HUNDREDS OF WOMEN turned out to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin today for an open discussion on gender inequality in Irish theatre – but their discussion went far beyond what’s seen on the stage.
They were there for the first Waking the Feminists meeting, a week-old campaign that was borne from a Twitter hashtag, and which has led to the director of the national theatre acknowledging his own biases when commissioning plays.
As hundreds of women gathered outside the theatre, the buzzing energy showed that this was no ordinary meeting.
- Read about the background to #wakingthefeminists
Actors Susan Loughnane (of Love/Hate), Aoibheann McCaul, and Caoimhe O’Malley were among those in the throng of women and men of all ages outside.
“I think with anything, it’s like the more open any conversation is, the better for everyone,” said O’Malley. “I think everyone realises these issues need to be discussed in an open way and it doesn’t harm anyone by talking about them openly.”
Once it’s talked about in the open, “there is no fear”, she said. McCaul said that discussions about gender inequality were happening already on a smaller scale.
In college, she said her fellow trainee actors realised that there are lot more male roles than female roles.
“It was almost something that you were just told to accept,” she said. “And you’d try and fight it on a smaller scale but now I think it has been brought to a public forum, I really think there is going to be a huge change.”
She added that for her, it wasn’t just about the national theatre. “It just highlighted it but it’s not just the Abbey. It’s everywhere.”
Loughnane said: “It’s a surprise it took so long, but I think it’s really exciting and it’s a good time for us.”
Writer and editor Elaine Walsh said that when she initially saw the Abbey Theatre programme, she “wasn’t surprised” by the dearth of women, but did wonder if there was going to be a separate programme for women, “because this was founded by women”.
After seeing the discussions on Facebook about #wakingthefeminists, both she and writer Elaine Garvey got involved.
‘It’s a long road’
“It was the accumulation of all the pieces after that, when you start putting the jigsaw pieces together, then I got angry.” said Garvey. “This struggle has been going on since forever so I don’t know what will happen next but at least [the] unconscious bias against gender has been aired.”
She said it is imperative that men and women become more aware of our own unconscious biases. Walsh detailed sexism she had put up with in her line of work as a writer for theatre and TV, saying: “I thought it was because my work wasn’t good enough”.
If I asked for a promotion because my colleague had gotten one, it was ‘why? Why do you need one?
Added Garvey: “It’s just not good enough any more, you can’t say I never thought of that, not after all of this.”
She described it as “a long road”, saying “we’ve been fighting for not just this; for politics, for economics, for so many rights we don’t have; violence against women, the sex industry… we’re 50% of the population, we are not represented. Why? We just have to keep questioning and asking why.”
Garvey did caution, however, over assuming that the Waking the Feminists message had spread to other industries outside the theatre “bubble”.
“Ladies – it’s time to speak up”
Waking the Feminists – which was chaired by Labour Senator Ivana Bacik and producer Sarah Durcan – was about hearing women’s voices, and over two hours it allocated time for women of all backgrounds to speak.
Lian Bell, who has spearheaded the Waking the Feminists campaign, received a standing ovation when she took to the stage. She outlined the campaign’s aims, and was followed by a long line of women who each read their own personal statement, starting with playwright Amy Conroy.
Woman after woman took to the stage to talk about her experience with gender inequality and theatre, but the conversation went further than that. One woman, Pom Boyd, said she had abandoned her career as a playwright after a bad experience with her last production.
Another woman, Mary Duffin, spoke movingly about the challenges of being a woman of colour in theatre. Her voice raw with emotion, she spoke about writing about a woman just like her – but that she knew that character would have to be played by a white woman, lest the play get shoved into the ‘black theatre’ corner.
“I wanted to do plays with black people in them, but I was told they’d all been done,” she said.
A speech by Rosaleen, a playwright from the Traveller community, was about intersectionality (including women who are of a different race, religion, sexuality, or ability and may also be subject to racism, ageism or homophobia), and the importance of hearing the voices of women from all sectors of society.
That point – that there is not just one woman’s voice but many women’s voices that need to be heard – was echoed in director Oonagh Murphy’s speech, where she spoke about seeing queer women in theatre. She also spoke about about the dearth of plays by women and its message of ‘you are not important’.
Other highlights included when actress Gina Moxley described how outspoken women are sometimes thought of as “awkward c***s” and “crazy bitches”. She received a round of applause.
Costume designer Joan O’Cleary discussed how some roles in theatre, chiefly those seen as ‘feminine’, like design, are often paid worse than other roles.
Eleanor Methvin described herself as an insomniac. With a nod to the campaign name, she said “I’ve been awake since 1976″, and highlighted how the same issues she faced back then – and tried to tackle – remain.
After the speeches, there were comments from members of the audience, which touched on how women “do not write lesser plays”, the need to see queer disabled women on the stage of the national theatre, and the need to join ties with the working class movement.
Working class activist Kathleen O’Neill gave a “big fair fucks” to Waking the Feminists and urged them not to forget theatre created on the margins.
Susan Liddy drew links between theatre and the lack of women in the film industry, which she has previously written about. Around an hour before the event took place, the Irish Film Board released a statement acknowledging gender inequality in the film industry in Ireland.
Writer Evelyn Conlon urged those present to remember the history of theatre and feminist activism, as otherwise “today will become a flash in the pan”.
The Abbey’s response
Fiach Mac Conghail, outgoing director of the Abbey, stood in the middle of the audience to give his response to the Waking the Feminists campaign.
Calling today “historical” and “extremely moving”, he said that he had been asking himself some hard questions over the past week. He apologised to the one woman playwright on the 2016 Abbey programme, Ali White, for how her play was depicted as a work for children.
He also spoke about acknowledging his own bias, and his own failure to see the gender imbalance in next year’s programme.
He pledged change, and promised to alter the way he commissions. He said he realised that “we can’t have true artistic integrity without gender equality”.
“It feels historic”
As people streamed out the Abbey’s doors afterwards, Vanessa O’Sullivan, a student from Maynooth University and vice-president of its feminist society, reflected on Mac Conghail’s comments:
I think it’s very, very brave of the director of the Abbey Theatre to come out and say ‘we fucked up, we got things wrong and we will look at it again’. I would be interested in seeing if it’s more than just words, if they adapt their programme to reflect what happened in there today.
“What struck me was one of the women that commented about giving up – and it’s so easy to give up when you’re bombarded by this ‘you’re not good enough’ or ‘the quality of your work is not there’. It tries to individualise the problem, and yet it is structural.”
“I wasn’t expecting to be as fired up as I am,” said actress Therese Ballantyne.
It was phenomenal. It certainly feels historic. I related to so many of the speakers as well who said they’ve been on the fringes or the periphery.I have internalised the feeling ‘lesser than’.
A call for respect
To conclude the event, Lucy Kerbel from Tonic theatre company outlined how they have worked with companies to bring about gender balance in their programming.
Like others, she cautioned that the campaign doesn’t end here: “Now what happens?” she asked.
Waking the Feminists finished with a call from Sarah Durcan – who spoke of her fury for what women have lost, and the women whose conversations have been muted – for “respect”.
Then hundreds of women, some men, and a few babies danced to the sound of Aretha Franklin bursting out of the Abbey speakers.
“We are all ready,” said Durcan. “Get ready for us.”