This time last year – a conversation started about the lack of women included in Australia’s mainstage seasons. Triggered by a shocking image at the launch of Company B’s 2010 season – a line up of men in black with one woman in a white shirt… the question was asked “Where are the Women?”

Blog posts, a Philip Parson’s lecture (presented as a panel) and some national and international press later – the conversation got bigger and louder and more complex resulting in an Action planning day for Women directors which was held in May 2010 at Belvoir. Members of the Australia Council’s Major Performing Arts Organisations came to hear the recommendations of women from all aspects of the industry – mediated by Anne Dunne. In August this year, the recommendations were finalised and submitted to the Australia Council. (I have included an excerpt compiled by Susanna Dowling below)

But what was missing in this discussion was the role of women playwrights in this discussion. Many playwrights voiced the dissatisfaction that surely this discussion of “women in key creative positions in theatre included playwrights?” In October a thought provoking observation was made on the 7-On blog
Which surprisingly yielded no comments. Women directors seemed a hot topic – but what about the playwrights?

In response to this – Suzie Miller set up a private online group Called Australian Women Online described as: “A private invitation only group of Australia women playwrights to discuss, share, speak out and support each other regarding the issues that pertain to them in theatre both within Australia and around the globe.”

I am lucky enough to have been invited to be a part of this group and have been watching as the ideas and the rapid fire discussion fills my inbox. Even self-professed ludites are joining and discussing as this online “Playworks” evolves. So far articulate and passionate discussion on advocacy and the subject of quotas have been raised – women all over the world are joining. It appears also the lack of women playwrights included in theatre is not an issue specific to Australia. There is a symposium being held in New York – which AWOL will be able to hear about through one of its members.

Recently, I had a look at Doollee at Playwrights – and in the top 10 playwrights searched on the site (ie clicked on), two of the ten are women (Caryl Churchill and Jane Martin). Interesting to note that if you google “world’s best playwrights” – searches also returns lists on blogs and journal articles that don’t mention women writers… and interestingly this article from 2008
has also triggered a strong reaction.

On a personal note – this year for Brand Spanking New 2010 I broke my personal quota of 50/50 male to female playwright representation (which kicks in when I am looking to represent a broad cross section of work) I have to admit in some self consciousness when I realised I had programmed 70% women. I was worried – how would this be perceived- would it be seen as a political statement? I found it strange that I should feel so sensitive to the idea of equity. The same happens when I am reading scripts for Off the Shelf – and this last off the Shelf had a 50/50 representation of writers. The truth of the matter is – I programmed the pieces I liked and approached the playwrights I was interested in… and this year they happened to be women. I programme people based on their tone, voice and “the mix” of the project – but I can’t change the fact I am a woman and my sensibility and that is bound to inform my choices when programming a season… but no differently, no more than other parts of my background.

In the online discussions what has been most interesting is how and who has been sharing their opinions – on playwrights writing anonymously, how people feel about quotas being set for companies, and who is willing to speak publicly on the record about these issues. It seems there is still a huge amount of sensitivity about speaking out about cultural issues. Like that with the discussion on directors – there was a sense that anyone voicing an opinion (or an observation) would be condemned and would then shut down all possible opportunities working in the companies they criticize.

I think it is a sign of a robust and dynamic industry when artists can discuss work without fear. It is essential that companies listen to the conversations – cultural, artistic conversations that are happening and that they not only listen but engage and respond. I think it is also important to lead a conversation with personal openness which always puts the work first. What I truly admire and value about the playwrights I have had the great fortune to work with is their capacity to see every side of a story, and to bring to the table an intelligence and compassion which is authentic, rigorous and clear. A dynamic industry is a diverse, changing industry – sometime volatile and sometimes slippery – but always moving towards the ideal in the pursuit of art.

(An excerpt from)Women Theatre Directors: Action Planning Forum Summary Document
Company B Belvoir, May 10-11 2010

*Recommendations for the Australia Council*

5. Adopt a policy of promoting the fair and equitable inclusion of women in the core creative processes of main stage theatre companies
a. Develop a framework (with guiding principles) for companies to progress equal opportunity for women directors
b. Require EO action plans for companies and accountability for progress as part of the grants acquittal process
c. Provide advice and assistance to companies to achieve their targets
d. Address non-performance issues with companies

These recommendations are supported by the Australia Council and MPA companies. In addition, the Australia Council will raise the topic with their State colleagues for consideration as part of their funding processes

6. Take a leadership role in the support and development of women theatre directors
a. Commission a significant paper to address the gap between the last research produced on the issue of women in creative leadership, and the present.
b. Provide more information to companies about the current legislative framework for EO
c. Provide programs for skill development for women directors including workshops in pitching and promotion, confidence building, lobbying, contract negotiation and opportunities for producing work with mentoring support
d. Promote pathways between the different parts of the sector for talented women

6a&b: These recommendations are supported by the companies and the Australia Council. The Australia Council will investigate opportunities for this paper and research to be undertaken by an independent person from e.g. a university or as a Currency House Platform Paper. Companies are committed to making available their statistics to the researcher as part of this process.

6c: Companies and the Australia Council will consider further the most appropriate way to respond to this recommendation.

6d: Companies will seek opportunities to bring together a diverse range of creative artists from across the sector, through informal social occasions, promoting easier access to company shows and invitations to events

NB: Based on the size and structure of the various companies the response to this recommendation will vary. Overall, however, the companies support the creation of meaningful funding programs of support which have the potential to create long-term developmental relationships between companies and artists. The companies believe this would be beneficial to the industry and if funding were made available for programs focused on women directors they would actively participate in them.

7. Consider the structure of the sector and its impact on the development of diverse creative leadership in theatre
a. Establish the result of the loss of ‘middle ground’ companies and opportunities (such as major regional theatre companies) and the long term effect on theatre directors identifying separately Indigenous women, culturally and linguistically diverse women and women with disabilities

Companies share the concerns of the women directors about this topic. They will support moves to increase the number of paid directing opportunities in the theatre sector generally. Opportunities for women directors can be addressed and monitored through the framework/guiding principles to be devised by the Australia Council.