WOMEN are losing ground in the struggle to claim a greater share of creative leadership in Australian theatre, according to a new report that shows Australia's biggest theatre companies are among the least likely to hire female writers and directors.
Women represent about two-thirds of theatre general managers and have a strong presence on theatre boards but more than 30 years after concerted efforts began to level the playing field, there are fewer female artistic directors and writers in the theatre than ever.
Women interviewed for the report said they were being held back by an almost ''feudal system of patronage'', with artistic directors acting ''like the monarch at the centre of their court''.
''It appears that there has, at best, been no progress over the decade since 2001, and there is evidence that the situation for women in creative leadership [in theatre] deteriorated over that time,'' said the authors of the Australia Council report, the University of Technology's Sydney Associate Professor Elaine Lally, and the University of Wollongong's Professor Sarah Miller.
The report, released today, was commissioned by the Australia Council after a tsunami of discontent broke over the Melbourne Theatre Company several years ago when it presented two seasons overwhelmingly dominated by male talent.
''[Artistic directors] say, 'I only choose what's best'. So why is there a predominance of white, middle-class men?'' was a typical response from the 44 people surveyed for the report. ''It's embarrassing and protectionist and reeks of elitism.''
The report found that between 2001 and 2011, only 21 per cent of the productions staged by Australia's eight biggest theatre companies had women writers, with 2011 the worst year for women writers since 2003. Only 25 per cent of productions had a female director over the same 11 years.
The researchers noted the number of female directors and writers hired by the major theatre companies had risen this year but the overall trend was negative. Women had a better chance of rising to the top in smaller theatre companies. Between 2001 and 2011, there were female playwrights in 37 per cent of productions, and a similar percentage of directors. Giving theatre directors a licence to make decisions based solely on their artistic vision was one reason it was so difficult to change the gender inequity, said the Australia Council's director of theatre, Lyn Wallis. ''The autonomous artistic director model makes it hard to break into a company'' because that person always says 'It is about my taste, my vision','' she said.
A lack of transparency about how decisions were made, the break in women's careers because of child rearing, and the different ways men and women promoted themselves and their work also needed to be addressed, she said.
Australian Women Directors Alliance
ABOUT AWDA The Australian Women Directors Alliance is a non-profit coalition of professional women directors and theatre makers. The AWDA was formed as an outcome of focus group at the 2009 Australian Theatre Forum.