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Documenting The Feminists

Photo: Them’s The Breaks

With #FemGen and #WakingTheFeminists taking over, Eva Griffin sits down with Sarah Barr and Sarah Corcoran, the producer and director behind an upcoming documentary examining inequality in the arts called Them’s The Breaks.

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To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, the National Women’s Council of Ireland invited newly elected female TDs to gather at their Celebrate the Changemakers event. Bringing a mid-morning buzz to the foyer of the Irish Film Institute, the floor was taken over by the harbingers of #FemGen; the women who have already changed our country with their record-breaking make-up of the 32nd Dáil. Seated metres away from this contagiously positive conglomerate are Sarah Barr and Sarah Corcoran – two more hopefuls in the fight for a feminist future.

As recent graduates from DCU’s Film & Television MA program, both women are making their first foray into feature-length film with a hefty project: tackling inequality in the arts. Inspired by the constantly raging battle for gender equality and following in the footsteps of the Waking The Feminists movement, Barr and Corcoran are helming an upcoming documentary called Them’s The Breaks. The phrase may ring a bell as it was infamously (and inadvisably) used by the Director of the Abbey Theatre, Fiach Mac Conghaill to explain away the lack of diversity in the theatre’s Waking The Nation centenary programme. On the choice of such a provocative quote as the documentary’s title, Barr says: “We thought that quote captured the feeling of the moment. That’s what got everyone riled up.”

Indeed, our national theatre’s programme includes only one play written by a woman and three female directed plays out of a line-up of ten. But when faced with the feminist fire, Mac Conghaill’s response did little to put it out. “It was a lack of seeing it from the other side or understanding that the problem isn’t necessarily that there’s no plays from women being created, it’s that they’re being overlooked,” Barr explains. “That quote really showed how people don’t see themselves as part of the problem, they see it as the way things are and that’s not true. We are all responsible for making sure that people’s voices are heard and that there’s equality across the board.”

It’s only fitting that a matter so bound up in the artistic world should be tackled by artistic means. Barr is bringing experience in theatre production, acting and a BA in English & Drama from our very own UCD to her role as producer, while Corcoran has hands-on directorial experience with short films and various assistant jobs. Also on board are writer Stephen Elliot and producer Aoife Kelly who previously worked on The Queen of Ireland. When the time came to find an idea for a project, a search wasn’t really necessary: “We knew we wanted to do something socially engaged and it was just a case of really good timing,” Barr says.

With interviewees such as Belinda McKeon and Una Mullally taking part, the documentary looks set to give invaluable insight into the subjugation of women working in the arts. “Luckily it’s an issue that people are passionate about and women especially in the arts want to speak out about it, they’re so willing to talk to us… Everyone’s been willing to talk to us apart from Fiach…” Barr says before trailing off into nervous laughter.

“We tried,” Corcoran says. “We chatted to him the other day, we ambushed him saying ‘hey, we tried to get an interview and it didn’t happen, do you maybe want to reconsider?’ He gave us his number so the communication lines are open now and we’re optimistic. We’re not trying to make anyone look like the bad guy because it’s not Fiach – it’s a societal problem.” Barr agrees that Fiach is potentially an unwitting victim in social conditioning to automatically think of Irish theatre as inherently male-written and produced.

But with his mistakes pointed out to him again and again, do the pair think that the Abbey have done enough damage control? “They have responded well in so far as they’re facilitating debates. There isn’t a lot that they can do immediately I don’t think because there’s so much work that has gone into programming Waking The Nation that they can’t just scrap it and go again,” Corcoran muses. “We talked to a few playwrights who said that there could have been several logistical factors, but it was just Fiach’s apathy versus everyone’s passion that was so frustrating. Overall I think The Abbey is listening and I think people in general are listening. People are still hashtagging #WakingTheFeminists every single day, there’s new content every single day.”

This continuous outpouring of both frustration and support is promising, and Barr sees possibility in this momentum to force other industries to consider change: “It’s still such a slow process. It’s starting in the arts which is great but it’s going to take some real time for it to move into other industries. Journalism is coming into it as well as Una Mullally said during her talk at FemPower a few weeks ago. I think in the more artistic areas it seems more okay to talk about those issues.”

Corcoran sees potential for this feminist overhaul as well, particularly when looking around the bustling IFI café. “I think there’s a lot of progress in politics as well – even being surrounded by these female TDs here today and the fact that there is such a big deal being made out of it. I mean it’s great but it’s just so sad that there has to be, it should just be commonplace, like of course there’s female TDs, of course there’s going to be a split share, because 50 per cent of the population are women.”

The only story that’s being told is of the white, middle-class male. That’s it. You’re either Roddy Doyle or Beckett – there’s no in between.

Unfortunately, despite any positive reception to a slight increase in representation, a distinctly feminist future requires serious time and effort to cultivate. The one necessary ingredient, Barr says, is bravery. “It just takes time for people to be like, ‘you know this actually shouldn’t be the norm’. It takes people to be kind of brave and do what Lian Bell did and what those women did back in November, standing up and saying ‘this isn’t okay’. Just because we’ve come this far doesn’t mean we’re equal. It seems like we’re equal but we’re not really.”

One of the distinctive features of this year’s General Election was the new requirement for the major political parties that 30 per cent of their candidates be female. While the long term effect of quotas are up for debate, perhaps without that requirement not all of the TDs gathered in the IFI would have cause for celebration. However, on the potential of gender quotas moving from politics into the arts, Barr is somewhat sceptical. “If it was some kind of temporary measure that was brought in and then just became commonplace I could see how that would work but I don’t know if it’s inspiring the right attitude. I think that people will think ‘oh she’s only there because there’s a quota in place’, or ‘oh she’s the token female’… At the same time, maybe it is the only way that this can happen a bit more quickly because it could be a long process otherwise.”

Corcoran suggests that quotas could even be useful in eradicating the confidence issue that hinders women from applying to certain college courses. During her MA, she noticed that her classmates were mostly male, and wonders if more could be done to promote female inclusion in the arts from how our third level institutions are structured: “Women have been told ‘that’s not for you’, that it’s a male industry and I suppose that spreads across many industries. You’re told that there’s your place and then you just aim for that. If quotas were brought into courses, that there had to be a certain amount of women and men maybe that would work.”

Perhaps gender shouldn’t even come into the equation. Perhaps someone judging the merit of writing shouldn’t have the chance to let unconscious bias project some form of gendered discrimination onto a piece of art. “I think submissions should be genderless,” Barr agrees. “I think if you’re submitting something to The Abbey maybe your name shouldn’t be on it – just initials and then your contact details, that’s it. If you’re just looking at it with no context, you’re just letting the work speak for itself.”

One of the key complaints against a lack of diversity in the Abbey’s 2016 programme is that it prevents equal access to storytelling by perpetuating the ideal of Irish theatre as an established male playwright. This, Barr says, goes directly against feminist values. “[Feminism] is being really aware of making sure that you’re doing your best to be as inclusive as possible and give people who mightn’t have a huge name behind them the opportunity to prove themselves as well. Somewhere like The Abbey has all the resources to do that: they have the best set designers, the best directors and people like that who can assist and mentor. I just think if anyone should be doing it and giving new writers out of college the chance it should be The Abbey.”

For Corcoran, the problem inherent in the Irish arts industry is as easily distilled as our nation’s literary canon. “The only story that’s being told is of the white, middle-class male. That’s it. You’re either Roddy Doyle or Beckett – there’s no in between.” Barr agrees, pointing out that there simply isn’t the same large scale representation available to women. “You’ve got no greats. You’ve got no big female plays like the way you’d have The Plough and The Stars.”

This historical erasure of women as artists as opposed to muses has hindered the evolution of a truly female art known and loved by the mainstream institutions in the same way someone like Seán O’Casey has always been. Barr thinks that an overwhelming maleness of the Irish artistic voice has caused women to be systematically overlooked. “I think the problem as well is that we’re so used to hearing the male voice – that’s the male vernacular, that’s the male way of telling stories – there’s no language for women. We grew up reading Joyce and Beckett who are incredible writers but that may not necessarily be the way that women tell their stories. I think women need to find a voice entirely.”

The quest for a woman’s voice will hopefully be undertaken and progressed by Them’s The Breaks. In challenging not only the Abbey’s role as our national theatre, but the ongoing struggle for equal opportunities and representation in the arts industry as a whole, perhaps a path will be paved for burgeoning artists. As up and comers themselves, Barr and Corcoran’s team are crowdfunding the documentary through FundIt – whereby generous supporters can pledge money in return for rewards. Terrifying is the prospect that their goal of €10,000 is not met by their deadline of April 7th, in which case any money pledged will not be donated to the cause. However, Corcoran refuses to even entertain that notion: “It’s not even worth actually saying ‘what if’, because if that happens we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it but for now… we’re going to reach the target.”

Such conviction is not due to naivety, but a sense of duty to tell a story that is so rarely told. What began as a potential short film has developed into a feature-length project despite the expenses incurred in search of deserved answers. As Corcoran explains: “It felt like we had taken on a responsibility to really take this story and do it justice because it is a really important time for Ireland and for women in general. When we started filming we just thought ‘this is going to be really big.’”

With a second Waking The Feminists meeting held on International Women’s Day and a constant influx of inspiring think-pieces and inspired tweets, the movement is one that will not lose traction. For Barr and Corcoran, they plan to follow in the footsteps of Bell et al., by complementing their commitment of one year to the cause. “I think a year is a good timeline,” Barr says. “That doesn’t mean it won’t go on longer, we don’t know because there’s no ending to the story yet; the story is ongoing, it’s unfolding every day.”

The FundIt page for Them’s The Breaks can be found here: http://fundit.ie/project/thems-the-breaks