Sunday, 8 November 2015

What do we want? More parts for women! How do we want them? Complex....

Where are our Willys?

Denise Gough was the latest actor to add her voice, in The Stage this week, to the growing collective cry for more complex and interesting roles for women. In her damning of the idea that a sticking-plaster spate of "strong women" on stage is all we need to balance out the lack of female stories, Gough makes an excellent point:

"The most interesting male characters – think of Death of A Salesman, Willy Loman – are flawed, broken, a bit weak."

"Yes! She is right!" echo the retweets of audiences, actors and critics alike. But what can we do if the scripts featuring complex women are relatively rarely written or produced? Even in the midst of this forth wave of feminism,  People, Places and Things, in which Gough plays a flawed character that she describes as “a great role for young women to witness" is still sadly an exception to the rule. How can we move on to a time where such a play is praised for it's artistic merit ahead of its brave willingness to test the theory that women on stage make audiences uncomfortable?

What's the solution?

The answer of course, is to get more such parts and plays written and produced. We have damned, complained and shamed the faults in our industry with the facts and figures which prove that this is a problem. Now we must follow up by trying to solve the problem, and supporting the people, theatres and shows that are part of the solution.

At this point, it's important to be specific about what exactly we're asking for here - "More parts for women"? "Better parts for women"? This is a common problem of the creative ask - how can we ask for art to be made "better" on a slippery scale of standard that will always be subjective to a certain degree? How can we demand that a writer, director or producer ensure their work contributes to solving the problem of underrepresentation without limiting their imaginative scope or compromising artistic integrity? Great art is not created by focus groups, it can and should not always please everyone, so it's arguably impossible to legislate it without negating the point of it existing.

So, when we are looking at the problem of underrepresentation of women on stage, specifically in terms of quality and quantity of roles (in isolation from wider related issues like lack of women behind the scenes, and non-gendered diversity failures), it's helpful to our cause to be able to express our desire for representation into something easier to measure than "more women" and easier to define than "better characters". This is where the Bechdel test comes in. By asking about 3 low but specific minimums: number of women on stage ("Are 2 women present, in any size cast?"), and level of autonomy and independence from the male sphere ("Do they talk to each other about anything other than men?"), the test asks of a play and it's characters nothing more than to show a basic standard of interaction that makes up a huge part of the real lives of half of the population.

What good will Bechdel testing do?

As a series of questions, the Bechdel test challenges people (creators and audiences) to consider gender representation without demanding change through conformity or legisation. It is not a manifesto or a law, but a provocation to adjust the way we look at art as we make and consume it. It's an encouragement to respond by engaging with the test, not strictly conforming to it. A writer may be prompted to consider a female character's relationships with other women, or changing a non-essentially male name for a female one. Audiences might respond by wrestling with grey areas, saying "Did 10 lines about makeup make a difference? What about that conversation between 4 women about a male baby? Do those characters both identify as women?". These are the kind of diverse responses that change the way we think about, talk about, write and show women on stage, with more detail and nuance than the initial "More good parts, please!".

In the past 30 years, and particularly since it hit the internet, the Bechdel test has "gone viral" in more than just internet-meme sense. It has infected minds across the film industry like an earworm, but in the best possible way. It creates a lingering impulse to constantly check for passing scenes, that once you've started is difficult to stop, and has lead those working in film to delve deeper into researching the Bechdel-effect, proving that as well as causing feminists worldwide to high-five each other upon noticing a "passing" film, such movies often make better returns at the box office.

As a similar industry suffering from similar problems, theatre could do with a bit more of both the high-five-inducing representation-balancing Bechdel passes, and as well as their box office figures. As far as viruses go, the symptoms of this one can feel pretty positive, so if you've been infected by the Bechdel test into celebrating women's conversations, and eagerly awaiting them in everything you watch or read, make sure you pass it on by spreading the word amongst your theatrical colleagues and friends by asking those 3 little questions...

Are there at least 2 women?
Do they talk to each other?
Do they talk about something other than men?

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Why Bechdel Test Theatre?

What is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is a blunt but enduring tool used in feminist film criticism and analysis for 30 years to check for the representation of women on screen.
To pass, a film must
A) contain 2 female characters (preferably named), who
B) must talk to each other, about
C) something other than men.
For more information on which films pass, and a depressing skim of how many fail, visit

Why is it important?

The fact that this very basic minimal benchmark is still often not met means that, despite attracting criticism for its limitations (more on this later), the test is still a frequent provoker of debate. In the decades since it was conceived, in a light-hearted 1985 comic strip (below), to highlight the lack of women characters in film and the desire of women to see our own gender on screen, the test has remained as a starting point for wider and more in-depth discussions. By drawing attention to the problem of underrepresentation - still as relevant as ever, the test encourages the film industry to take steps, however small, towards positive change.

                     Alison Bechdel's original comic strip

How does it apply to theatre?

It seems worth considering whether the theatre industry- suffering from similar problems of underrepresentation noted in the worlds of film and TV, could benefit from Bechdel testing its play scripts.
At a recent Open Space event organised by GAP Salon and Devoted & Disgruntled at Camden People's Theatre on the topic of gender in theatre, I raised the question for discussion, of whether it would be useful to apply the test to stage scripts as well as screen.
                     #DDGender GAP Salon

The question was prompted by recent practical applications of the test reported in the media: Swedish Cinemas introducing a Bechdel 'rating system' in 2013, and this year's Bechdel Test Fest screening and celebrating films that pass with flying colours. These initiatives to highlight representative films changed the way the test was considered- as an interesting, sometimes funny, occasionally confounding, red-flag for (self-confessed) frustrated feminists. The test has long provided fuel for complaining rants, but applied with a slant that highlights positive examples, it has potential to induce more practical consideration of solutions. When the test flags up the 'passes' rather than the 'fails' it seems the media, the public and the industry start paying attention, audiences and creators feel empowered to work together towards greater representation rather than merely bemoaning its lack.
In the theatre industry good intentions are already being expressed to increase diversity, and change is evidently more immediately possible in our fast-adapting industry, with race-blind casting, all-female productions and female-led shows already far more prevalent (though still with a way to go) in mainstream theatre than in film. If initiatives similar to the Swedish ratings system and the Bechdel Test Fest were to exist in this industry, it's not hard to imagine that the 'trickle up' could be a speedy one, from a grassroots fringe theatre idea to a standard topic for consideration amongst major West End producers.

What about the problems with the test?

There are three main issues that have aroused debate over whether the test is a useful indicator of equality and diversity in representation - debates which have lead to some interesting Bechdel-inspired alternatives, and adaptations of the test.
The problems with the test reflect the depth and range of problems with the industry (and society!) that the test on its own is not wide-reaching enough to address. These limitations in themselves provoke consideration of issues related to and beyond the test itself which should and will continue to be discussed at length wherever the test is applied, and can do so without invalidating the usefulness of the test as a simplified starting-point.
The 3 most commonly-noted problems/limitations with the test:

It's not feminist enough
The test is not an indicator of how feminist or sexist a script or characters may be, but a simple method for identifying scripts that are not entirely male-centric. It does not address how women are represented, but purely asks whether they are present at all. The test is a food-for-thought first-step into more in-depth feminist analysis, gender awareness, and other equalities issues that could play an important part in extending the discussion beyond those of us already engaged in the representation conversation.

It's not inclusive enough
The test is limited to gender-checking, and does not cover other areas where representation is just badly lacking: race, disability and size being a few. It also assumes a gender binary whereby all characters are identified as male or female, without considering characters that may identify as transgender, gender-fluid, gender-neutral or any other possibilities.
Many of these issues are to do with actors than characters, and diversity can be increased by looking at casting and using methods such as blind-casting or quotas, at a later time than the writing or script-development stage where the Bechdel test focuses its attention.
Regarding the question of non-binary gender representation it may be useful if the reference to 'female characters' is interpreted as a flawed/outdated simplification meaning 'female-identifying characters' or 'non-cis-male characters'. Even without that qualifier, it may be argued that by encouraging the representation of characters who aren't depicted entirely in the context of their gender (binary or not), is a small step towards greater representation of characters as complex humans rather than simply males or females.

It's not imaginative enough
The test does not expressly take into account cross-gender or gender-blind casting, one woman shows, silent or non-verbal performances. There are a number of caveats that can be taken into account when flagging up a show that passes, some examples mentioned so far include: one woman shows featuring 2 female characters mentioned talking, if not shown; 2 female performers in non-verbal communication, adaptations where previously male characters are played as female-identifying. Many of these ideas are theatre-specific and hopefully will be debated at length as part of the process of searching for Bechdel passing shows on stage and scripts on shelves.

What's next?

Since the discussion of the Bechdel test's relevance to theatre, in a room full of creative feminists at Camden People's Theatre, attention has been brought to existing groups and individuals already using the test, or derivations of it, to facilitate more Bechdel-passing performances: Sphinx Theatre have created their own 'Sphinx List', a tool for writers that goes deeper than the original tes, designed to help writers create scripts with that put women centre stage; Whoop n Wail Represents... is a new-writing night that has staged 3 successful show-cases of plays that pass the test.
The first stones have already been laid in building a movement to use the test as a positive tool to increase representation of women in theatre, and a number of ideas have emerged in the past couple of weeks for developing practical ways to apply the test on and offline.

Using Twitter to raise awareness
Beginning online with a twitter page @BechdelTheatre designed to note & promote current productions that pass the test, has started to gain followers and raise awareness amongst audiences and reviewers.

Twitter is a great tool for connecting theatre-makers with audiences and each other. Putting the criteria for the test in audiences' minds and pooling the crowd-knowledge of gender-aware audiences to assist fellow theatre-goers seeking more representative shows, and if used extensively will let theatre-makers know when audiences appreciate seeing autonomous women on stage and want to see more.

Building a database of scripts
Inspired by the mission to list all films that pass or fail, in order to highlight the scarcity of women on screen, the idea has arisen to compile a list of published plays that pass the test. With the more positive approach of noting only 'passes' and not 'fails', the idea is to built and maintain a searchable database for directors and producers looking for plays to stage, and actors and acting teachers seeking scenes for showcases and workshops.
Beyond the crowd-sourcable task of checking and listing scripts, the job of building a complete website with the opportunity to search and add to the list, is a long-term project requiring special skills, so get in touch if you have the will and the way to help out.

Bechdel Theatre Festival
A festival celebrating women in theatre by hosting pop-up conversations in theatres with shows that pass the Bechdel Test. March 2016 - March 2017 Get Involved!