Next year, for the first time, most directors and playwrights across Sydney's main theatre companies will be women.
The number of female playwrights across the Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir St Theatre, Griffin Theatre Company, Ensemble Theatre and Darlinghurst Theatre Company has risen from 28 per cent in 2016 to 51 per cent in 2019.
Women made up half of directors across these companies for the first time in 2018, and will make up 53 per cent in 2019.
Quotas have long been debated in the industry. Companies that introduced quotas for women in creative roles had the greatest increase in representation over the past four years.
Darlinghurst Theatre Company was criticised before its 2016 season for an “appalling” lack of women in creative roles, with women making up one third of playwrights and directors.
Artistic director Glenn Terry called it “a weakness" the company needed to fix.
The following year a gender-parity policy came into full effect, introducing 50/50 quotas.
DTC then doubled its number of female playwrights in 2017, with women writing two-thirds of the season’s plays.
“The industry was demanding equality, and if we’re an arts organisation that responds to the community then we needed to act,” Terry says.
“It was a matter of us basically putting in a quota and saying ‘we’re drawing the line here – this is not good enough’.”
Terry says the decision earned some push-back from industry, artists and older audience members.
“[They were saying] it needs to be the best person for the job,” he says. “But that was kind of ridiculous because there are loads of excellent female directors … We don’t fall back to weaker work. We haven’t had to.”
The Sydney Theatre Company also caused a stir in 2017, when women made up only 29 per cent of playwrights.
The number more than doubled a year later under the leadership of artistic director Kip Williams, who introduced a 50/50 gender quota.
In 2018, 62 per cent of STC plays were written and directed by women, and women will direct 75 per cent of productions in the 2019 season.
Williams says he chose to implement quotas because “it’s a concrete way of creating change”.
“It’s a fantastic political commitment, but the result is meritorious," he says. “The thing that has driven the achievement of parity more than anything else, is these are the stories that audiences want to hear.”
The lowest level of female representation remains at Ensemble Theatre.
Artistic director Mark Kilmurry says the company is aiming for "a really healthy balance with female writers and directors”.
“Things take time,” he says. “We get knocked out of whack and we are always disappointed when that happens, but we’re striving to make a long-term plan for that in the future.”
In 2017, 10 per cent of Ensemble’s playwrights were women. Its upcoming season features 30 per cent female writers and directors.
The company is working on a gender policy but it's unclear whether this will include quotas.
“We’re grown-ups,” Kilmurry says. “We stick to what we think is a fair balance and that’s how we plan our season … It is something we are continually talking about.”
Amy Harris, who executed Darlinghurst's gender policy, says she is surprised not all the other theatre companies have followed suit.
“We turned it around the next day,” she says. “As soon as that policy is enacted, then that’s just what you have to do. It’s very simple.
“You get better opportunities as you cast your net wider because you still have to find the best person for the job … It’s not just ticking boxes; it’s important storytelling.”
But at Griffin Theatre Company, the only one of the five theatres with a female artistic director and where parity has been a reality for years, there is no policy surrounding gender.
“I think it’s about value systems as opposed to writing down a policy,” artistic director Lee Lewis says.
“If I put policy down on paper, another artistic director can erase that. Embedding [the values in the company] is the most important thing, and what I do have is a board that is deeply committed to gender equity.”
Lewis has watched the industry grapple with the conversation surrounding gender equity for 10 years.
She says parity has come from development initiatives over the past decade that have consciously given more opportunities to women, so they have experience for main-stage jobs.
“I think the focus now has to go to: what are the nature of those positions that women are recorded as having?” she says.
The industry needs to look at the types of stories over which women are given creative control, whether female playwrights are being commissioned for original work and whether female directors are trusted with sizeable budgets.
“It’s the nature of the opportunity that needs to be explored now, so that we’re not invisibly constraining people by having surface opportunity but not opportunities for growth.”
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