Why Feminist Theatre Is Everyone’s Concern

I was very excited to read SpiderWebShow’s recent edition of #CdnCult Times, which looked at theatre through a feminist lens- so many thanks for starting a conversation on feminism in theatre! The edition rightly pointed out the intersectionality of contemporary feminism, and the link between feminism and humanism. A discussion between Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory, Matthew Payne and Amy House titled “How Do you Define Feminism? Is it Important to Your Work?” very tentatively explored a few definitions of feminism, but seemed hesitant to point out problems or suggest solutions. This is a hesitance that I have often come across in the theatre community, so I wanted to continue the conversation by addressing what my (admittedly strong) beliefs on the subject are, and suggesting some topics for further discussion.

Firstly, feminist theatre is NOT a niche interest, or a radical fringe: feminist theatre practices should be considered mainsteam.

Feminism is about equality between men and women. That’s it. It’s not about putting down men. It’s about allowing female-identified persons the freedom to make their own choices about how they look, what careers they want to pursue, whether or not they want children, and how they want to spend their time. Or, as it has been somewhat sassily put “feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. In short, if you think women should be treated like people, you are probably a feminist.

Canadian theatre has a gender problem. According to Rebecca Burton’s 2006 report “Adding it Up: The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre”, the number of female playwrights, directors and artistic directors hovers around 30% (Burton 21), numbers which are even lower when looking at those employed at our largest institutions. The average hire ratio for male-to-female actors is 2:1 (Burton 24), and male actors make up 57% of hires overall (Burton 2). These statistics do not, of course, account for the differences in the quality, size and types of roles offered to women and men.

Having just cited a bunch of statistics, I don’t think the exact figures are important. The point is that women are very underrepresented in theatre considering they make up 59% of the theatre audience (Burton 3), and these numbers are further skewed when you consider that there are many more female theatre school graduates than males joining the professional theatre world every year.

So what is the solution? Encourage ALL companies to consider feminist theatre strategies in their work. Some strategies include:

  • Stopping apologizing for the word “feminist”
  • Choosing to produce plays by female writers and with female characters
  • Choosing NOT to produce problematic works
  • Creating work in which female characters have agency, and are not just acted upon
  • Looking for characters that subvert/rise above gender roles or stereotypes
  • Creating and promoting work that represents a balance of gender identities, classes, races
  • Critiquing the way that male and female bodies are costumed and posed onstage
  • Genderblind and colourblind casting where appropriate

The work of feminist theatre is not only for decision makers. Theatre professionals, critics and audiences should engage in the process as well. Too often I leave the theatre feeling that a show has very problematic elements regarding gender or race, and, just as Darrah Tietel mentioned in her #CdnCult article, I too have found that none of my concerns are acknowledged in reviews.

In the SpiderWebShow discussion, Matthew Payne mentions a piece exploring gender in the theatre in which the cast members would consist of 12 men and 3 women- with the suggestion that an all-female crew would redeem this- but from an audience’s perspective they’re still watching a world which is 80% male. Feminist theatre creators need to find ways of exploring gender onstage that increase the visibility of female artists.

Feminist theatre is not just for new works; these strategies can and should extend to classic theatre as well. Colourblind casting is an essential part of many Canadian theatres, and genderblind casting also has a role to play in staging classical works (obviously, in plays where race or gender is important to the plot, this would not make sense). Many directors don’t object to shortening, updating or modernizing classics, and some even add new scenes- why should the addition of more women onstage be a problem?

These are just some ideas and subjects that I would love to see considered/addressed if #CdnCult Times publishes a part two on feminist theatre. Thanks again to SpiderWebShow for starting the conversation!

You can find Rebecca Burton’s report here: here:http://www.playwrightsguild.ca/sites/default/files/AddingItUp.pdf

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