Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Talking About Women and the Arts

Lisa Parry writes:

I previously blogged about women, theatre and the importance of debate and talking in the run-up to an Agent 160/Theatre503 panel discussion. The talk took place last week. (Apologies for not blogging about this earlier - things have been a bit hectic.) The discussion, after a performance of Desolate Heaven, was really inspiring and - I hope - productive. Theatre503's rather brilliant producer Flavia Fraser-Cannon chaired and the other panellists were:
  • Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, co-director of London's Oval House Theatre
  • Honour Bayes, freelance theatre journalist
  • Pia Furtado, director
  • Amber Massie-Blomfield, principal consultant at Borkwoski.do
  • Erica Whyman, deputy artistic director at the RSC
What was great about this discussion was the range and depth of experience of the panellists. In other talks Agent 160 has produced, we've focussed, understandably, on playwriting. Here, the scope was wider. The panellists touched on the current position of women in the contemporary art world and spoke about women in theatre criticism and PR. What was fascinating for me however was listening to female directors speak, because their experience was relevant to the debate in two ways: firstly as women working in theatre and second, as the commissioners of playwrights.

There was a consensus that we're crying out for new (funded) research. The Sphinx data (the much quoted 17 per cent figure) desperately needs updating and even though the arts councils have all been supportive of the idea of research, cash to fund it has yet to appear. Recent research from The Guardian only looked at the top ten funded theatres. The panel were therefore keen to stress some of their observations were anecdotal; however there did seem a consensus that whereas other areas in the arts had improved in terms of gender balance over time, playwriting itself had stalled.

A consensus was reached that to help overcome this a two-pronged approach might be needed. Women need to be confident to compete with their male peers; but also, as an industry, we need to be less ready to assume that there is only one way - the bolshy way - things should be done. Often the more considered approach frequently employed by women is better. Erica Whyman told how a female writer recently emailed the RSC once she had gone through her notes. She compiled them and sent a 'just checking - did you mean this?' email which they all thought was time saving and brilliant. Rebecca Atkinson-Lord told how, when giving notes, it was often the male writer who would immediately agree and come back with a draft, whereas a woman would go away and consider the notes more. Although the drive for a production that sees swift agreement can result in work, consideration can often result in a better draft.

Honour Bayes spoke about how important she considered mentoring and how important it had been to her in her career. Ageism and what happens after the emerging label has been exhausted was also touched on. Erica Whyman said how one of the best pieces of advice she'd ever been given was simply not to go away. We discussed the gender ratio in public relations and the differences experienced by men and women when making the leap from assisting to directing productions in their own right. Erica Whyman told a story about how she sent a male and a female for the same job and the man was asked: 'Don't you think it's time you stopped assisting now?' The woman was asked: 'Is there anyone left you'd like to assist?' Bias is there and we need to overcome it.

A real feeling came through the discussion that female directors weren't encouraged to take that leap; that women in the arts generally were encouraged to play it safe. One recent graduate in the audience told how, when she said she wanted to direct, she had been told to do theatrical admin for a while - a comment which drew pretty strong advice from the panel.

No blog post can really do the talk justice. It was a brilliant and informative evening. A huge thank you to Theatre503 and Flavia for having Agent 160 on board with this and helping us continue the debate.

This blog post also appears at http://www.tpfp.co.uk

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