Jo Caird: Women on TopDate: 21 March 2011
So, Josie Rourke is to take over from Michael Grandage as artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse. This is brilliant news – the Bush Theatre has gone from strength to strength since Rourke took up the top job there in 2007 and she is sure to work similar magic in her new post. But what makes me even more pleased about Rourke’s appointment is that it means the Donmar will be run by a female artistic director again.
Alongside my delight at the news, however, is a strong sense of frustration that Rourke’s gender comes into the matter at all. But it must, because despite the high number of hugely talented female directors doing fantastic work in this country, it is still rare to find women leading our buildings. Women are better represented in these roles than they used to be, but there are still a staggering number of UK theatres that have never appointed a female artistic director.
The National Theatre, the Royal Court, the RSC, the Almeida, the Menier Chocolate Factory, Glasgow Citizens Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Riverside Studios, the Bristol Tobacco Factory, the Finborough, the Arcola and the Traverse are just some of the buildings that are run by men and always have been.
Of course some of those venues have employed female executive directors, and some of them are still being run by the same male artistic directors who first set them up, but the point remains that there is a critical imbalance of power between the genders at the highest creative level in UK theatre. The situation is better when it comes to theatre companies – women are clearly ambitious enough and talented enough to take on these high-powered roles, so why the huge disparity when it comes to running buildings?
There are a number of factors to blame. Many women are put off applying for these roles precisely because the field is so dominated by male directors. Rourke herself has spoken of this issue, commenting that the appointment of women to major artistic directing roles (she singled out Erica Whyman and Rachel Kavanaugh’s respective appointments to the Gate Theatre and Birmingham Rep) helped her achieve the “imaginative leap” necessary before applying to run the Bush. The more women take up these roles, the more other women will feel confident enough in their abilities to apply for them too.
In addition, there’s the fact that the male-dominated boards of trustees of theatres are more likely to appoint men to these roles, even when women do put themselves up for them. These decisions are probably not motivated by out and out sexism, but gender certainly plays a part. The absurd notion that these roles are somehow intrinsically ‘masculine’ is still prevalent, for example. I hold no truck with the argument that men and women have distinctive working methods, talents, etc, etc – this type of discussion is reductive and only compounds the gender stereotyping that is so damaging to both sexes. Some female directors will be good at running buildings and some will not, just as some male directors will be good at running buildings and some will not. It is down to the individual, not his or her gender.
There is also the problem of women being perceived as ‘risky’ appointments because of their pesky tendency to take time out to raise children. This is not just an issue for the theatre community, of course, but the situation is undoubtedly exacerbated by the unusual working hours required by the profession. Women themselves too may feel that motherhood is incompatible with a high pressure role running a building. Of the many female theatre professionals I know, very few have children. I don’t think this is a coincidence: some women feel they must choose one or the other; this is an entirely unacceptable state of affairs. As with every other profession, the solution to this issue is both greater flexibility within organisations and when it comes to the legislation around parental leave. It’s not a problem for women alone and it shouldn’t be something that either prevents women from putting themselves for these jobs, or stops trustees appointing them when they do.
The points I’ve raised here are important ones, but they’re not the only factors contributing to the situation as it stands, and the more discussion we have about the issue, the more likely we are to resolve it in the not too distant future. Why do you think women are underrepresented in top artistic directorial roles in UK theatre? Is there something we can do to address the problem directly? Or will the situation eventually work itself out to everyone's satisfaction on its own? I'd love to hear your thoughts.