Lucy Kerbel: There will always be people who feel challenged by change

As the inaugural Tonic Awards take place this evening, founder of Tonic Lucy Kerbel explains how we can all be ambassadors for change

Lucy Kerbel
Lucy Kerbel
© Helen Murray 2016

Lucy Kerbel founded Tonic Theatre in 2011 in order to support the arts and creative industries to achieve greater gender equality. This month she released her new book All Change Please, which aims to galvanise and empower people to make change. As well as working behind the scenes with companies like the RSC and the National Theatre, Tonic also publicly celebrate women in theatre with events such as their Tonic Celebrates panel series and the inaugural Tonic Awards. The ceremony takes place this evening, hosted by Jenni Murray, and recognises the achievements of women making waves in theatre. Here Kerbel explains more about the book and how we can all try to change things.

There has been rapid change in the theatre industry in the last few years, do you feel positive about the direction we’re going?
I certainly feel positive about our capacity to make progress. Judging by the last few years we are definitely capable as an industry of making progress. But we only need to look back at our history to see that we have made progress before but we haven't been prevented from slipping backwards again. It is crucial to make sure we don't see the beginnings of greater equality and feel like we’ve done it. It is only until equality becomes truly and properly ingrained in how we work, think and make decisions, that will stop us from resetting back to the default position.

There have been some voices worrying about cross-gender casting recently. How would you respond to those people?
There will always be people who feel challenged by change, I think that’s a feature of humanity. Change can feel very scary and frustrating, particularly for people who have benefited from how things have been in the past. I wouldn’t be critical of someone finding change complex, but I don’t think they have too much to worry about and I would encourage anyone who is concerned with what is going on to listen to those people who articulate excellently why giving more opportunities for women to play really meaty, complex, challenging roles is a really good thing.

All Change Please is a great guide for anyone thinking about gender equality. Would you call it a manual?
I wouldn’t go so far as calling it manual, because that implies something that is comprehensive. And my book isn’t, because I’m just one person and the subject is massive and complex. I think the idea behind it is that it would be a useful book which would empower people to feel like change was something they could get involved in and could enjoy being part of. I wanted to provide some useful information about what I have learnt over the last six years of working with Tonic.

What made you want to write the book?
Nick Hern Books asked me to write a book for them and I think their request came from the fact that not much has been published on women in theatre in decades and what had been published was predominantly for an academic audience. Tonic’s mission has always been to provide the industry with resources, so it can make progress and I felt that if I was going to write a book, I wanted it to reflect Tonic’s mission. There’s something hugely democratic about a book. It costs a tenner, or you can order it for free from your local library – anyone should be able to access it.

You’re right that it absolutely gives people the tools to create their own change…
I am really wary about Tonic becoming this thing that the industry relies upon to achieve gender equality, rather than doing it themselves. It can be very easy to let others of the hook and give people a sense that "it’s fine, because Tonic has got that". But actually it has to be something that everyone is involved and proactive in.

Unconscious bias is a big section of the book, can you explain a bit about that?
As human beings, we are constantly gathering information and the brain is always making shortcuts which we use when we encounter stimuli. The shortcuts help us make decisions really quickly but what it can mean is when we encounter a person for the first time, we potentially have information stored which may impact on an unconscious level about how we feel towards them. I think unconscious bias is a reality of every workplace and every industry. But in the theatre industry we work with an unusually high proportion of freelancers, so being aware of unconscious bias is something we can all do.

The National Theatre committed last year to having gender equality in directors and living writers. Are bold statements like this a good thing?
I think we will always looks to our National Theatre to be bold and visionary so I think it is crucial that it is doing that. But I think what is particularly exciting about the National Theatre is that it is not just ending there, it is making sure the work doesn’t only go as far as making the statement or setting themselves a quota. That it has to run through every part of the organisation and its working practices. For me, quotas and targets are positive, but they are only half of the equation.

The first ever Tonic Awards are happening this evening. Why these awards?
There’s a lot of us that have been working hard to point out the imbalances in the system and to proactively redress those imbalances. That should keep going but there’s another half to the picture which is about highlighting the contributions women are making within theatre and making work that foregrounds the female experience. I think it’s important that we have role models, regardless of how old we are. We’ve purposely avoided the categories approach, we are giving nine awards, seven of which are to individuals.

What is the kind of criteria that gets somebody a Tonic Award?
The awards are given to people who we feel have in some way changed the face of theatre. That might be a particular contribution on an artistic level in terms of furthering diversity or innovating with a new kind of theatre practise. Or it could be successful campaigners, or people who are doing work with notable levels of ambition.

Apart from 'Read my book', is there any specific advice you would give to an individual who wants to try to change things?
I think it’s really useful for people to think about what they can have power over and what they can influence. I talked to an actress while I was making the book and I asked her if there were things she felt she could influence. She said she couldn’t influence the plays being put on or how a director runs a rehearsal room, but she could support some of the other younger actresses who had come to the show she was in more recently than her. It’s important to have our antennae on the whole time. I suppose the message of the book is: ‘Please don’t wait until you are artistic director of the National Theatre before you try to change things’.

All Change Please: A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre by Lucy Kerbel is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

The Tonic Awards take place this evening and are hosted by Jenni Murray. Check Twitter and Facebook for live news.