It’s time to stop talking and take action to make sure more women are running the show in Canadian theatres.
That was just one comment heard Wednesday during a panel discussion on women in leadership roles in the theatrical community, held at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival before a crowd of roughly 50 theatre patrons and professionals.
“Everyone knows what the issues are,” said Mieko Ouchi, an Edmonton playwright and artistic director of Concrete Theatre. “Now we just have to make it happen.”
Statistics show that although women make up the majority of theatregoers, theatre school grads and support workers, they’re still miles away from holding their fair share of the top jobs.
A 2015 Ontario review of the Canadian theatre scene revealed a 70/30 split on the division of men and women in the positions that matter — that of artistic director, director and playwright. Furthermore, while women form 50 per cent of members of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, they do not account for even one-quarter of the country’s produced playwrights. Those numbers haven’t changed in 30 years.
Statistics are comparable in the United States, where a major study in 2013 by the Wellesley Centers for Women found that only 25 per cent of leadership positions among members of a major theatrical organization (the League of Resident Theatres) were held by women.
The Fringe festival is widely seen as a place that supports innovation, in part because the festival is neither censored nor juried. Regardless, the plays in the festival’s 2017 roster reflect the equity issue, said Brenley Charkow, a panellist, local director and student in the University of Alberta’s master’s directing program.
Using the Fringe festival guide, Charkow found that of 220 shows, roughly 80 credited women as playwrights, writers or co-writers. Only 78 featured female or female-identified directors or co-directors, roughly 35 per cent of the total.
A study by the Playwrights Guild of Canada showed that out of 804 productions hosted in 246 theatres in 2016-17, only 211 were written by women. The lack of gender parity in the Canadian theatre community means that women’s voices go unheard and their stories untold.
“We see a staggering number of men telling men’s stories on stage,” said Megan Dart, a local playwright and producer with Catch the Keys Productions, who organized the panel.
The Ontario study, by Michelle MacArthur, pointed to systemic and ideological barriers preventing women from achieving equity. The Wellesley study noted that women lack opportunities to direct widely and may not have the right people speaking to their strengths. Directing experience is necessary to bolster their applications for key positions.
Daryl Cloran, artistic director of The Citadel — one of the largest theatres in the country with an annual operating budget of $13 million — said women are under-represented in positions of theatrical power because they don’t get the opportunity to develop the skill set required to become an artistic director.
“It becomes a vicious cycle,” said Cloran, who was not a panel member. “Boards, when they are looking to hire for the bigger, artistic director roles, they look towards who has the training, and do they want to take a risk?”
Cloran says there was outrage in the national theatre community over the past year when white men were hired in several key roles, including his position. The controversy, he said, has lead to a conversation in the community and recently, some women and diverse voices were hired for big Canadian jobs, including Eda Holmes as artistic and executive director at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, and Stafford Arima, a Japanese Canadian man now occupying the artistic director’s position at Theatre Calgary.
Cloran recently hired three women in key roles at the Citadel. Rachel Peake is the new associate artistic director, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick is the first Indigenous associate artist at the Citadel (a part-time job) and Jessie van Rijn starts next week as producer. Also, women are directing several plays in the 2017-18 season, including Jackie Maxwell for The Humans, and Ashlie Corcoran for Mamma Mia.
“My role here is to provide those kinds of training opportunities to talented female artists so they can be building up the skills to be considered for those kinds of (leadership) roles,” said Cloran.
Ouchi says practical steps could be taken to ensure more women see their plays produced, and make it into top jobs. She suggests that funding bodies tie theatre grants to women’s representation, and that advocates for women’s work push to be heard on theatre boards. She encourages tickets holders to put their entertainment dollars behind companies doing work they believe in.
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