Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Where are the women?


A personal response to the question posed by Belvoir Street Theatre.


An account of one Victorian female director's career trajectory and her observations about Australian Theatre.

by Jane B Woollard

‘He may be the country's most passionate and ambitious stage director. A self-described "obsessive theatre-maker", he says he values "art and the need for it.”’

‘His nerves are understandable. At twenty four he is the youngest director to open a main-stage production for Company B since Neil Armfield became artistic director of the company's precursor, the Nimrod Theatre, thirty years ago. He shrugs off the suggestion he could be a directorship candidate when Armfield leaves at the end of next year, but given his achievements it is not that far-fetched.’

‘He has had a meteoric career/A most impressive trajectory/He has blazed like a comet across the sky/He is an enfant terrible/a boy wonder/a wunderkind/a very impressive young man/in youthful middle age/with an energy younger than his years.’

The phallic and ejaculatory hyperbole we read about male theatre directors in the Australian press is intensely wearying. The arts journalists trip over their undies to write this stuff, hoping one day they may get to interview Kosky and his clever glasses. One reads breathless descriptions of male genius and wonders how one can transcend one’s own dull femaleness. To be a theatre director who is middle aged and female is to wear a suit made of albatrosses. In reviews the language about our work differs from that accorded to men. If our work is mentioned by the critic at all. At best we get ‘detailed’ ‘well-observed’ and (my detested favourite) ‘quirky.’ At worst female directors are hauled over the critical coals for getting in the way of an otherwise grand play – heaven forbid that the female director should leave her stylistic mark on the work. Surely we are there to be handmaidens of the script? Not, like our male counterparts, ‘auteurs’, ‘wunderkinds’ and ‘enfant terribles?’

I stood in a backyard in Queenscliff in 1986 and watched Halleys Comet make its progress across the sky. Midway through finishing my three year directing diploma at VCA, and filled with bright hopes for my future as a theatre director, I was humbly anticipating my impressive career as a theatre maker and practitioner. The 1980s were a brave new world, or perhaps being 24 years old made it seem so. There were no impediments to my vision and drive as a female artist, the glass ceiling had been dissolved, and the young men I was training with enjoyed working alongside women.

The comet was not as I expected. It was bright and slow, its movement undetectable to the naked eye. It inched across the edge of our sky in slow increments. It was a veil of light being pulled slowly across the black sky, like the trail your hand leaves when you wipe it across a rainy window pane. The Bayeux tapestry came to my mind. ‘Isti mirant stella,’ I whispered to myself. ‘There is the hairy star.’

‘I shall enter the firmament of Australian theatre in just such a way,’ I thought to myself. ‘I shall brightly lead the way, I shall make striking flowers of light in the thespian heavens.’

Twenty-three years later, my working life as a theatre director has indeed been like the progress of that distant comet, in ways I didn’t understand in 1986. My career has had a less predictable trajectory. The work trails behind me, a varied tail of light and shadow, a slow traversing of struggle and joy. But the work has been powered by the pulsing core of energy – artistic vision, knowledge, practise and skill. And by the wonderful collaborators who have made the work with me. There has been a steady flow of theatre-making, in the independent theatre, funded and unfunded, in the education sector and in community, working in the field of cultural development, transforming true tales into theatre, giving voice to those who stand on the fringes of the community, or bringing to light forgotten words from the past.

In past years the debate about access and equal representation for female directors in Australian theatre has flared and died, flared and dimmed. I have stood by, not signing letters, not joining the groups, believing with each year that the low representation of women in these roles is an aberration, an oversight that will be rectified the next year. Surely?

But it is an inescapable fact that the statistics for female directors are getting worse. The recent release of the seasons for MTC, Belvoir Street, Malthouse Theatre and Griffin Theatre have shown it to be worse than ever, with no women directors employed in any of the 2010 seasons curated by these companies. In response to criticism and questions asked in the print media and theatre blogs, Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney is hosting a ‘Where are the Women?’ forum on 6 December in conjunction with the Phillip Parsons Young Playwright Award.

Why does all of this matter? We have in Australia legislation called the Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Act which became law in 1986. This legislation explicitly states that organisations must adhere to the principle of Equal Opportunity in employment. But the principle of Equal Opportunity rarely applies in the theatre industry. For example, the Melbourne Theatre Company, as a department of Melbourne University, is obliged to adopt this position as an Equal Opportunity employer. However, the few ongoing roles for directors that women could apply for are never advertised. In recent years the plum job of Artistic Associate at MTC has become vacant twice. On both occasions it has not been advertised and has been offered to and taken up by men. One discovers that so-and-so is now in the role, and one thinks ‘I would have liked to apply for that.’ But the opportunity never presents itself.

The MTC Board and its Artistic Director defend their right to hire on merit alone, and at their discretion. There seems to be an attitude that they should not have to be accountable to such dull and pedestrian principles as Equal Opportunity, and that to open the doors to artists other than white middle class men would create a culture of mediocrity. Funded by public monies, Major Performing Arts Board Companies have no obligation to comply with EO legislation or to account for their progress or work in regard to it. Indeed, the MTC Board has scoffed at the idea of quotas, affirmative action, and has indicated they resent being asked why it is that they rarely employ women in these key creative roles. The funding bodies who are charged to fund the major companies take a hands off approach and blithely let them go on their way, even though the said companies contravene the funding organisations’ own EO guidelines. Theatre critic Alison Croggon wrote recently that we would not want to return to a quota system. I don’t remember such a system ever being in place. And surely equality is a principle we hold dear in our society. In this debate there has been an assumption that equal opportunity equates with mediocrity. A somewhat cocky belief that if you open the door to a variety of people, namely women and people of different cultural backgrounds, then there will be a dumbing down of the work, a dilution of skill and artistic excellence.

The MTC Board declared in its recent letter to the Australian Women Directors Alliance that female directors are not employed by the company unless they have demonstrated success on the mainstream stage, working for companies that make work for audiences of 15000 – 30000, such as Belvoir Street and Malthouse Theatre. Unfortunately neither of these companies have programmed work directed by women in 2010, so it appears we female theatre directors are trapped in a vicious nineteenth century circle. Whenever I direct a project, I approach it with the full strength of my vision, skill and artistic integrity. Directing requires the same degree of artistic excellence when making work for a small audience or a stadium audience. Of course with greater financial investment the stakes go up. But one is supported through this process by the financial and administrative staff of the larger companies, by an experienced production team, and by one’s own experience managing budgets. Whether a production budget is large or small the same principles apply.

What underlies these feeble arguments about ‘mainstream,’ ‘main stage’ and handsome budgets, is a nasty sexist assumption about women and leadership. An assumption that women are too empathetic, and therefore cannot make tough decisions, can’t manage a budget, and don’t make strong directors because empathy equals weakness and indecisiveness. An empathetic heart is a strong heart. To be kind (if people wish to believe this is the sole province of women) does not preclude having nerves of steel and a canny eye.

‘Where are the women?’

I hear again the forlorn cry from Belvoir Street Theatre and I must answer it.

We are in our 30s or 40s and approaching the peak of our practice. Many of us have children, and so the fulltime jobs of Artistic Director or Associate Director are, it has to be said, difficult. Men with families perhaps make a different set of choices, perpetuating certain cherished myths about artists being ‘driven’ and that the process of making theatre is a superhuman task, above and beyond normal energy and familial commitments. Their unquestioning commitment to the unsustainable habit of overworking compromises us all. Women tend not to want 80 hour a week jobs that take them away from their children. Networking in theatre foyers over a stubby of boutique beer is not so easy for some of us. The structure of succession in Australian theatre relies on being seen, being social, and being in the right places. Female directors with families struggle to build these informal professional relationships.

In Australian theatre we are enamoured with the young, with the male, with fragmentation and society’s diseases. As a theatre maker, if you do not make work that reflects these obsessions, then you are invisible. So when Belvoir Street Theatre poses a fatuous ‘after the horse has bolted’ question like ‘Where are all the Women?’ my response is to say – ‘Fuck you! We have been here all along, making fabulous varied work that is not dressed in fishnets, whiteface, sad puppets, rear projection screens, costly perspex, 10 000 litres of water and ear-splitting sound scores. That stuff is only unexamined fashion after all – not craft, not ‘zeitgeist.’ Perhaps our Major Performing Arts Board Companies could make a consistent and focussed commitment to getting out and seeing the work of more practitioners, instead of waiting to be dazzled by the next bright young boy genius. (‘He reminds me of myself at that age.’)

The Malthouse Theatre’s mission statement declares as one of its truisms ‘Theatre is inherently and profoundly sexual.’ What the? This, more than anything else, is evidence that the smart young-ish blokes have had their hands on it for too long and I am beside myself with rage, lost opportunities and despair - that all my training and experience and vision counts for naught. Ironically, this makes me mad as an Xray Specs song.

Oh Bondage up yours / Oh bondage no more!' (times two)

‘Where are the women?’

Right here, working at the coalface of theatre – in education, in community, in little theatres and workplaces. We have been making a range of work that is not necessarily particular to being female, it is varied in genre and from, and it is made of different material to the garish stuff that is fashionable in Australia at the moment.

No one is speaking out for the sisters except the sisters. Our brothers in art are quite happy with their fortune. They do not wonder why we are not standing beside them, taking roles of artistic authority and leadership. They do not ask themselves why it is women who are administering, publicising, and managing men’s work. Nor do they ask ‘How did I get this big opportunity without having to go through a formal application process, in a fair competition with a variety of other directors?’

It is clear that male directors and Artistic Directors are quite content and thrilled with themselves, their genius heads held aloft and smiling, as they saunter across the glass ceiling, never once looking down to see us peering up their trouser legs. They are too absorbed in their important work of artistic leadership, and ensuring that qualified, kind- hearted clever women do not get their hands on the means of production, the resources for story telling and therefore a voice in well-resourced theatre making in Australia.

Highly inflammable

waiting to explode

neurotic tensions

risen overflowed

(Inflammable Material/ Warrior in Woolworths, Xray Specs, 1979)


  1. Brilliant Jane. Passionate and intelligent. just like your work . Thank you for posting this personally challenging and very private account on your current thoughts. It feeds us all. Mel

  2. Dear Jane,
    I have nothing particularly pithy or trenchant to say – you’ve pretty much said it all. The stats speak for themselves and your account is hearbreaking and, more importantly, galvanizing.
    I am in full support of you and all others who have suffered and continue to suffer such discrimination in the ‘industry’.
    It is an appalling state of affairs that the major companies and their funding bodies can go on so blithely ignoring issues of equality. Someone should tell them, though, that mediocrity is born of homogeneity. Don’t they know? Year in, year out, the same faces, the same stories, the same very, very pleasant Deadly theatre. There can be no rigour, no development, no groundbreaking work, no ART without points of difference. Without the voices and artistry of women (and of culturally diverse people) in leading positions in the majors we will continue to only see more of the same.
    Sitting pretty in the fiefdom of SAME there is no need to change, no desire for difference. In fact, in order to maintain that position a system of protectionism must be employed. Sexist and racist attitudes are not only the norm they are an unrealised means of survival; of perpetuating the self satisfied ethos of those in authority. The “other” is not welcome. Attitudes that we know abound in broader Aussie culture: Sam Newman’s attractive/hilarious/heroic; Hey, Hey is just reflecting ‘our way’; Favola is just a bit silly (or “he’s only young”); and refugees are ‘illegal immigrants’.
    Artistic directors (and boards) are making the next in their own image. And they must. It’s a matter of survival of the self, of one’s own beliefs. Pity. I thought artists were meant to be open minded. And to really thrive in the market place one must be willing to adapt and change, to speak to and embrace new markets and audiences.
    I am horrified that funding bodies can ignore their EO responsibilities. I am embarrassed that the major companies can be so small minded and so exclusive (legitimate “cringe” here I reckon). I am ashamed that so many people in the industry (in which I too work and to which I give so much of myself) can stomach such blatant discrimination and remain so silent on issues of equality. It’s not a question of where’ve the women gone, it’s a question of how’d we all get so piss-weak? Not much of the ‘sticking up for your mates’ going on. But even if individual survival is more important than any ol' time ideology or ethos I think I’d rather thrive in a theatre industry that supports diversity, that represents with equality, and is willing to take big risks in pursuit of the experience of life.

  3. You've captured something terrifying and very real. Thank-you.

  4. Dear Jane,

    Thanks for your passionate and cogent letter. I've been thinking about what I can do, so I just went out and bought an esky worth of boutique beers for starters. I will be over to design and install a small chic bar in the foyer of your home. Perhaps if we get the ambience right you will be discovered au bar, though please take time to work on your outfit and glasses.

    I might be a while as I am flat out designing Em-Ty-Seats, the musical, replete with staircase to nowhere rising from hot desert sands and superbly quilled ostrich outfits for the tap-dancing boys. Watch that last step lads!

    I am also very busy working on Malted, a theatrical tour de force based on the lauded memoir by Armadillo Spanner that celebrates the history of male directors in theatre. This is set in a bar with sand on the floor with low-lit segues to excerpts drawn from shows directed by the greats. I am aiming for a dried out inland sea effect, while the ostrich-plumed bomber jackets of the blokes in the bar may be a subtle postcolonial comment as, when you think about it hard, we only have emus here. Do they too put their heads in the proverbial sand? But anyhow, this will make for an unforgettable night at the theatre, directed by twelve-year-old Wunderkind, Buzz von Benchmark, who with the cautious support of his proud, arts-loving parents, was plucked from obscurity in his Glen Iris home where he and his little sister (no name supplied) had been working on high-voltage backyard pantos for years with their faithful retriever Olivier von Benchmark. Buzz is a big rap for postcolonial visual tangents. They make the boys look more political he says. He’s so smart, that young Buzz.

    Then there is Male Box (gosh I’m really getting tired), an award-winning romantic ‘crossover’ comedy by the famed, publicity-shy Tsetse Brothers. This Sydney-sider tale of the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its name (even though we thought it had many times) is the story of a homeless young thespian’s journey from the backstreets of Sydney (are there any left?) to a place called Melvoir Street, where he meets many like-minded ostriches, I mean souls, with whom he can speak openly, if selectively, of the humanising power of art. Call me tired, call me repetitive, call me female even, but I am choosing to continue on with the ostrich theme. Some may criticise, but I have the thoughtful encouragement of the meteoric young star director, Vinnie Verfremdung, who as you know, has been plucked, fully formed, from a sports writing gig with the Coogee Cable to work as associate theatre director with the company.Vinnie is all about heart-starting the avant-garde and getting more celebrities to stand about on stage. ‘Poo poo to text’, says Vinnie, ‘I’m over that’. With Vinnie’s youthful encouragement I have come to see that my conceptual revisioning of sand and feathers is simply working through of a very important Leitmotif. This has fashioned our times in such interesting ways. Vinnie is so, so Zeitgeist, no? And only nineteen!

    So yes, Jane, if Buzz says it’s ok, I will be over with my tape measure and my carpenter to install that poor theatre bar very soon. Hopefully well before your children are fully grown. Did you want sand and feathers with that? No I don’t think so. Its not you, but don’t tell Vinnie I said so.

    To tell you the truth, I’m getting a bit sick of sand and feather plumes. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I had a hissy in rehearsal today. Buzz has tried to counsel me, and even sent in Olivier for pats, but it’s simply not working anymore. There’s still no sign of his little sister. Can I come over for a drink?

    Shaken and stirred,

    Ossie Ostrich (aka Amanda Johnson)

  5. Hello all,

    Sometimes, in a foyer, i tell the truth about what i thought about a show.
    That it was under rehearsed, full of sound and fury, signifying... what? i couldn't really say. And people's eyes widen in surprise: 'That's a bit harsh'. No i say. It's my opinion. That show was lazy, expensive and dull.
    People have become piss weak, frightened to say what they really think.

    I love the theatre. Doing it, seeing it. But i have had some mind numbing experiences seeing major company shows over the years, usually directed by men.

    Jane Woollard and Kirsten Von Bibra, 2 directors i have worked with and watched over the years are extraordinary. The fact that they have never been invited to direct 'mainstage' work is shameful.

    Julia Zemiro

  6. You can't see or hear me, but I'm giving you a standing ovation in my study with my cat. Beautifully said.

    Jodi Gallagher

  7. Jane, thank you so much for your honest and insightful post. I’m standing up in my office and I have my hat off.

    Excellent comments too from the fluffy Ossie, Julia and others.

    I have been extremely fortunate to work with a handful of passionate, intelligent and fiercely talented female directors (of which you [Jane] are on the top of the list) that have given me the opportunity to take the necessary steps from fledgling student actor to fully-fed working artist.

    I whole-heartedly support any initiative that results in creating, developing, questioning and championing opportunity for both established and emerging female directors at each of our mainstage theatre companies.

    I for one am not content with my current artistic fortune. In my crystal ball I see female directors playing pivotal ‘creative’ and ‘executive programming’ roles at each of these ‘flagship’ theatre companies (two or three nation-wide is not representative of our industry nor of our community).

    I also champion the work of those women in management, technical and administrative roles in these companies that support and can assist in achieving such a ‘creative’ change.

    Hats of to the AWDA, every one! Bravo.

    Tim Stitz

  8. Jane

    An exceptionally well written piece. Your experience in the theatre is reminiscent of that in a number of other professions.

    I have been a lawyer for more than five years. If a large Australian law firm had not a single female partner and defended that decision on the basis of 'merit', there would be a justified outcry. The idea that there is no meritorious female candidate is laughable. Indeed, if it were the case, we would be forced to conclude that the definition of 'merit' being adopted involved an inherent male bias. There is further irony in the artistic world where 'merit' is so difficult to quantify.

    It seems that the theatre world has escaped the scrutiny of gender equity to date because it is not perceived as a bastion of social power. That position will not continue.

    Thank you for drawing attention to this issue.

    Liz Bennett

  9. Dear Jane,

    Liz read your piece aloud while I was cooking dinner tonight - I too found it inspiring and beautifully written. Petra had filled us in about the alliance and what you are doing. It's an important and admirable struggle.

    I have said it to you once before, Jane, but for many years - since Dreams Drowning - you have represented to me the possibility of a truly feminine style of leadership. You had the cast completely in the palm of your hand - you had us wanting to follow you - and you hadn't had to resort to any of the hard edged, loud, domineering, masculine techniques that so many women (and men!!) feel they need to adopt in order to lead. It made a real impression on me at the time, as I had recently ended a year as president of Queen's College, and struggled so much to remain soft and myself as a leader in that blokey environment. You showed me that it could be done, and how much more effective a style it in fact is. There was no abuse of power, so squandering of charisma, no display of ego. You were authentic and gentle and generous. Top end theatre would be so much the richer for an equitable measure of that feminine touch.

    What startles me about all this is how old this debate is. Law firms, hospitals, banks, business, universities had this debate more than 30 years ago. I am astonished that the hackneyed 'merit' argument is being trotted out! The logic beneath that argument is that only men are meritorious - a logic that requires either a severely male-biased definition of merit, or extreme mysogeny. Who would have expected either in the Arts? The left of centre, free thinking, status quo critiquing Arts?!

    Jane, I wish you success with this action that you are taking. You have a lot of support. I will watch with interest the Theatres' response ane will reconsider subscriptions accordingly.


  10. All power to you Jane Woollard for addressing with your habitual courage passion and wit the scandal of gross inequality in Australian theatre. All power to the AWDA!

  11. In the time that has elapsed since you posted this essay Jane, I have come back to it a few time, for "just one more read". The first time it bought a tear to my eye, the second time pride to know you, and this time, today, it brings a quiet confidence that with voices like yours calling out into the ether, the change you desire might well be on the horizon.

  12. Thanks Jane for that on-the-money critique. As a theatre artist newly returned from a longish stint overseas, I'm dismayed at the lack of development regarding this issue. And Amanda, you made me cry with laughter. Thank you thank you thank you!