Image via bjaglin on Flickr.
Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, considered Ireland’s national theatre, hosted a meeting last Thursday that finally gave voice to years of frustration for women in Irish theatre. Filled to bursting with dynamic passion, confession, emotion, and ballsy Irish humour, hundreds of people congregated to fight for equality at this truly inspiring event. I joined the London contingent of the Waking The Feminists group at the Unicorn Theatre in London Bridge to listen to the live-stream.
Waking The Feminists formed in response to the release of the Abbey Theatre’s centenary programme ‘Waking The Nation’ on the 28th October, which would mark 100 years since the Rising which led to the formation of the Irish state. The stats were depressingly familiar: out of the ten plays programmed, only one was by a female playwright, and only three would be directed by women. Waking The Feminists immediately started a social media campaign demanding an explanation from the Abbey Theatre’s Board.
The Board responded with a statement acknowledging that the programme “does not represent gender equality”, and approved Waking The Feminists’ request to hold a debate in the theatre itself on the subject.
Twitter heaved with activity on the movement’s hashtag as Thursday’s discussion began. People crammed into the theatre itself, spilling out into the foyer to listen to the discussion, which featured many of the most prominent female figures in Irish theatre. “If we were women scientists,” piped up one audience member, “we’d all be getting free laptops on the way in.” One by one, the guest speakers spoke passionately and humorously about their own experiences of being sidelined and underrepresented in theatre, their anger at the patriarchal status quo, and their determination to help bring about change.
Playwright Ursula Rani Sarma’s contribution introduced the painfully familiar phenomenon of women being punished for speaking out against inequality: “People might think you’re bitter.” Actor and playwright Noelle Brown offered “man hater”; Dierdre Kinihane, a member of the Abbey’s own board, added “screamer in the corner”; and Gina Moxley went to town with “trouble”, “awkward cunt” and “crazy bitch”.
Actress Eleanor Methven and actor/writer Janet Moran brought up the maddening ubiquity of female roles in plays that are simply under-written appendages to the male protagonist – his long-suffering wife, his baffled girlfriend, his caring sister, and so on. “We want to be struggling, inconsistent, doubting,” said Moran, “just a bit crap like we all are sometimes”.
The wider implications of repressing the female voice in theatre were conjured into stark visibility by many of the speakers. A vicious circle was exposed where female playwrights lose hope and retreat from being heard, thus ever reducing the number of female voices in the public arena. Laura Bowler pointed out from the audience that “Dead men are still taking precedence over living women.”
“I have seen talented artists lose heart, grow angry, turn away,” said director Maeve Stone, going on to talk of the female internalisation of limitations, and the way that powerful women become anomalies. This trend was given stark and painful clarity by playwright Pom Boyd, who announced her retirement as a playwright. “My last experience here wore me out,” she confessed sadly.
However, this is not to say that female Irish playwrights are an endangered species, and is certainly not to be used as an excuse for not staging their work. Ursula Rani Sarma was exasperated by this reductive attitude: “When I hear ‘where are all the female Irish playwrights?’ I want to scream!” Theatre researcher Dr Brenda Donohue added “I don’t want to hear, ever again, ‘But there’s no plays by women!’”
Noelle Brown focused on the ingrained sexism in Irish society. “Sexism is not confined to the theatre… the struggle goes beyond the Abbey. Men don’t sit in rooms, plotting to increase sexism. It’s not a malicious imbalance.” Director Oonagh Murphy boldly connected the message that stops women from succeeding as playwrights with the message that “sends twelve women overseas every day for clandestine abortions.” She asserted that the lack of women’s plays on the stage tells women they’re “not important,” while Laura Bowler pointed out that when you only listen to half of the world, “you only get half the story”.
Several others talked about the responsibility of the Abbey Theatre to live up to its place as Ireland’s national theatre, to “reflect our society back at us,” in the words of actor Kate Gilmore, who also suggested that the centenary should be looked to as a springboard for change. Several speakers referred to the theatre as ‘my’ or ‘our’ national theatre, and the feeling of being let down by and shut out of something that is supposed to belong to everyone communally, was palpable.
Other subjects touched upon during the meeting included the scarcity of plays written in the Irish language, equal rates of pay for theatre workers, intersectionality and class (working class activist Kathleen O’Neill bestowed upon the movement “a big fair fucks!”), and the lack of resources for theatre in the regions of Ireland.
But, as ever, the greatest hush and attention greeted the entrance of a male voice into the discussion. This belonged to Fiach Mac Conghail, Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, and the ultimate bearer of responsibility for the testosterone-soaked programme. As expected, Mac Conghail delivered a prepared speech that read like something he had been forced to write in school detention, sagging with half-hearted apology and abstract promises to improve.
He said “”I was thinking about the legacy of 1916. I was thinking about war stories, about poverty, about housing, about disenfranchisement… I wasn’t thinking about gender balance,” as if the subject of women were just another ‘topic’ to be covered, a separate box to be ticked, and not in fact a vital blood line that weaves intricately through all of the stories he was considering, if he would stop for a moment to see it. “I failed to check my privilege,” he confessed, but nothing in his speech came near to atoning for his monumentally patronising tweet on October 29th which simply shrugged, “Them’s the breaks.”
The room in London was decidedly icy after hearing Mac Conghail’s noncommittal speech, and there was great disappointment that he hadn’t bothered to muster up anything better to offer in response to the considerable outcry against his programme. It felt like just one more instance where a man in power felt that female anger was irrelevant, inconsequential, non-threatening, and not deserving of any real attention or engagement. It will be interesting to see if any real adjustments are actually made at the Abbey following the backlash. Whatever happens, this is one movement that will be hard to silence, now that it has awoken.