 120 trans individuals from all over the globe. Other highlights of the coming season include Jaimini Jethwa’s The Last Queen of Scotland, which explores a family growing up in Scotland after being expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, and new version of the Oresteia, This Restless House, written by Zinnie Harris.
Susan Jonas is a New York City-based dramaturg, playwright, producer, and teacher.