Towards Diversity: La Boite Unlocked – 2

10 July, 2012 by 1 Comment

Along with David Berthold (Artistic Director La Boite Theatre) and Jo Pratt (BEMAC) I was part of the provocateur triumvirate at last night’s La Boite Unlocked series. After the Q&A at the end of what was a very relaxed, thoughtful hour and a half, someone asked if our talks would be made available. Here, with a few tweaks, is what I had to say. I followed David’s talk which you can find on his blog Carving in Snow. There were, of course, a few ad-libs and diversions along the way which inevitably happens as one speaks. This is the gist of it, though.

Image: Greenroom

Towards Diversity

The title of tonight’s session is telling – towards diversity. The towards part. I’m going to have to use a much overworked metaphor – the idea of a journey towards something – or maybe journeys because, if we’re talking about diversity, then there isn’t just one road. For women, the journey is part of a process that started about 2000 years ago, and it’s one that meanders off the beaten track from time to time, and starts and stops intermittently.

To put things into some kind of perspective, it was really only about 150 years ago that the first blips on western culture’s historical timeline marked the coming to legislation of various women’s rights issues. They’d been a long time coming – are still coming – and the journey to equality for women as part of the wider civil rights movement (as David mentioned) has been one of the great political challenges and civic engagements of the 20th century. As to fits and starts in a field closer to home – the theatre – a comment in the recent Australia Council Report on Women in Theatre (WIT) notes that about every 10 years or so someone asks ‘Where are the women?’ There is usually an explosion of outrage followed by a flurry of discussion and a gradual settling down into silence and inaction. Gains are lost in the one step forward, two steps back routine. Maybe creeping or stumbling towards diversity would be a better descriptor for the journeys we’re on.

Diversity is a word we hear being used a lot in public discourse. What it means in the context of our talk tonight is this: the culture or society in which we live is not reflected by what we see on stages, nor by who sees that work. Those hired by groups and organisations that create the work are, for the most part, unreflective of our wider society, and it is this angle that is dealt with in the WIT report. (As David pointed out) it’s not an issue that is particular or peculiar to the Australian theatre. It continues to engage and enrage people around the world. Jane Howard, a Twitter colleague from Adelaide posted this quote from Melbourne’s Malthouse only this morning:

In its conclusion WIT points out the lack of women in leadership positions in the Australian theatre and suggests three strategies in a way forward. Incidentally, the ‘women in leadership positions’ were considered in the terms of the report to be directors and writers/playwrights. They also included female Chairmen of Boards. The report did not consider the numbers of other female artists employed by these companies. The companies researched for the investigation fell into two categories the majors (Major Performing Arts Companies) of which QTC is a member, and the Key Artistic Organisations – the second-tier group, of which La Boite is not one as yet. Both these groups receive multi-year (recurring) funding by federal and/or state government agencies. (A quick diversion happened here with comment on the fact that the independent, grass-roots theatres were not included in the survey and that anecdotal evidence suggests the perception that women occupy more leadership positions in the grass-roots sector than in the Majors or the second-tier companies. This line of discussion developed in the Q&A)

If you haven’t read the report, you should. It’s available online (pdf format) and a well-written (if distressing and potentially debilitating) read. It comes to the conclusion that not much has changed since the years of various reports and investigations into equal opportunity – many instigated through the agency of the Australia Council – throughout the 80s and 90s. WIT’s quantitative data for the years 2001-11 suggests that for the past decade things have actually gone backwards and the women’s position in leadership roles has deteriorated. It’s a pretty depressing snapshot. (WIT 5)

You need to grab some facts and figures from the report to spread around because the reality of this position needs to be more widely know. Of course, much of the quantitative outcomes in the report are already known by those who work in the sector. You only have to look around a company on a daily basis, or read an annual report to be aware of the lack of female directors, writer/playwrights and Chairmen of Boards. WIT also points out another self-evident workplace fact – the over-representation of women in support roles – General Managers and Stage Managers. (David touched on this in his own talk, and there was some further discussion in the Q&A on why this is so: women as organisers, balancing lifestyle and working commitments, ways of working, the ‘culture of the foyer deal’ as part of the ‘Boys’ Club and so on. WIT also touches on these perceptions.)  As far as lack of representation is concerned, it’s important not to let the issue go off the boil. Within our own sector and beyond into the wider community, it’s time to ‘say more and say it more often’ (thanks to David Dower for this nice sound-bite provocation). My own provocation’s call to action tonight is drawn absolutely from the last step recommended by Australia Council – taking personal responsibility for what WIT calls Vigilance or mindfulness. And I’ll get back to that.

The other two recommendations in the report are Information (gathering and making available facts and figures) and Accountability (companies and agencies taking necessary action and being brought to the table to explain in terms of ‘if not, why not?‘ about the hiring of women in leadership positions). Both these recommendations refer less to individuals than to organisations. Where individuals enter the picture is via Vigilance or mindfulness or what we used to call ‘consciousness raising’ a couple of decades ago. This is appropriate action for those of us working in the field, the jobbing artists and audiences, the bloggers and conversationalists. It’s a social justice issue and that’s one that’s been around for about 2000 years or so. If you think that’s going to change anytime soon or that gender-parity in the ranks of employees or changes to unconscious patterns of thinking and behaviour – our societal acculturation – will be reshaped radically in the near future, then think again. Lasting, meaningful change doesn’t work that way.

The huge pressure of oppression by a dominant culture over many years manifests itself in many ways – consciously or unconsciously – and many are unrealised or unaddressed. Take exclusive language for example.  This relegates women automatically to the status of ‘other.’ (David spoke wonderfully about the universality of ‘man’s’ and the particularity of  ‘women’s’ stories.) Then there are a slew of ingrained suppositions and stereotyping about women’s role and status in society. Closer to our world, the lack of autonomous female figures on western stages, where the story of ‘mankind’ has been played out, has been a given for … it seems like forever.  Not that the traces haven’t been kicked over from time time, and I will say that, despite this and the lack of women on western stages until the 17th century, some of the greatest roles for women are those that have challenged women’s status quo in the patriarchy. The bad girls and rebels are the big fat roles that most women long to play and still. Telling.

A couple of anecdotes, personal reflections now because I can’t speak for other women. Bear with me.

I became a feminist, although I didn’t know it at the time, on the day I stepped into a classroom at Sandgate State School back in the mid-1960s. It was my first appointment as a young teacher as it was for the guy in the room next to me. We’d been at College together and were appointed oddly enough to two Grade 6 classes. My uni results were better than his, but that didn’t count, right? Right. He automatically got more money in his pay packet at the end of the fortnight. Legislation on equal pay for equal work was still a long way off. Did I do anything about it? Yes. I moaned about how unfair it was, and it was unjust. Were there any avenues to redress such an outrageously outmoded way of thinking about women in the workplace? Are you kidding?

When I was pregnant with my two children I was never more visible it seemed to me, or warmly accepted by the wider community. Perfect strangers smiled at me in passing. Now, as a single, older woman I sometimes feel utterly invisible in wider society. I’m not whinging, far from it, just observing. I am also conscious of the fact that, unlike many of  my sisters, I have enjoyed opportunities and privileges denied to them. By the way, I like being a single, older woman, love it in fact.

Last week I was addressed as ‘Mrs” Foy although I use ‘Dr.’ I do this for a few reasons, one of which is that I am proud of what that title represents and also of the fact that it’s the only one I’ve earned in my own right and not as the daughter of one man or the wife of another. I’m not offended when people do this, but I was curious to see whether my details were up to date on the form in question. I queried the perfectly pleasant person responsible, and he told me he always called older ladies ‘Mrs’ and reserved ‘Miss’ for the younger ones. Ouch. I was almost about to tell him that I wasn’t a ‘Miss’ either but I didn’t. Maybe I should have. There’s acculturation for you!

I used to turn up to every single (long and often boring) graduation and orientation ceremony when I was an academic. I was, I hope, making a small, though important point sitting up there with a couple of other women, outnumbered by all the blokes, all of us in our medieval costumes. They were allowed to remove their hats. Protocol was that women kept theirs on. Oh, yes. Why did I persist? Over the years I’ve learned that role-modelling for young women was and is important perhaps as never before. One step at a time, one small action at a time, one voice but by many, over time is going to create a wave of energy and sound. Want to fight an oppressive system? That’s how change is made – the drip, drip, drip approach. You just have to stick at it. Of course, there are other more direct interventions for change that should be considered, especially by those in leadership positions.

Australian playwright Lally Katz put it this way in an interview in The Age last month:

Women initiating work, within a theatre company, is a great way to go. That’s how lasting networks are built and deep roots planted, leading to solid cultural change. That’s how great plays are made.

In the UK The RSC is leading the way it seemed to me (on a recent visit to the UK) in their mindfulness and intervention about assigning leadership roles to women. Closer to home QTC has made a commitment to investing in the development of future women creative leaders as well as to indigenous projects and creative leaders (WIT 53).  Just as an aside, I saw the RSC’s production of King John where some gender-bending of roles worked wonderfully well in a play about politics and power. A female director and dramaturg were part of the team. And, of course, women on stage especially young women at the beginning of their careers benefit from stage time in roles traditionally taken by young men. They get valuable stage time watching more experienced actors at work, interacting with them and audiences. It’s much better than waiting in the dressing-room. (We discussed this further in the Q&A)

Looking back over what she says, you could replace the use of ‘women’ in Lally’s quote with (insert any other ‘marginalised group’ name) and the strategy remains the same. Whilst the lack of women in plays or the role of women in leadership positions are, arguably, key issues on the road to real change, this is only a part in a bigger, wider problem – the lack of diversity that’s at the heart of the matter, and it’s not just in our profession but spread throughout industries across the board.

Lyn Gardner (one of the bloggers and reviewers on The Guardian’s website) says the same about UK Theatre:

British theatre remains predominantly male when it comes to writers and directors. But then it is also predominantly white and middle class too, and those are issues that urgently need addressing as much as gender imbalances. Only then will our stages reflect the real world.

As WIT notes people of non-Anglo backgrounds have a hard time of it in Australian theatre, and it’s the same in north America. The report comes to the right conclusion in its report. Address the lack of diversity. That’s the challenge. The enemy is resistance. Where to begin?

Sarah Bernhardt, the great late 19th century celebrity superstar actress was on to something when she said:

The theatre is the involuntary reflex of the ideas of the crowd.

I’ve been pondering this one all day. If it’s the ideas of the crowd … that’s us … it’s the zeitgeist of collective thinking and influences that will create that involuntary reflex in the theatre. Getting the ideas out into the ether is no bad move. And, in case you were thinking of changing things, please don’t think that any advances or innovation are going to come from government. They never have. You know the one about a small group of determined people changing the world through an idea and example? That. It’s the crowd that will create the tipping point (see Malcolm Gladwell on ‘tipping points.’) On the other hand, if you like the idea of government as an agency for social betterment, joining a political party and adding your voice to the chorus is a great idea too.

The last of the recommendations from WIT urges personal responsibility in being Vigilant and mindful, and also to be aware of our own unconscious prejudices and defensiveness. It’s a tough call to action … artists as activists. Why not? It’s happened before. We could remain pessimistic, but it’s much more invigorating to do something, to speak up and attempt to change things. Here comes the call to action.

Every one of us here tonight has the potential to say more and say it more often. We may be a clubby group in our lack of diversity – just looking around the room – but we are doing something simply by being here in person or by following along in the social  networks. It’s thanks to La Boite and to QTC for their leadership and interventionary roles in sponsoring these and other get togethers which are happening face to face and online. However, if these gatherings are to be more than just part of the flurry that happens every 10 years or so, or an excuse to pat ourselves on the back for being forward-thinking, then they will have been a waste of time.

It’s also a new age of activism in the power we have to get ideas out there – it’s in our hands, literally. This most ubiquitous of tools (holding up an iPhone) has the power to spark thinking, instigate debate, call for accountability, add to the sum of facts and figures, and create change. As E.M. Forster famously said, ‘Only connect.’ And speak up.

It’s an age of unprecedented connectivity. We need to use it. Day by day by day, and never give up.

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