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Abbey Theatre admits its 2016 programme 'does not represent gender equality'

The statement today follows almost a week of campaigning for equality in the Irish theatre scene.

Abbey Theatre director, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail
Abbey Theatre director, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Updated at 23.07pm

THE ABBEY THEATRE has acknowledged that its 2016 programme, Waking the Nation, does not represent gender equality.

The statement from the board and director of Ireland’s national theatre comes after days of criticism of its new programme, on which there is just one play written by a woman, and the subsequent launch of the #WakingtheFeminists campaign.

Lian Bell, a set designer and arts manager, has used the hashtag #WakingTheFeminists over the past week to create a call to action for people who want equality for women in Irish theatre.

Bell has been gathering and sharing testimony from men and women on her Twitter feed for the past week, and this has led to a public meeting being organised to take place in the Abbey.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Bell said she had been moved to write about the dearth of women in the Abbey’s 2016 programme on Facebook, before going on to bring the campaign to Twitter.

“We’ve lived with it without doing anything about it”

She said of gender inequality in theatre: “For so long we’ve lived with it without doing anything about it”.

I thought: I have this conversation all the time privately with my friends and people working in the business, we talk about the role of women in the business. And I’m just tired of having the same conversation.

Her Facebook post “generated the most extraordinary conversation”, she said.

Bell, who said she is “sick of talking quietly” about the issues, began using the hashtag #WakingTheFeminists after a theatre director called Maeve Stone used the hashtag.

She said that at first it was “slightly nerve-wracking” to bring the discussion from Facebook to the more public location of Twitter. “We work in a very small industry, we know each other very well,” she said.

When she realised “you are possibly setting yourself up for ridicule and putting your work into jeopardy”, this in turn made her angry. The hashtag has been used by many people from within the theatre industry, chiefly women, but has also been picked up by those outside of the sector.

Incredible reaction

Bell said the reaction has been “incredible”. “I’m gobsmacked at who has decided they are going to add their voice to the fray,” she said, adding she has received “incredible” offers of help from people.

Only one of the 10 plays selected for the Abbey’s Waking the Nation programme was written by a woman – and just three out of these plays will be directed by women. The programme, which is funded by the Arts Council, is part of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programe.

The Abbey was opened in December 1904, and was closely connected to the Irish Literary Revival. Its roots were in the Irish Literary Theatre, which was founded in 1899 by Lady Gregory, WB Yeats and Edward Martyn.

Funding for the Abbey came from Annie Horniman, an Englishwoman involved in theatre production.

Outgoing Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail addressed the criticism on Twitter after the programme was launched, saying:

Bell is keen that the movement not begin and end with the hashtag, and that it moves on somewhat from the Abbey. “It is now up to the next [Abbey Theatre] directors to look at programming and systemic change, and a policy in programming,” she said.

“It’s opening people’s eyes to something that we’ve all lived with for so long,” said Bell. “It makes you go ‘Jesus Christ, why did we never stand up to this?’ And I’m also incredibly aware that people have been standing up to it for a long time.”

#WakingTheFeminists have now organised a public meeting to discuss these issues. It will take place in the Abbey’s auditorium on Thursday 12 November at 1pm. Those who want to attend are asked to register at https://wakingthefeminists.wordpress.com/

Not just a Dublin issue 

Bell said that “because there is such a wave of support” for the movement, she is sure change within the Abbey will happen.

But we need to make sure it happens systematically and it is accounted for and it becomes ingrained in the process and the systems of the Abbey, and hopefully by extension will move outwards into the theatre world.

She also said she is aware it is not just a Dublin issue but a nationwide issue, and she hopes that voices from across the country can get involved.

The #WakingTheFeminists campaign noted that prior to 2006, 14% of the plays presented at the Abbey Theatre were by women writers. Since 2006 that figure has fallen to 12.3%.

However, the issue is bigger than any one organisation or individual, and #WakingTheFeminists recognises that discussion and action is needed to realise a new artistic landscape that reflects Irish society, and represents ‘all the children of the nation equally’.

The campaign’s objectives are three-fold:

  • A sustained policy for inclusion with action plan and measurable results
  • Championing and equal advancement of women artists
  • Economic parity for all working in the theatre

“The whole focus has to be on what’s next and who’s next,” said Bell.

We’re doing this because there’s so much love for the theatre as an industry… we’re doing it out of love – we’re doing it because we want it to be better.

First published at 4.32pm

Read: Justin Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet could teach Ireland a thing or two>

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