Woman Writing Letters by Charles Dana Gibson

There has been a simmering discussion amongst AWOL (Australian Women Playwrights On Line) about the presence (or lack of presence) of female writers included in the mainstage theatre seasons. Currently in Main stage seasons women are grossly unrepresented – and it’s not because there aren’t any women writing plays. There are. When curating the multi-playwright seasons I have produced in the last 4 years, I have not struggled to find quality female playwrights, and not just any female playwrights – excellent playwrights.

In late 2009, the Philip Parson’s Award hosted a panel discussion “Where are the women?” to which 200-ish female theatre workers turned up to prove exactly where the women are (Just in case Belvoir couldn’t see them, as their 2010 suggested) – they were filling the theatre. that day I sat with Suzie Miller and Vanessa Bates. When confronted with the argument that women aren’t being programmed because scripts and directors are assessed on merit not gender – Miller told of her experience which was having a play of hers knocked back for an Independent Season at Belvoir, only to have the very same play receive awards and productions overseas. Rachel Healy turned to Neil Armfield and said, “Well, Neil, it looks like we stuffed up.” And I think everyone in that audience agrees: there has been some major stuff-ups when it comes to theatre companies being committed to equal opportunity employment. So much so Melbourne Theatre Company have since implemented an EEO policy.

The stats for 2011’s mainstage season looks like this:

Sydney Theatre Company
Twelve plays, one by a woman (the American Sarah Ruhl).

Thirteen plays, three by women: two by Australian women (Lally Katz and Angela Betzien),
one by an Australian female choreographer.

Griffin Theatre Company (all Australian works)
Four plays, one by an Australian woman (Jane Bodie).

Ensemble Theatre (not subsidised)
Eight plays, none by women.

Melbourne Theatre Company
Thirteen plays, four by women: three by Australian women (two by Joanna Murray-Smith, one by Lally Katz).

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne
Ten productions (not all are text-based): two by Australian women (Lally Katz and Vanessa Bates), one by an Australian female choreographer (Narelle Benjamin).

Queensland Theatre Company
Six plays, none by women.

State Theatre Company of SA
Seven plays, none by women.

Black Swan Theatre Company, Perth
Seven plays, one by an Australian woman (Joanna Murray-Smith)

In recent months with the start of AWOL, discussion has been furious, fast, eloquent and frequent… the names contributing to the discussion include Suzie Miller, Vanessa Bates, Verity Laughton, Tee O’Neill, Peta Murray, Noelle Janaczewska, Van Badham, Donna Abela, Kate Mulvany, to name but a few. I really would love to see the mainstage theatre programmer (Lit Manager, Artistic Director, Associate Director, etc) who has the balls to look these women in the eyes and honestly tell them, that their plays are not being selected because they “aren’t very good.”

And it’s not because these are horrid vindictive playwrights who should be feared because they can’t take criticism -it’s because it’s just simply not true.

Not only does Vanessa Bates have her play Porn.Cake coming up in a production in Melbourne this year… let’s not forget the major successes of Australian female playwrights – Alana Valentine’s Run Rabbit Run had a sold out season at Belvoir in 2004… Kate Mulvany won multiple awards and has also enjoyed sold out seasons for The Seed, Recently Verity Laughton’s the Sweetest Thing also packed out houses in a B-sharp season. Van Badham (current Lit Manager at Finborough Theatre in the UK) has enjoyed multiple awards, productions and is a regular gigging writer who has just published her first book through Pan Macmillan. What is stunning about the “chosen on merit” argument is that it is absolutely nonsensical. How can female writers win award after award, receive residencies after residencies, workshops after workshops, enjoy sell out seasons, gain international recognition and productions and yet, STILL are confronted with the argument “sorry, your play isn’t very good.”

For some this is an example of a boys club which is so deeply obsessed with it’s own maintenance of power that women must be kept at bay at all times. For some there is a question of HOW/WHY some of the taste makers/programmers have earnt their positions (One anecdote tells of a certain programmer/person of influence recently requesting an established/award winning female playwright for a coffee meeting -which is pretty tricky because she’s been living in the UK for some time, thus exposing his level of detachment with the writing community). For others there is a bafflement over why some playwrights are given opportunity after opportunity for productions (yes practice makes perfect) and they are allowed to fail… and yet others aren’t.

Recently an article in the SMH has aired the topic outside of the safety of the AWOL email group:


I know for a fact programming has to do with taste. Not with merit. And main-stage companies and their programmers have to face up to the responsibility and consequences of their taste.

To even up the clear gender imbalance, it has been suggested quotas for the inclusion of women practitioners to be introduced for theatre companies funded by the Australia Council. The initial proposal was for 30% of all plays programed should be by women. My immediate reaction was “why not half?”… then I thought more about it. I thought more about it. What would this mean for a predominantly male company (BELL SHAKESPEARE – there is no female Shakespeare to counter balance that – not even Aphra Behn wrote as many as WS -but frankly this is a can of worms discussion I’m not going to touch in this post… so stay tuned for my thoughts on that)? I also thought about the affect this would have on a female playwright: would she forever be left wondering/thinking “I was chosen because they need to fill their girl-quota, not because I’m good”).


I think the problem is not with the playwrights. The problem is with the positions of creative decision making are made by men. Men who are programming to their taste. Tom Wright programs himself because he likes his own plays – that’s his taste. Tom wright says in one of the articles “The STC had commissioned an equal number of male and female playwrights since Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton became co-artistic directors.” And my response is “Yeah, but have those commissions translated to productions? Because really commissioning 50/50 male female but only producing the male writers does absolutely NOTHING for the visibility/representation of female writing on the stage. It really feels like a gesture designed to shut people up. The whole top level of theatres needs to be overhauled… the Boards, the Artistic Directorship, the literary managers (And I believe there should be two for each theatre company) should be 50% women who hold 50% sway- not merely a token photo-copy girl in hotpants) Then effectively and naturally the balance of taste and representation would naturally re-adjust.

(As a side note to bolster the “taste not merit” argument” typically I’ve noticed when the artistic directorate is male and gay, sometimes they plays produced include characters that are gay men (Tommy Murphy directed/championed by Bertold and Armfield)… and yet I find it strange that the lesbian writers of Australia don’t get an equivalent chance for representation on stages.) Surely the themes, love stories and characters in gay theatre are no different to that of lesbian theatre or hetero theatre for that matter? Yet there is a predomince of gay male representation on our stages.

And then a part of me says, “Yeah yeah… we know it’s unfair. We know the merit argument is stupid and that women are treated differently than men are treated. what are we going to do about it?” This is what I choose to do – always support women writers who are great see their shows, offer feedback, promote it when it’s good and because it’s good. Always encourage emerging women writers to feel as entitled about their right to work and get paid as their male counterparts do.