Women are disproportionately underrepresented in texts and plays studied at GCSE drama. Women are also disproportionately underrepresented in the theatre sector as a whole. Could parity with men in the industry be unlocked by young women studying more women's work and mirroring that success?
In this blog for her Gold Arts Award, Mortal Fools Young Leader Maisie reflects on the above provocation and invites our readers to join in the conversation.
Over to you, Maisie…
Last year, I studied GCSE drama and was astounded to discover that every play we studied was written by a man.
At first, I thought this must be a very unfortunate coincidence, but looking at the specification told a different story.
Only four of the twelve available set texts to study for Edexcel GCSE drama have female playwrights, and two of these were only added in 2020. It’s a lot of effort for schools to change their curriculums and this likely means that these new plays won’t be taught for a long time.
The texts are split into two lists: List A, which contains pre-1954 plays, and List B, which contains post-1954 plays. Not a single play in List A was written by a woman. And it is not because women playwrights did not exist before 1954 – they did and were thriving! To just to name a few: Anna Cora Mowatt (1819 – 1870), Alice Brown (1857 – 1948), Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865 – 1932), and Pam Gems (1925-2011). Their plays are certainly less well-known than their male counterparts, and arguably overlooked, but if anything this demonstrates the importance of including them in the curriculum and amplifying their work.
If students all across the UK are subconsciously having the rhetoric reinforced, that it is only men that are and can be successful playwrights, what message does this convey about the inclusivity and diversity of the arts? And most importantly, what message does this convey to young folks that identify as women at the beginning of their theatre making career?
This problem extends beyond the classroom; into the rehearsal rooms, the theatre venues, and leadership teams. A study conducted by the playwright Jennifer Tuckett and the Sphinx Theatre Company found that only 31% of artistic directors identify as female, and that there is a persistent 2:1 ratio of men to women in acting roles. In addition to this, only 20% of produced plays have female playwrights. Therefore, I think these issues need to be addressed urgently and really talked about, but Arts Council England’s plan for diversity and representation barely mentions plans to tackle sexism in theatre. Without a government-led initiative or plan to tackle this, the majority of theatre companies are unlikely to take any action.
An example of proactive and positive news is the National Theatre, which published goals for 1:1 male to female ratios in performers on stage, directors, and writers by March 2022. They say that these goals would have been met in 2021, had it not been for the pandemic. This shows that it’s not all bad news and some sector organisations are actually trying to do something. Perhaps if a company as well known and respected as the National Theatre has done this, others may follow suit.
I believe, however, that this problem needs to be addressed earlier in the creative careers journey: in the classrooms and schools where potential future artists are first exposed to theatre. Surely, if more young actors and writers can actually see themselves represented in the work they study, then they will be more likely to have the aspirations and confidence to pursue a career in theatre!?
Thank you, Maisie!
What do you think? How can we get more women into theatre? How can we change the gender balance of the plays studied in education? Let us know in the comments!