Dec 7, 2009

Sexism is a long way from a final bow in Oz theatre

On Sunday, a panel of critical women's voices spoke of a "tsunami of discontent" that the Australian theatre industry in general is sewn up by male directors and writers, writes Steve Dow.

If not a quota system, then what? With the Melbourne Theatre Company and Belvoir in its immediate sights, a panel of critical women's voices spoke on Sunday of an "unmistakable intensity of anger" and a "tsunami of discontent" that the Australian theatre industry in general is sewn up by male directors and writers. But the problem is more complex than first appears, as Sydney Opera House performing arts director Rachel Healy pointed out in her preliminary speech before  the Where Are The Women? debate as part of the annual Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture at Belvoir Street Theatre, where she was previously general manager for a decade. Five women were all speaking on Belvoir's darkened stage, in front of a pile of artfully constructed rubble, the stage set for a production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, for which actress Julie Forsyth as Winnie sits mired in mud up to her breasts in the first act then up to her neck in the second act; a woman bogged down by her circumstance. Historian Gil Appleton bemoaned systemic "flavour of the month" funding from arts bodies that favoured women in the '70s and '80s and indigenous and multicultural works in more recent times, and also made the point women have done much better in Australian television than they have in theatre But no one acknowledged in the ensuing discussion that comparing TV to theatre is problematic: TV is still a boys' club, particularly among the commercial networks, where news, current affairs and sport are seen as masculine and arts and entertainment as feminine. That's not a binary or neat division of labour that applies to theatre, even if issues of gender do play into notions of what constitutes artistic merit. On Friday, The Australian cried self-evident sexism over its calculation showing that of 61 productions over the past 10 years at Belvoir, only eight had been directed by women, but Rachel Healy's study of the company's records showed that in Neil Armfield's 16 years at the helm of Company B, 40 individual directors had presented work, of which one-third have been women. "A third is not half, and it's much lower than any of us are comfortable with," Healy said, "but the more arresting aspect of the data is not that women have been consistently overlooked, but rather that so few directors have had more than one opportunity to create work for the company." Indeed, over 16 years, across 150 productions, three-quarters of the 40 directors featured in Company B's annual season had presented work only once for the company, and of the remaining 10, only four directors presented worked more than twice. (Only one among those four was a female, incidentally, and that was Kate Gaul.) Four great directors per generation was probably doing well, Healy noted, adding: "If anything, it probably points to a garbage skip at the back of the theatre overflowing with the corpses of young male hopefuls who all thought Company B Belvoir was the one." The amusing aside got a small laugh from the crowd, then a pause, and then a much bigger laugh after the audience had a second to digest the comment. But, of course, it was a glib aside and the problem of sexism and rejection for women writers and directors remains in Australian theatres, leaving "self-doubt as the constant companion" and the risk of an "unhealthy victim mentality", as Bell Shakespeare associate artistic director Marion Potts pointed out. Feminist Eva Cox brought some sobriety to proceedings when she was given the roving microphone and pointed out it was sometimes women in positions of power who push the dominant male culture, theatre included. Yet quotas? None of the speakers thought affirmative action in Australian theatre was a good idea, given it might compromise artistry, and not one other specific idea was put forward to reverse the industry's glaring sexism. If anyone was thinking gender-specific mentoring in the theatres, no one was giving voice to the idea. Nor did anyone comment on the efficacy of appointing an equal opportunity officer, as recently occurred at the Melbourne Theatre Company. The ethereal seemed ascendant over the practical. Winnie would have called it a happy day, as the earth gradually swallowed her.

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5 thoughts on “Sexism is a long way from a final bow in Oz theatre

  1. cmagree

    I heard an interesting discussion on this issue on Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra program on Radio National, with Rachel Healy and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

    Healy was against quotas, saying that women directors would wonder if they were being chosen just because they were women rather than because their works had merit. But shouldn’t the boys be wondering whether they’re being chosen just because they’re part of the boys’ club rather than because their works have merit?

  2. Bogdanovist

    I don’t think X% of Y are female is a remotely useful way of assessing whether an industry is sexist or not. The question is whether there is discrimination taking place, and that can’t be judged by numbers, it’s about process and attitudes. If there is a demonstrable ‘boys club’ culture in some industry, then that culture should be attacked head on by whatever means in most appropriate in that industry.

    I note that the only evidence for the ‘glaring sexism’ in the theatre put forward in this article are relative participations rates. Presumably if in the future 55% of directors are women the this would point to an anti-male sexism at play? I’m not saying there isn’t sexism involved (personally I wouldn’t have a clue either way when it comes to this particular industry) but if there is, and you want to discuss it, you might want to start by actually detailing in what way sexism is at play and how you know this is going on.

    Men and Women are different, quite different, and while I don’t for a moment suggest men are naturally more suited to the theatre (for all I know the ‘sexism free’ equilibrium for this industry is female dominated) I would strongly argue that expecting at dead flat 50/50 split between Male and Female involvement in some type of work is silly. Sexist (or any other form of bigotry) is about giving unequal rights and oppurtunities, or having unequal expectations, based on some arbitrary disctinction between people. Stopping bigotry is about ensuring everyone has equal rights and oppurtunities and are not pre-judged.

    If these barriers exist, they should be brought down. But you need to first demonstrate that they are there, and if you can do that you’re probably already in a good position to start tearing them down. Focusing on the numbers alone will tell you nothing.

  3. cmagree

    Your comment is a little contradictory. On the one hand you say a focus on the numbers is simplistic. On the other you ask for proof that a particular industry is sexist! If low numbers of women aren’t proof of that, what else is there? ‘Men and women are different’ sounds ominously 1950s to me (dressed up as evolutionary biology). Are you suggesting that there’s even a slim chance that men make better directors than women because they’ve got dicks? Please!

    If lack of women at high levels (and that is the point here – there are plenty of women in community theatre) is evident, then that is a sign that the ‘processes’ and attitudes are wrong, and need to be tackled. If there was a reasonable number of women at the appropriate level, there wouldn’t be the need for such action.

    I agree that quotas alone can’t do it. I’m all for the kind of affirmative action that looks at the structural problems, networks and so on that form barriers to women making the leap to the upper echelons. But quotas while that is taking place seem okay to me. There is plenty of female talent out there, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to ferret it out.

    There’s a very pervasive view in the arts, which many feminists remain concerned about, that what women create is marginal in theme, while men’s art is concerned with universals and exists in the mainstream (what some feminists call the ‘malestream’).

    It’s all part of the disastrous myth of post feminism — the belief that there’s no reason to be inclusive of women because they’ve had their say, and discrimination no longer exists. It’s this myth that has resulted in ABC television bringing viewers an almost exclusively male comedy line-up in the last few years. And, although two of the reporters are female, I had to stop watching Sunday Arts because I got so incensed at the roughly 80-20 per cent ratio of men to women in the visual arts. Local ABC Radio is also pretty appalling.

    One thing your comment doesn’t address is the importance of women’s perspectives being presented on stage. The fact is a purely male perspective in all areas of the arts is deadly dull. It also tells women that they shouldn’t bother. Instead they should have more babies, and that’s exactly what they’re now doing in Australia — higher birth rates are correlated with job discrimination against women. And this at a time when the planet is running out of resources and we need to urgently cut population!

  4. Jack Robertson

    I presume the reason for that second, bigger laugh about young male bods piled up outside is the great unmentionable in this debate, which is Sydney supposed theatre’s gay mafia? The old joke around the luvvie traps being about this young, voluptuous aspiring female playwright who promises not to suck the director’s c*ck if he’ll at least read her new play…

    It’d be nice if someone had the inside knowledge and bollix to discuss whether there’s any substance to this oft-muttered aside. A gay collegiate sub-culture can be the most viciously excluding misogynist male domain of all, and it comes with its own standing PC-based prophylactic against anti-descrimination criticism. I’ve flittered about the fringes of Sydney theatre enough to hear insiders chuckle about it again and again, and I reckon I’ve watched just enough new theatre (though not so much since dadhood) to detect a dreary-ish, (and I think) samey-ish, transgressive-sexual aesthetic heritage to (too?) much of it, one which doesn’t seem to have a terribly high opinion of women generally (certainly not women actors). OTOH it could just be my deeply-embedded homophobia as a fine upstanding straight white chap entirely comfortable with his red-blooded hetero-sexuality and an entirely-innocent – I tell ya! – penchant for Turkish baths and the short stories of W. Somerset Maughan. OTOOH…well, it’s just that the last time I was s*cking off the famous artistic director ——– ——— he did moan something like ‘Gracious, your writing really is improving, Jack…*gasp*…keep that up you saucy young catamite and I might take a look at your latest, after all…*gasp*…’

    Then again his skivvy had dropped down over my ears at the time, so I may well have been mistaken…O pray, anyone in luvviedom more informed: is there a gay mafia dominating Sydney’s cutting edge theatre, and if so, who is donned in (and up)? And is there a strain of gay-misogyny embarced in some quarters? And does it matter, anyway, if the work’s any good? And is the work any good? And do many women in the trade find the kind aesthetic/career path options such a mileau offers terribly interesting/attractive anyway, when there are such thriving, diverse and cetainly accessible alternative theatre cultures in Brizzy, Melbourne, Adelaide…even regions and suburban centres, these days…?

  5. Alison Croggon

    I was part of that panel. My rather different view of the discussion is is posted on my blog.

    It seems worthwhile to point out that this (well documented and unarguable) gendered inequity is only a problem for the main stage companies. It is a different story in the independent theatres; and yes, colleges are training as many women directors as men, if not more.

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