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'The assumption is that plays written by women aren’t good enough'

Grace Dyas says cultural bodies that get state funding should be more accountable and do a better job of reflecting the diversity of Irish life.

Former Director Tara Herrington of Living Space Theatre from Dublin.
Former Director Tara Herrington of Living Space Theatre from Dublin.
Image: Leah Farrell

FOR THE PAST two weeks, my social media feed has been full of #wakingthefeminists, a movement initiated by Lian Bell, in response to the Abbey’s programme for 2016, entitled ‘Waking The Nation’.

The programme features only one play written by a woman, three plays directed by them, and less than ten parts for female actors.

As I sit here to write about my response to it, I’m cautious. I am wondering is this even something I want to do? In short, I am dreading the comments. I’m scared of ‘the bottom half of the internet’.

I have been working in the theatre for the past six years. As a director and producer, I am often in a leadership role. It’s not usual, that a young woman would be calling the shots. It’s even more surprising that she would speak with my accent, and be my age.

Gender bias

I have experienced gender bias, conscious or unconscious. I have also experienced out-and-out misogyny. I have attended meetings with male comrades where though I was speaking at the meeting, I was never looked in the eye by the man in the room, instead, he would direct all his responses to my male colleague.

I have been treated with a paternalistic dismissal, told that I wouldn’t be able to handle a big cast, told that senior actors wouldn’t respect me as a director because of my gender. It sometimes feels like I have had to bang down the door, when others have had it opened for them, but hey, them’s the breaks.

It’s not just because I am a woman. I’ve also been explicitly told:

“If you want to know the truth; it’s because you’re a woman, it’s because you’re working class and it’s because you’re young.”

I think that quote speaks volumes.

And it’s not just me. We are told that women don’t write plays for the main stages. That more men write plays than women. That men’s plays are probably just better. We are told we are not good enough. We are told that it’s not real, that there is no bias, and that we need to stop playing the victim, get the head down, and be better. Write better women.

How do I know you’re not going to leave and have a baby in a few months’ time? And that’s not from the bottom half of the internet. That’s in the theatre.

But of course, these things are not unique to my sector. Women’s voices are not just absent from the institutions of The Abbey and The Gate, they are absent in Dáil Éireann, in our media and in the boardrooms of big business. In a country which closed its last Magdalene Laundry in 2006, in which women don’t have control over their own bodies, in which the very constitution names them as unequal – what can you expect? Them’s the breaks.

The Abbey auditoriums play a story year in year out where women do not have a voice, where working class people are relegated, where there is no housing crisis, no heroin epidemic, no water protests, no mass emigration, no travellers, few poor people and very little dissent. But perhaps that is reflecting the nation. It doesn’t sound much different than RTÉ.

This programme, Waking The Nation, has made visible and evident something which was hard to prove. It’s glaringly obvious, if in 2015, the national theatre cannot reflect the experiences of half the nation, than we have a problem with equal opportunity.

The Abbey has had an affirmative action policy since 2009, they have commissioned female writers, and yet they have still failed to have anything close to a representation of the diversity of who we are as a nation represented on their stages.

What happens to these commissions? The plays remain in the drawer, not on the main stage, and rarely surface in the basement smaller space, the Peacock.

Representing women

The Abbey are the highest funded organisation in the country. They have the most resources, they are actively trying to represent women’s voices, and they can’t do it. The next highest funded is The Gate Theatre, who have an even worse record on gender equality. It shouldn’t be so hard? So why is it?

12/11/2015 Waking The Feminists Source: Leah Farrell

Who are they accountable to? They have the biggest piece of the pie, with close to ten million being spent annually on these organisations. Do you care that your money is being spent in this way?

If you’re looking for evidence, if the ratio of one to ten, is not enough, look to the independent theatre sector. It doesn’t exist in a radically different set of circumstances, it lives and breathes in the same Ireland as these institutions, yet it manages to do a much better job of reflecting the diversity of Irish life, with most of the independent companies being led by women; Druid, Rough Magic, ANU Productions, WILLFREDD, Talking Shop Ensemble and my own company, THEATREclub is made up of five women and three men.

Better still, if you need evidence, look at the bottom half of the internet. Look at the casual way this movement has been dismissed by many, as women whining, complaining, and needing to be put back in their place.

https://vine.co/v/el30Y3nYLqv

The assumption without any evidence that plays by women aren’t good enough. The acceptance that women don’t write as many plays as men. If you read the bottom half of the internet, it looks as though we are asleep.

We are not asking why we are not the Ireland we proclaimed to be in 1916. That dream of equality never happened. It hasn’t started. But something tells me it’s about to.

Grace is an activist, a theatre director, a writer and a theatre producer. She lives and works in inner city Dublin, Ireland where she is from.

Read: ‘When I left Ireland there was a sense of fear, now it’s a different place full of optimism and change’>

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Grace Dyas

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