Feminist Theatre Then & Now: Celebrating 50 Years

Edited by Cheryl Robson
Supernova Books

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Feminist Theatre Then & Now

Many shades of feminism have shaped UK theatre, from the political themes of its content to sometimes helping to force open doors to women’s involvement in every level of its production.

In thirty-five articles, the book Feminist Theatre Then & Now: Celebrating 50 Years gives us the voices of thirty-nine women from actors to producers reflecting on the personal and collective achievements of the last fifty years.

Elaine Aston gives us an engaging overview that takes us from the heady days of Second Wave feminism of the 1970s, when things felt as if they were changing and many women in theatre simply grabbed a few mates and toured with shows by, for instance, companies like the Women’s Theatre Group (renamed the Sphinx Theatre Company in 1990) and Monstrous Regiment, that were entertaining and provocative

One illustration of change is the statistics, which found that between 1959 and 1980, only 8% of the Royal Court plays were by women. In contrast, from 1980 to 1989, 29% of the plays were by women, though of course plays by women tended to be shunted into the studio.

Later decades had gains and losses. Many contributions to the book reflect the growing sensitivity to the way social injustice hits other sections of the community. Anna Herrmann reflects on how theatre company Clean Break formed in 1979 focused on the treatment of women by the justice system and campaigned for better treatment of women in prison.

Elaine Aston (EA) notes that, among a number of theatre collectives set up “to address the lack of plays and roles by and for Black women”, was Theatre of Black Women in 1982, mani-Faith in 1983 and Munirah Theatre in 1983. However, the 1980s was a difficult period for theatre, with Thatcher's social and economic policies hitting everybody trying to fight injustice and oppression.

Some women felt inspired by the idea that a woman could become Prime Minister, and it encouraged mainstream culture’s promotion “of feminism as an individualistic mode of bourgeois, self-empowerment” (EA) Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls reminded people that women don’t all share the same perspective on change.

The media was less concerned with highlighting more collective meanings of feminism, but by the end of the 1980s, the term “intersectionality” had been coined by social movements to indicate the specific different combinations of oppression. Various articles try to reflect this. Rukhsana Ahmad describes how in 1991 she and Rita Wolf founded Kali theatre company because, “we noticed and felt the absence of Asian women in theatre.”

Feminism is also linked to other issues; for instance, there is a piece by April De Angelis, who wrote the play Extinct focused on the activist group Extinction Rebellion, and Bibi Lucille has an article on Ecofeminism in Theatre. Theatre hierarchy also showed signs of change with them recognising the value of gender and colour “blind casting”.

Among the contributors to the book are Hannah Khalil, the first woman of Arab heritage to get a play on the main stage at the RSC, and Julia Pascal, the first woman director at the National Theatre.

However, among the consequences of Thatcher’s Neo-liberalism are what Elaine Aston refers to as the “90s wave of ‘in-yer-face’ plays by predominantly ‘angry young men’ (which) had a silencing impact on women’s theatre voices” that wasn’t helped by the “negative preconceptions of... male, white, Oxbridge-educated reviewers."

Almost every contributor can cite some discouraging experience of injustice. Several claim companies showed thoughtless disregard for childcare and maternity leave. Dame Rosemary Squires, the current President of SOLT, describes how in 1988 she was unfairly made redundant while on maternity leave. Lucy Stevens was told in the '90s that her “look was ‘too strong’ to play female leads” and by an agent to “remove the directing credits from my CV because I might scare directors because they could feel ‘threatened’ by me”

No wonder by 2022, according to Kaite O’Reilly, The Stage can report, “that three-quarters of plays produced in 2022 were by men,” and that Harvard Business Review can cite a study that found, “women only applied for jobs when they were 100% qualified, whereas men would apply when they were just 60% qualified.”

The Guardian reports that, by the end of the COVID pandemic, “60% of women across all roles in UK theatre are considering leaving the industry.” (EA)

Such data makes the arguments and proposals of Kelly Burke from the Equity Women’s Committee even more urgent, dealing as they do with questions of discrimination, intimacy coordinators, the menopause, maternity issues and childcare. She points to the way women are “aged out” of theatre work faster than men, in part because, “even in 2024, we are haunted by the imperative that our female leads be slim, young, and beautiful.”

Kelly has been working with others on an Equity4Women Toolkit, which should be available to every woman in the theatre. It will include, among other things, advice on dealing with sexual harassment that, “involves meaningful accountability procedures, and requires challenging existing power dynamics on sets and in rehearsal rooms.”

The #MeToo struggles of 2017 generated a good deal more awareness of the way some men can abuse women. That year saw 25 plays on that theme at the Edinburgh festival, and in 2023, Susie Miller won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play for Prima Facie, which illustrates the failure of the criminal justice system to support victims of sexual abuse.

Susie describes one senior judge telling her that she instructs judges to watch the play before they sit on a rape case, and early one morning she had a call from another judge. “She was actually the judge who’s in charge of writing the directions to juries for the UK. She said she sat up all night after seeing the play and really grappled with what she had seen because she couldn’t unsee where the law was lacking. She said she rewrote the direction to the juries based on the language in the play. Now every judge at a rape case has to read it.”

Who says that theatre can't help to change the world!

The UK has a long way to go before it can claim to treat women fairly, but this exciting book rightly celebrates those who fought under the banner of feminism to change the UK and its theatre for the better.

The book is launched on 16 May 2024 at Books on the Rise in Richmond.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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