Waking The Feminists: Irish Theatre's Equality Debate

As Waking The Feminists has taken Dublin and the world by storm, Patrick Kelleher looks at the birth of the movement, and the systematic exclusion of women from theatre.In Dublin, there is a buzzing theatre scene constantly happening around us. Multiple theatres – big and small – are constantly producing high-quality, incisive and engaging art. Theatre exists to interrogate society; to question its deepest held beliefs, and to never allow us to rest on our laurels. That is, at least, if you’re a man, according to the Abbey Theatre’s recent Waking The Nation 2016 programme. Their programme, which has very successfully woken a nation to the inherent and undisputable sexism present in theatre, is a damning example of the subjugation of women in Irish society.While the intention of the 2016 programme was to wake the nation, the Abbey succeeded in doing something entirely different: they woke the feminists. The announcement of the 2016 programme has given birth to a new movement, aptly called Waking The Feminists. As they point out on their website, the problem is clear. Only one out of the 10 plays scheduled for 2016 is written by a woman. Only three are directed by a woman. The irony rings true when looking at the Abbey’s press release from the announcement of the programme. They refer to it as “dynamic”, and go on to say that its intention is to “reflect on our past, the Ireland of today and of the future.”The situation worsened when people began to criticise the Abbey for its gender exclusive programme. Fiach Mac Conghail, the Director of the theatre, responded via Twitter to the claims by saying, “I don’t and haven’t programmed plays on a gender basis. I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with. Sometimes plays we have commissioned by and about women just don’t work out. That has happened.” He has since noted that his stance was not justifiable, saying in a statement: “I regret the gender imbalance in our Waking The Nation programme for the significant year ahead. The fact that I haven’t programmed a new play by a female playwright is not something I can defend. This experience has presented a professional challenge to me as a programmer and has made me question the filters and factors that influence my decision-making.”
“This is a problem across the entire industry, and it is incumbent upon all of us to begin the good work that will make our profession stronger, more equal, and a proud reflection of Irish society.”
Tanya Dean, a spokesperson for the movement, explains however that while the programme lit the fire, this is in no sense a new issue. “The Abbey programme was what lit the blue touch paper, but it was not because a single programme was perceived to be unfair; it was because the programme represented the synecdoche of a history of chronic underrepresentation of women’s voices in the Abbey Theatre and in Irish theatre in general,” she says. “Irish Theatre Institute have recently published the figures to starkly highlight this: since 1904, female playwrights have represented just 20 per cent of the total plays premiered in Ireland, and just 14 per cent of the total plays premiered at the Abbey Theatre. When Senator Mac Conghail took over as artistic director of the Abbey, he pledged to institute an affirmative action programme in order to address this imbalance; despite this, during his tenure at the Abbey, the number of female playwrights given a full production (and not a commission or short play) at the Abbey has fallen to 12.3 per cent.”“Looking at the figures, it's clear that this is an endemic issue across the sector,” Dean continues. “We as a sector have to do the complicated and often painful work of examining our own unconscious biases, and addressing the larger cultural factors that hinder women from achieving sustained success in Irish theatre.”When a group of people – both men and women – decided that enough was enough, they could never have predicted how it would take off. The movement has received global attention and, as Dean says, has “set Twitter ablaze”. The movement has gotten support from names as diverse as Brian F. O'Byrne, Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Saoirse Ronan.While they are incredibly grateful for the huge reaction it has received, Dean is quick to note that what has been most important to them is the effect it’s had.“What I think has been the most valuable response has been the questioning it has provoked regarding unconscious bias,” says Dean. She notes the huge meaning Mac Conghail’s statement had and also references the effect it has had across the board in the arts. “Jimmy Fay of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, Cian O'Brien of Project Arts Centre in Dublin, Loughlin Deegan of the Lir academy, Julie Kelleher of the Everyman Theatre in Cork have not only offered their unequivocal support to WTF, they have articulated the need to consciously consider how historical patriarchal social structures might be unfairly influencing important programming decisions across the industry,” she says.This support has also lent itself to other areas of the arts. “The response from outside the industry has been so encouraging as well; on the 12th November, the Irish Film Board made a statement acknowledging the major underrepresentation of women in Irish film. There's a real feeling that WTF took a critical mass of shared experiences of inequality and injustice, and made it impossible to unsee the problem. Once you see chronic female underrepresentation in one arena, you start to recognise it elsewhere. And once one group raise their voices, others find the courage to raise theirs as well.”The whole debacle culminated on Thursday 12th November, when Waking The Feminists assembled at the Abbey Theatre to discuss the underrepresentation of women on the stage. The event highlighted the need for a place for women in theatre, and was without doubt a roaring success.While the Abbey Theatre has served as a catalyst for Waking The Feminists, Dean notes that they are only a part of the problem. The movement is not there to tackle the national theatre, but rather to tackle women’s exclusion from theatre. “The Abbey is most certainly not the only major institution guilty of gender inequity in its history,” she says. “This is a problem across the entire industry, and it is incumbent upon all of us to begin the good work that will make our profession stronger, more equal, and a proud reflection of Irish society.”There are no intentions for the movement to collapse in a whimper following the heights of last week, however. The movement is not going to be a fleeting one, according to Dean, and work will continue into the future to make these changes to Irish theatre. They are already developing plans for the future to ensure that women will be taken from the periphery of the stage, and brought right into the centre. Waking the Feminists are fighting for justice for women in the arts, and while it’s not an easy feat, it’s clearly a much needed fight.