Saturday, March 13, 2010

Glass Ceiling

It's just before 7.00pm and I'm in a room in the northern reaches of London. After spending the previous evening in what I have come to realise was probably Shoreditch the possibility of me getting a nosebleed from spending my second evening in a row on the wrong side of the river is a distinct possibility. There isn't anything particularly special about the room itself, what with its matching seating and slightly battered walls. What is noticeable is the man-thing. And by that I mean - there isn't any. I don't think I've been in a room with such a pure concentration of women since 1999 when I was in high school and had a pair of combat trousers which I not only owned but actually wore. The best I can say about that is - at least I wasn't stuck for a pocket.

Thankfully I don't have combat trousers on this time, just my I-bought-these-because-the-Fashion-Editor-on-the-final-of-Canada's-Next-Top-Model-was-wearing-a-similar-pair trousers. Who knows, maybe in a decade's time I will remember these trousers and scorn too. Turn-ups on someone under 5 foot four! The fact that they are carrot shaped! What was I thinking?

But, you might be pleased to note, I'm not here because of trousers. Though, as with my High School, I am here because of my two X chromosomes for I'm at the launch of a social enterprise which aims to campaign for and support female Playwrights.

"It's like I'm in 1912" I text, though I doubt any of us are going to jump under a horse or anything like that.

There's a panel discussion to start the night - the subject up for discussion is 'what should we do next to counter the fact that only seventeen percent of professionally produced plays are by women?' -

Let me just take a moment out for us to digest that fact. Seventeen percent. When women make up 52% of the population, and over sixty percent of an average theatre audience. And here's me worrying about how posterity will view my beautiful if fashion-forward trousers.

I am, though, surprised by some of the comments from the panel just in the way that I was surprised by that statistic:

"In a way I'm depressed to be here having to talk about this, three decades after we were first having this conversation. But theatre is still run by men, by the old-school-tie network, and it continues to exclude women".

Maybe I was suprised by how black and white the issue was being seen by some of the women sat at the front of the room. Maybe because I have never felt that being female has some how held me back. Call it that high school of mine, followed by Oxford and always and forever supplemented by my parents but gender, for me, is something - for myself - that I don't really notice. I notice it for others, it's why I'm proud to call myself a feminist, but me - I am lucky. Bloody lucky.

But being a playwright is bloody difficult regardless of gender. It's woefully over-subscribed for a profession which pretty much pays a decent wage to Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Alan Bennett, Caryl Churchill and not many others. The things I have to juggle - and let us be honest if there is one thing that kills potential playwrights it is money or lack thereof - are the same for almost every other writer I know, including those who are fully in possession of a Y chromosome.

The statistic I'd like to see is not 'how many professionally produced productions are written by women?' but 'how many professionally produced new-plays are written by women?' because professional theatre's reliance (over-reliance?) on plays by dead-white-males is something slightly different. Tell me commissioning statistics and then I'll go storm the gatekeepers if we need to.

I want great writers to get through. I don't want someone blocked because of the potluck of gender (of either assignation) and if there are barriers that can be identified then let's look at them and let's see what we can do. But that doesn't require gender rhetoric, that requires research and practical solutions (Money? Time? Facillities? Expectations? Oh, and let's get female Playwrights on to drama syllabuses as part of the main act and not in their fenced off 'women writers' interval entertainment).

I guess, rather personally, if I never end up with a play in the Olivier then I won't think it's because of those X chromosomes. I don't think I would feel it's because I wasn't good enough either (I'm not currently, one day I hope I will be). I'd like to think I'd put it down to all those little twists of chance (or fate, or luck, depending on your position) that did or did not happen.

If I don't make my career work in other ways then that might be some of (though again, not all) my fault. It certainly won't be because of an old boy's network.

There are things I can control. I can - as one of the panelists noted in a moment that made me want to hug her - go out and write what I fucking want to. I can put my own work on. I can go out and meet wonderful, creative people who want to make work. I can make choices, and make the sacrifices that they might entail.

There is the point that you have to stand up and make the change. And if England in 2010 on the issue of female playwrights (notice my distinction, I'm not talking about the pay-gap, or the lack of female political representation, or the treatment of female prisoners, or rape-conviction statistics, or even the fact that a female blogger publishes a book about her sex life and a national newspaper labels her a 'hooker' in the headline of an article she has written for them. I'm talking - playwriting) isn't the place, I don't know where that place is.

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