Sunday, 24 January 2016

Looking through a different lens

Bechdel Testing Theatre in 2016

2016 is looking exciting, as the conversation about #WomenInTheatre continues to intensify, with deeper questions building and expanding on the theme of "Where are the women?". 
Last week saw an article in The Guardian featuring some of the best female practitioners of recent times railing against (and occasionally smashing down) the barriers faced by women in theatre. Sarah Crompton's article rightly applauds the writers and directors who are "tearing up the script" of theatre's long-embedded sexist hierarchy in senior jobs, building a new canon and shaking up the old classics to find and create opportunities for actresses. Despite this heady sense of change in the air, Crompton notes that there is still "a general feeling among female playwrights that their gender means their work is viewed differently", and ponders why this might be, since "It’s not as if women are absent from the theatregoers’ gaze" (a claim made with reference only to the Royal Court's latest lady-laden season - a shining example to much of the theatre world, where we still have to focus that gaze concertedly to find such a diverse range of women on stage). Duncan MacMillan muses on responses to the female protagonist of his play, People Places and Things: "the character’s gender is very visible somehow, whereas if it was a male character I don’t think we would think twice", and Vicky Featherstone wonders if last year's lukewarm-reviewed How To Hold Your Breath had "had a male central character, would people have liked it more?", whether it is "something in our cultural DNA that makes us respond differently when a play has a central male character?". 

They're some big questions, as Crompton points out. They're complicated, but too important to just be left hanging there. Researchers have been looking for possible answers:

Do audiences respond differently to male characters?
Hailey Bachrach conducted a revealing experiment, showing the same play, created through the same preparation process, swapping the characters genders in various combinations, and recorded audience responses. Lo and behold, audiences interpreted exactly the same lines and actions differently according to gender, using different words: "coward" for men only, "strong" and "independent" for women only, and passing different judgements on the character's "emotional" state of mind or "moral compass". It seems that characters under a spotlight suffer from the same gendered behaviour expectations as people do real life, with their fictionality allowing viewer bias to be highlighted as audiences are encouraged to express their judgements openly and honestly. Note, Michael Billington's description of Maxine Peake's "chirpy, bright-eyed resilience" in the How To Hold Your Breath review linked above. 

Whether audiences and critics would have favoured a play with a male protagonist isn't proved by this experiment, but it is certainly evident that responses to characters are highly influenced by gender.

Maxine Peake, remaining chirpy in spite of dystopian circumstances

It's also notable in the audience feedback that much judgement of characters was based upon how women and men interact with each other (for example assuming that it is a man's duty to 'protect' a woman). This leads a Bechdel-tester to wonder what the influence on perception might be if female characters are seen interacting with other women in a scene before any men are present on stage, perhaps asserting authority or showing excellent negotiating and debating skills, would their relationships to men be less likely to be viewed stereotypically, as either dependant or interfering?
I would be interested to see a version of this experiment where a Bechdel-passing scene is inserted and removed, to test what difference it makes to perceptions of women on stage when they're seen outside of their relationship to men.

Do we prefer male characters, written by men?
Purple Seven's study (reported in The Stage with a positive headline emphasising equality improvements of recent years), explores the gender gap in opportunities available to women in theatre, and in critical ratings. Their findings:
  • Male playwrights write 37% parts for women. Female playwrights write 60% female parts. Male writers and directors command bigger stages and higher ticket prices, and in 2015 wrote 68% of plays staged.
  • Critics award more 4 and 5 star ratings to plays with majority casts of their own gender, with male reviewer's bias more heavily weighted towards male casts.
Stats from PurpleSeven

On the question of whether greater ticket sales mean that audiences "prefer" male-led plays, the findings are unclear because without equality of opportunity - a similar number of female-led plays staged in equally sized and priced venues - it's difficult to say whether we "simply attend what's on offer". It may be that producers and artistic directors believe that male-led plays are a "safer bet", however, with a 65% female customer base, reviewer ratings showing that women like watching women, and a trend towards female prominence rising, it's hard to imagine that it would be a wasted effort to search out and commission female-led plays.

Whilst not comprehensive, this study and Bachrach's experiment go some way to confirming that the suspicions of the professionals feeling a distinct difference in tone of critical reception as well as level of representation, are based on reality and not some kind of feminist-biased paranoia. Purple Seven's stats offer hope, showing that the number of jobs for women in theatre is growing, offering an increase in opportunities for women to take control of the way we are presented, to create characters that challenge the gendered readings of human interaction shown by Bachrach's audiences, and transform perceptions of women on stage and in society

Looking through a different lens
There is understandable wariness in this creative industry of looking too long and hard at statistics, a justified fear of producing new work to tick boxes and satisfy quotas - but while playing a numbers game is no method for creating great art, there is evidence that where women are given extra support, encouragement and opportunity, by companies making an effort to combat the extra level of judgement and bias faced by female creators and characters, a balance can be achieved without sacrificing quality.

In an assessment of their work following Ireland's #WakingTheFeminists movement, new play company Fishamble, found that the gender balance of playwrights was higher in female representation when specific submissions were called for, or when active support was offered, than amongst unsolicited offerings - it was when the company made an effort to reach out that a greater standard of equality was achieved. This important discovery which contains a valuable clue as to how to practically and effectively balance gender-representation within a theatre's programming, came about thanks to the loud voices (in person and on social media) of women in the industry and audience who spoke out and made demands for representation. #WakingTheFeminists is a powerful example of the impact and changes that are possible when campaigners at all levels of our career or involvement in theatre get together and make a lot of noise.

Wear your feminism on your sleeve (or bag, or lapel)

Vicky Featherstone said that she disagrees with quotas in favour of 'choosing the best play', but herself has demonstrated a willingness to seek out a high number of female writers and directors and include a more diverse range of roles for women that represents statistical progress towards equality in gender representation. Though not using a quota system, Featherstone's gender-balanced and high-calibre season demonstrates the effectiveness of putting a feminist with acutely-honed gender awareness in a position of power. She has, as she put it herself, the ability to look 'through a different lens' as a result of being part of the conversation about women in theatre, using her own feminist perspective to fulfil quotas without ever having had to impose them. The fact that her season has made headlines suggests that more pressure is needed on other theatres, producers and artistic directors to make a 50% female season normal instead of noteworthy.

Harris and Featherstone, unfortunately still part of a minority amongst theatre establishment figures

Shout to be heard 
More noise can still be made about the importance of aiming for equality of representation, whether it's achieved through high-level awareness of feminists in programming positions or through stats being published and companies being held to account, but that noise needs to come from somewhere, which is why @BechdelTheatre encourages audiences, actors, directors, anyone participating in this industry at any level, to cheer loudly at every step in the right direction. Shout about every great script or show that represents the diversity and complexity of the female humans who make up half of our population,  and do it just as loudly as we condemn every male-centric season or stereotyped female casting. Remind your colleagues and fellow theatre-goers to switch on their internal gender-awareness alarm when reading a script or casting breakdown, or buying a ticket to a play. Make a resolution to always ask:
  • Is more than one woman involved in this show? 
  • Are they writing or directing? 
  • Does it pass the Bechdel Test? 
If you know of a female-led production or company at any level, representing a diverse range of women in high-quality work, congratulate them, support them by buying tickets, and next time bring along a feminist friend who thinks "theatre's not for me" - to prove them wrong. 

If you're a playwright, deviser or looking to create brand new work this year, you could commit to answering the questions above, and then go a step further by consulting the Sphinx Test to put women at the centre of your stage:

Sphinx Theatre's list of considerations for theatre-makers writing female characters

The big hope #WomenInTheatre for 2016 is for everyone inspired and empowered by #WakingTheFeminists to put even more pressure on artistic directors and producers to use their audience-eye-view, step up to the mark and consider which plays and characters will most please increasingly diversity-aware female-majority audiences, and which ones will help shift the (white/straight/upper-class/non-disabled) male-preferential bias (in both theatre and society) into the realms of history.

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