On Sunday, I arrived at packed foyer at Hampstead Theatre for the Women Centre Stage Symposium, produced by Sphinx Theatre. I felt like a bee in an excited swarm of women, with a vibe only slightly more sophisticated vibe than outside a Spice Girls gig.
We all took our seats, filling the auditorium of the main house space and eagerly awaited the conversation to begin…
Are we [women] at the tipping point?
We heard from two diverse panels of talented, successful, strong, fierce and, quite honestly, fed-up women! (Including Maureen Beattie, Toni Racklin, Winsome Pinnock, Jenny Sealey, Jennifer Tuckett, April De Angelis, Rebecca Frecknall, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Cherelle Skeete, Morgan Lloyd Malcom and Sue Parrish).
They weren’t fed-up in a passive way. Actively fed-up. No-one on that panel had given up. They were really asking: why are we having the same conversation we’ve been having for the last thirty years? Even I, in the business for 10 years, catch myself subconsciously thinking “here we go again”. I’m not bored of having these conversations – they get my blood pumping and remind me to keep challenging and questioning. But I am frustrated with the lack of answers, the slow speed of change and the resistance to the answers we do have.
Yes, women have come a long way. But we have not come far enough. I couldn’t help look at my mobile phone and think of the technological advancements we’ve had since the 80’s compared to gender parity. Technology companies… who are run by rich white men… who have lots of power… who make lots of money. Actually, yeah, I guess I can see why! And this brings us back to one of the main problems with our fight for equality in the arts: male dominated management.
There was a lot covered over the afternoon. Too much to share all of it here, as conversations flowed for a similar duration to a production of Hamlet. And, as Shakespeare would have said, it’s there to be experienced in the flesh, not to read on the page. However, I wanted to share some of the things that were said and asked, and some of my thoughts, observations and questions.
Diversity and representation
One of the first things that struck me was how white and female the attendees were. There was quite a good spread of age, but I felt a bit sad that the audience wasn’t representative of the world of artists I think are out there. I also appreciate we’re talking about women, but I’d like to think more men would like to come along, listen and support. Do they feel excluded? Scared? Uninterested? Or do they think it’s a women only event?
What can we do to encourage a broader range of voices at these events?
The next thing I’m going to mention is something I’m constantly reminded of and want to remind everyone else. Stories are where it all began. From being gathered round a fire telling stories about the things we didn’t know, trying to make sense of the world around us. Theatre and storytelling are so important to all of us. It’s ingrained in us to tell, to share and to listen. Stories change our heart and mind, not laws.
And I think it’s incredibly important that we are hear stories from a diversity of women, across the UK and across the globe. If we’re performing existing stories, I want these to be told by a spectrum of actresses from around the world. I want to make Smooth Faced Gentlemen a global tribe. I believe you need a variety of women’s voices before you can say this is a ‘woman’s’ voice. And I want to go out there and look for them. More on this to come.
The challenges we face
Moving on… some of the problems standing in our way. As I mentioned earlier, most of the women on the panel agreed that male dominated management is preventing opportunities. Why is this? Is there a lack of faith that we can get the job done? Are men worried that we’ll go on maternity leave and never be able to work again?!
As ever, there were countless examples given of men judging women by appearance and not intelligence. How the hell do we go about fixing that?! Going back in time and reprogramming their childhood?? …Or boot them out of their job?
The solutions suggested here were leadership changes and maternity support. I was so pleased to learn about PiPA (Parents in Performing Arts). Founded in 2016, they support and empower parents and stop them being forced to leave the industry after starting a family. Hopefully this company will grow from strength to strength. Isn’t it mad though, that we can’t claim back tax for childcare but you can for your chauffeur?! That about sums it up doesn’t it?
Lack of faith in ourselves was another common factor that seems to be getting in the way. The feeling of having to rebuild our confidence from a past of ridicule. We’re quick to doubt ourselves. To believe that the only way to make it is to act like a bloke.
Rebecca Frecknall said something that struck a chord with me. She has an anxiety that she looks young. That people don’t feel you’re experienced enough to be given the responsibility. As we know, women tend to be judged on their achievements, rather than men on their potential. You’d think that Rebecca, who has always directed stunning pieces of work and is undeniably successful, would be over that hurdle, but sadly she still gets comments like “you look about twelve”.
I’ve had similar experiences when meeting someone for the first time, in relation to Smooth Faced Gents. I get the feeling they seem surprised it could be so successful with someone “like me” running it. Like I haven’t been around long enough to have the necessary experience.
Well, that’s rubbish. And plenty of men were successful at the age that I look, not am, and weren’t questioned. Sometimes I find it hard to maintain the ambition when faced with things that make me feel weak.
It’s also important for women to understand their unconscious prejudices. A screenwriter friend of mine recently told me she was horrified to see how many male characters she had written into her first draft. She hadn’t challenged herself to think differently. The postman was male, the little child was a boy, the doctor was a man. She quickly got back to work, reimagined these characters. The script, whilst telling the same story, is much more balanced today.
We need to challenge ourselves and have the collective imagination that it will be a different future. We need to be thinking, as women, there is a place and a space for me here.
Three words from Timberlake Wertenbaker
Timberlake started by saying three words: Permission. Silencing. Invisibility.
I don’t think I need to add to that.
The need to speak
An observation… Women have a lot to say. A LOT! This symposium left women on the panel eager to speak more and there was only time for less than a handful of questions to be asked from the audience. There is no blame here – it just shows there’s more to talk about, more to share, more to fight for. We easily could have set up camp and stayed debating for a week!
What I took away:
- We must make people look and listen to women. How? I don’t know. But let’s not go silent.
- If we’re trusted, we rise to the challenge. We will make something brilliant.
- If you’re passed a baton, carry it and pass it on. Support and mentorship are imperative.
- There are plenty of us out there that have more than an interest in equality. We live and breathe it. It’s not our career, it’s our life. That’s why it’s important and that’s why we won’t go away.
- As women, we tend to be good at looking after and supporting. So make sure we’re doing it for each other. Support anything positive that women are doing. Be allies.
Did we answer the question: Are we at the tipping point?
Not entirely. But we made a good start.
The last thing it left me thinking was… “same time next week?”