On Thursday 12th November 2015, I joined some Irish artists and theatre makers in an upstairs room at the Unicorn Theatre in London Bridge. Truth be told, Irish theatre is not something that has ever affected me personally in real terms; I trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and my work has been predominantly UK-based.
But the Abbey is an institution that every Irish artist, and possibly most Irish citizens want to feel connected to. As Emer O’Toole put it so well in the Guardian, the story of the Abbey Theatre is the story of our nation. The two are inextricably linked. Lady Gregory and the women of the time played their part in birthing the new nation, and as such it is the duty of every citizen (not just women) to ensure that their legacy is not forgotten.
So it was with much interest, and a feeling of excitement and solidarity that we gathered around a laptop (the modern equivalent of the wireless) to listen to the speakers. None disappointed, save the artistic director of the Abbey. It seems incredible to me (never having met Fiach MacConghail) that out of all the topics he had clearly given considered thought to – “war stories, about poverty, about housing, about disenfranchisement” – that the glaring omission of half the population and their views and perspective on 1916 wouldn’t have been obvious.
But then, one has to look at this in the wider context of society. It’s not uncommon, when in meetings/rehearsal rooms etc as one of the token women that all one hears is the loud guffawing and braying of male voices. Men don’t have very much interest in women’s opinions or stories, and when women do offer them, they are treated as less important by virtue of gender. I witnessed this in a very microcosmic way some months ago when riding the Overground in London. Three young people in their late teens/early 20s, two boys and a girl. They were talking about getting jobs, and it turned out the girl had just got one. She was trying to offer advice to the boys on what to do in interviews, and they both dismissed her out of hand. SHE WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO HAD MANAGED TO GET A JOB SO FAR. But her opinion wasn’t valued for no other obvious reason than her gender. Go figure. When the basic structure of this story seeps into society as a whole – Heuston, we have a problem….
Being in the middle section of my life, I’ve experienced this story many times over. The sexism. The bullying. The dismissive tone. It’s a familiar and immensely irritating one at this stage, and it’s time this was changed. Also, personally, as a theatre and cinema goer – I’m bored with men’s stories. For a man’s coming-of-age story: Boy grows up with gang of friends. Boy discovers girls. Boy discovers penis. Tragedy strikes one of the friends (not through boy’s penis, might I add). Lessons are learned about growing into puberty. Roll credits. The End.
As a female audience member, I can sort of relate – but I would relate more to something like this: Girl born in different country comes to live in rural community. Girl is outsider to begin with. Girl is bullied because of cultural differences. Tragedy strikes through the death of a parent. Girl starts leading double life as good student during the daytime and nightclubbing rebel at night. Girl gets hit on by older guys. Girl goes off during her summer holidays on her own to New York to work. And that’s just me until aged 15.
I’m sure my story is not unique by any stretch of the imagination – it’s just that girls’ stories don’t tend to be allowed to be heard. And as a woman – I’ve had enough. Not only because I identify more with women’s stories, but also because I believe the arts are failing because of the virtual exclusion of the world perspective of half the human race. Anytime I’ve been to the theatre/cinema and it’s told women’s stories from women’s perspectives it’s been pretty much packed to capacity. This is not coincidence, people.
Groucho Marx had a saying: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” With all due respect to dear Groucho, he was a man and a celebrity and could afford that careless quip. My policy is, as a member of the human race, artist and theatregoer, is that I don’t support companies or organisations engaged in active discrimination. I don’t support or attend performances with all-male casts. I know people who run these companies, and while I wish them good luck, they won’t have my money or my bum on their seat. The same absolutely goes for companies if they actively have as their policy that they discriminate against people of colour, the LGBT community and so on.
The suffragettes had a saying ‘Deeds not words’. There have been a lot of fine words said since 12th November , but also a lot of inaction. As Lian Bell so eloquently put in an article for the Irish Times, it’s now time to ‘do sorry’.While it may be a step in the right direction that a subcommittee has been set up to examine the issue of gender imbalance in the Abbey, I suspect because it is headed up by Bryan McMahon that an elaborate game of chicken is being played and very little will transpire.
So here’s my suggestion as a safeguard against inaction: Boycott. If you believe in female equality, do not buy tickets or support the 90% of plays that are written and/or directed by men in ‘Waking the Nation’. As an artist, it goes against the grain to advocate a boycott of any art form. And I hope that the Abbey will take action to be more inclusive and that it will not come to this, on what is an extremely important commemoration in Irish history. But I believe this issue to be a wider one about the way women are treated in Irish society and society in general, and I believe that we owe this to the ‘mothers’ of our nation. All things considered, I do think this must be an option. Women make up about two-thirds of audiences, according to a SOLT report from 2005; and if those statistics hold true currently and in Ireland, there is considerable power in that. At the very least, a boycott would ensure that there are consequences for active discrimination. And the lack of tacit and tangible support may force the white men of theatre to ‘check their privilege’ before programming rather than after.