Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Struggling to Break out of a holding pattern - SMH Article April 24, 2012

A new report suggests all-powerful, and usually male, artistic directors continue to sideline female creative talent, writes Wendy Frew.

Protectionist; a boys' club; a feudal system of patronage reeking of elitism.
This is a description not of a cosy white-collar world of corporate boards but of the men who hold the creative reins of Australian theatre.
They might cast women in male roles in Shakespeare or write dramatic roles specifically for our leading actresses, but a report released today by the Australia Council describes Australian theatre as a sector stuck in a holding pattern of male dominance.
It is a world where staging plays written by women or hiring women as directors is still considered commercially risky; where women who take time off to start a family find themselves professionally back at square one; and where no one talks about young female turks.
It comes as no surprise that women in the arts face the same challenges as women everywhere in the paid workforce: inflexible workplaces, expensive childcare, low pay and a sense of entitlement held by their young, male colleagues. As one woman in the report described it, theatre is a dinosaur trapped in a world of white, middle-class men.
But the report pinpoints the major stumbling block for women as the leadership model that gives a theatre's artistic director almost complete power over all aspects of a company's creative work. An artistic director's taste, personal preferences and idiosyncratic vision are crucial to the success or failure of any theatrical season. But what happens when most of the artistic directors are men?
The director of the Australia Council's theatre board, Lyn Wallis, says theatre directors have a permanent artistic licence that leaders in other industries don't.
''The theatre industry still holds onto that licence and holds it up high and that is one of the reasons we can't solve the problem [of a lack of women in creative leadership],'' Wallis says.
Rachel Healy, the executive manager of culture at City of Sydney and a former general manager of Belvoir St Theatre, says that while women are under-represented in artistic director positions, it is more complicated than just blaming the boys' club.
"At the very heart of what a board is asking an artistic director to do is to devise a program of shows based on his or her life experience, prejudices and preferences,'' she says. ''You can't then say 'We want you to apply all of your personal preferences but tick all these boxes for gender and ethnic equity'."
Healy believes young men have done well in Australian theatre in the past decade because artistic directors see something in their work that is original and worth cultivating.
Yet it is hard to back away from the premise that men will favour work by other men, for whatever reason.
"Even with the efforts [present Belvoir artistic director] Ralph Myers is taking to enfranchise young women, it is still the young men we are talking about," Healy says. "The reality is that [men] will mainly choose men."
She says the industry should not resign itself to that reality but she is not convinced quotas are the answer.
The founding chairwoman of the Women's Leadership Institute Australia, Carol Schwartz, says part of the answer is looking beyond the usual pool of talent and not relying on an artistic director's personal connections. It is incumbent on a theatre's board to make sure they have a big enough and broad enough pool of people to choose from that includes gender and cultural diversity, Schwartz says. Unconscious bias plays a big role, so ensuring gender equity on boards won't necessarily ensure more women direct productions or have their plays staged, she says.
''Women very often suffer from an unconscious bias about what a playwright looks like,'' she says. ''We have brilliant women playwrights in this country yet for some reason we don't have the same preponderance of women [as we do of men] as playwrights, directors, winners of literary prizes, even Archibald winners.''

For more details on the report check out:

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