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Jo Caird: Parts for Women!

I didn't realise I had a problem with Propeller until the other day when a friend asked if I'd like to go see Richard III with her. My first thought was, 'ooh, a company with an excellent reputation who I've never seen: yes please'. My next thought however was, 'do I really want to give my money to an all-male theatre company?' and the answer, I have to admit, was 'no'. Given the chronic underrepresentation of women on the British stage, I don't really see how Propeller's all-male policy can be justified, even if the work is as good as it is said to be. 

You might argue that because Propeller is an all-male company presenting the works of Shakespeare exclusively, and all the female parts in Shakespeare were written for and performed by male actors, the company's gender policy is a valid one. And while I grant that the interplay between gender stereotyping in drama and the logistics of Elizabethan theatre-making is an interesting issue to consider, I think it's one that should be explored in a way that doesn't deny talented, underemployed female actors the opportunity to get their teeth into some of the most satisfying female roles in the canon.

The underrepresentation of women on the stage – and not just on the stage, of course, it's a problem that affects film and television too – has been much discussed in recent years (if you want some figures on the subject, this Equity co-commissioned report, Age, Gender and Performer Employment in Europe, makes for interesting reading) with various ideas mooted to try to explain this imbalance and find ways of resolving it. Our hands our tied when it comes to classic drama (all the more reason therefore not to deny female actors the few great roles that do exist), but it's puzzling and infuriating that new work also favours male characters over female ones and presents women in overwhelmingly supporting roles when they do appear.

Fortunately, this is an issue that female performers are seeking to address. I was recently cheered to learn of the existence of Eggs Collective, a Manchester-based female performance collective that champions and showcases female artists. The group was borne of a desire to respond to the underrepresentation of women in theatre, but its members don't feel the need to pursue a particular artistic agenda or make work 'about' women. “It's about indirectly addressing it”, Sara Cocker, one of the co-founders told me, “acknowledging that there’s an underrepresentation but then also doing that in a positive way that doesn’t have to feel alienating to anyone involved”. One day, the British stage will offer equal opportunities to male and female performers and groups like Eggs Collective won't need to exist. For the moment, though, I'm glad they do.


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