About five years ago I was working as a freelance theatre director and was becoming increasingly uncomfortable about how much longer the list of actors I'd worked with was than that of actresses. I'd started noticing too that whenever I attended theatre I'd generally see more men on stage than women. Certainly a minority of plays would have balanced casts and - extremely rarely - more women than men. But overwhelmingly, whether classics or new works, I'd almost always find that the story was told via male characters. When women were there, they were their sounding boards; their wives, mistresses, mothers, or nurses, their function being to illuminate aspects of the male characters' journeys rather than their own.
When I took the time to actually think about it, rather than simply assuming 'that's just how it is' the situation struck me as strange. Half the population couldn't be intrinsically less interesting than the other half surely? I knew that the majority of people who go to the theatre are female (according to research published by Society of London Theatres in 2010, 68% of people attending productions in the West End are female. Among young audience members, the proportion is even higher, with women accounting for 73% of attendees in the 16 to 35 age bracket), as is the case for who studies drama at school, college, and university, and who attempts to enter the profession and who participates at amateur level. There was clearly no shortage of women interested in theatre, so why seemingly, was theatre so disinterested in them?
At the very least, this seemed short-sighted on the part of the theatre industry. How many other fields would routinely fail to acknowledge the most loyal part of its customer base or the bulk of its talent? On a more troubling level, what did this apparent disappearing of women from our stages say? The power of theatre is that it enables us to conjure whole new worlds and affords us the privilege of displaying them on public platforms. If the worlds we choose to conjure there don't have women in them (and in particular those who don't happen to be white, size 8, under 35, or able-bodied) isn't it a disappointingly skewed and now long out of date depiction of humanity we are reflecting?
I knew that many of my colleagues in theatre didn't want to be stuck in this rut but hadn't quite worked out how to get out of it. Confident that we could all be working in a smarter, better, and more equitable way, I founded Tonic Theatre in 2011 to help catalyse the change that so many of us wanted to see. Today, Tonic works with leading theatre organisations across the UK, supporting them to achieve greater gender equality in their repertoires and workforces.
Much as I'd love to say Tonic's work is focused solely on actresses there's also much we're doing for writers, directors, technicians, artistic directors, and many other roles in which women remain underrepresented at the most senior levels. But increasing the quantity and quality of roles for women on stage remains a priority and it's something Tonic has been looking at from a number of angles. So far we've approached it from the top, by working with the Artistic Directors of some of the country's most influential theatres through our Advance programme (www.tonictheatre-advance.co.uk), and by raising the profile of strong female centred material with our book 100 Great Plays for Women. Now, we want to change perceptions among young people because if we can alter their thinking today, we are more likely to get the industry we want tomorrow.
Tonic is going to start this by launching a new series of plays called Platform, written specifically for younger actors to perform and which have mainly or entirely female casts. Girls form the significant majority of young people who take part in curricular and extracurricular drama. But overwhelmingly the scripts they are working with still see female characters failing to be involved in the lion's share of the action. What this means is that many young people go into the profession not questioning the imbalance in opportunities for men and women, simply because they've never known anything different. Of course regardless of whether young people involved in drama are interested in acting professionally (and many of them aren't), learning at a young age that when it comes to being on public stages females have little to do and even less to say, isn't something that should go unchallenged.
Now is an exciting time and the last two or three years in particular have seen a real surge forward in terms of gender equality in theatre. This is excellent, but we mustn't sit back. The risk of early progress can be that it gets mistaken for the achievement of the end game, and just because there are a few more female faces on the scene doesn't mean that there are enough. We must all keep working until we have equity, pure and simple.