Friday June 5, 2020


October 29 2015

Above: the view from the stage. Right: Erica Lovell, Libby Munro, Clementine Mills, Maryann Wright and Lizzie Schebesta. Photography: Libby Munro.

On Monday evening, 26 October 2015, more than 300 women gathered in the York Theatre of the Seymour Centre in Sydney. They had heard and heeded the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more” call that went up spontaneously on social media after the launch of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company 2016 season – one which notably featured very few women in any capacity.

In the two weeks since that first response a small group of women in theatre got together and organised the event. Pictured above, Erica Lovell, Libby Munro, Clementine Mills, Maryann Wright and Lizzie Schebesta, found the idea’s time had definitely come.

The numbers began to grow, from a few round a kitchen table, to a couple of dozen set to gather in a rehearsal room, to some score and ten in the Reginald black box. But such was the interest, the Seymour Centre management finally agreed to open the otherwise dark York Theatre for the night. Female staff including front of house manager Wendy Strehlow volunteered their time to supervise the hundreds who turned up under the banner Women in Theatre and Screen Think Tank (WITSThink Tank).

Convened and run by Erica Lovell, the night started with invited speakers Prof Elizabeth McMahon of UNSW, me (Diana Simmonds) and theatre director Grace Barnes each making a short individual contribution before a short break. Then the evening was opened up to the audience with questions and stories before finally drawing to a positive and energetic call for future plans and action.


On 27 October, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a news story by Elissa Blake

Women in Sydney's theatre industry are calling for a new female-run theatre company, among other initiatives, to help address mounting gender disparity in the performing arts.

More than 300 female actors, directors and writers attended the inaugural Women in Theatre and Screen Think Tank on Monday night at the Seymour Centre.

The meeting was initially prompted by the lack of female directors in the Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s 2016 season but the topics discussed ranged widely.

Some spoke of sexual harassment in rehearsal rooms and on film sets and of bullying by male directors. Others raised the lack of roles for women on stage, and the increasing sexualisation of female characters, particularly in musical theatre.

One actress at the all-female meeting said she had suffered physically and emotionally in a rehearsal room.

“I was bitten and bruised by a male actor in a fight scene in which my character was raped. I had ribs broken and when I spoke up, I wasn’t heard,” she said, speaking anonymously. “I know of other women who have felt threatened playing vulnerable roles but they are afraid to speak up.”

The need to portray a broader spectrum of female characters and female-centred stories on stage was also raised.

One attendee said she was “ridiculed” by a male actor when she complained her character had become increasingly subservient during the season of the play.

Others said they were tired of playing support roles for male characters – wives, girlfriends and mothers. “Even when we do get a role, all our character does is talk about men,” one actress said.

…the meeting called for urgent change, including affirmative action taken by mainstage and independent companies to ensure equal opportunity for female directors and writers.

The meeting also called for the formation of a female-run theatre company and a festival of theatre celebrating female voices. “It’s not enough for one theatre company to reach gender parity,” Lizzie Schebesta said. “Gender parity is not a gift to women. It is a right.”

Glenn Terry, artistic director of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, emailed the lobby group shortly before the meeting to announce the company has initiated a gender parity curatorial policy for submissions for its 2017 season at the Eternity Playhouse.

The Women in Theatre and Screen Think Tank plans to hold another meeting in coming weeks where male theatre-makers will be invited to participate.”

On the night, however, many were frantically making notes of what was said by guest speaker PROF ELIZABETH MCMAHON – here is her contribution in full…

The current dilemma regarding the representation of women in the theatre, film or any countless other contexts is made complicated by the fact that the battle for gender equality is supposed to have been won. I find this now in the development of curriculum for university courses. Because the gender issue has been dealt with (supposedly), people feel excused from considering it. So, we still get courses proposed that do not include women writers. 

It is true that Feminism has been very successful. Many changes were made and conditions for (some but not all) women improved. But it was not won in perpetuity. The rights have to be protected and the debates re-staged over and over again. The problem of casting feminist issues into the past is demonstrated by numerous of our current female politicians:

Ms Bishop stressed that while she recognised the women's movement and the barriers that it had faced, "feminist" is "not a term that I find particularly useful these days" (SMH 29 Oct. 2014, Judith Ireland). 

Michaela Cash: "I have never been someone who labels herself," she told Fairfax Media. "In terms of feminism, I've never been someone who really associates with that movement. That movement was a set of ideologies from many, many decades ago now (SMH 7 March 2014, Judith Ireland)

West Australian senator Linda Reynolds said that "some of the emotionally charged language of the past had had its day" (SMH 29 Oct. 2014, Judith Ireland). 

These women promote an ethos of individual achievement, which is not a good model for a collective project – such as theatre and film – or, for that matter, society. Nor does it assist in the identification of systemic or structural issues. It fact it works to obscure them. I think one for the first things we need to do at this historical moment is identify the connection between individual and collective or systemic issues. For none of us do anything alone. We are all linked in. 

The ways that feminist theory has assisted in thinking through these kinds of issues and the relationship between the individual and the collective through derived from whole raft of related ideas from political theory, speech act theory, psychoanalytic theory etc. Specifically, understandings of how the gender system works have turned conventional understandings of cause and effect of gendered behaviour on their head. 

For instance, whole groups of young girls, dressed like Barbie and craving Barbie products, are often cited as evidence for an inherent femininity, a kind of spontaneous expression of the feminine gender. The number of girls who crave these products, especially when it is against their parents’ will, seems to support an understanding of a shared and natural gender evident from infancy.

Gender theory would, however, read that behaviour as evidence of effective ideology. Even if the parents don’t push a conventional gender line, it is embedded everywhere in our culture. In this case, the desired objects are shiny and alluring and may make the individual child feel happy to be part of a shiny, fetishised part of the culture. The fact that she may also be learning to turn herself into a fetish object is tricky territory. For this is one of the great gender divides: men acquire objects of desire, women turn themselves into objects of desire - just look at business moguls and their model wives, or football heroes and their WAGs. 

Related to this idea - and moving closer to the language of the theatre - is the idea of performativity, which comes from speech acts theory. A performative statement denotes an action and brings that action into being; for example, ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife: ‘I sentence you to 3 years imprisonment.’ 

In her famous book, Gender Trouble (1990) Judith Butler says that gender is like one of these performative statements. She says that gender is a verb NOT a noun. It is not a set of tangible qualities we can list but that we do gender every day. Every ‘statement’ I make by way of dress or action or speech brings gender into being. We all create gender every day. We know some of the rules and we can conform or play with these. But there are other gender rules of which we are not conscious. These are ingrained so they feel natural and because they feel natural people will argue that they are. Judith Butler says, the more natural it feels the more successful the the indoctrination has been. This illusion of ‘natural’ gender allows for claims of self origination: the self-made man or the self made woman, as with the politicians quoted above.

These great insights muddy the water around any clear distinction between the individual as an autonomous agent in the world and the world itself. It is a hall of mirrors, a process of reflecting back and forth between each individual and the expressions of the ideas that have shaped us. 

How important then for women to be involved in ALL aspects of the theatre world: playwrights, directors, producers, actors, to produce new performative ‘statements’ that do gender in multiple ways. And how important for these to be in the literal spotlight to enable and provoke and challenge ways of being in the world. And how important to support worlds of performance which can takes us into the creative zone between our conscious and unconscious selves where we can re-imagine ourselves and our culture. 

DIANA SIMMONDS’ remarks were as follows…

The first time I attended a meeting such as this was in 1978 in London and I’m not sure whether that’s depressing or positive, but it’s great to see everyone gathered here, frightening those not in attendance out of their wits. It’s amazing how frightening women are to so many men and in so many different ways. 

One of the scariest things I ever participated in was a sort of party where we all wore ear rings made of those little tampons – but dipped in red ink. Why is women’s menstrual blood such an appalling thing? How many of us here have ever bled that blue stuff you see in ads? Anyway, if you really want to frighten someone in 2015, I suggest a pair of those ear rings. Plus ça change!


Because many of us were mad as hell at the unveiling of the 2016 Darlinghurst Theatre Company season and decided we weren’t going to take it any more. It was kind of the last straw and also a red herring because, for everything that’s unacceptable about that season – for women – in my view as a critic and a theatre-goer and a resident of City of Sydney, the real problem lies in the way the company is managed. 

The passive model adopted by Darlo is just not good enough. If you’re taking a salary as an artistic director then the least you can do is artistically direct and not whine about the submissions made. It’s actually not logical and it’s also bone lazy. I would like to see City of Sydney rethink the resident company at the Eternity Playhouse, it’s a theatre and public asset that is too valuable to risk. And it is being risked with each passing production and each failure to gain an audience and an identity.


“Reported in ArtsHub, Annabelle Sheehan, CEO of the South Australian Film Corporation, said of affirmative action: “I want to start by talking about employment and affirmative action, because a lot of our ideas around change centre around affirmative action. The initial surge of action and politics around affirmative action occurred in the 1970s.” 

Since then, however, the concept has been so deliberately and successfully undermined that it’s become something to apologise for mentioning. History suggests we’ve been sold a pup… 

“That means one thousand nine hundred and seventy years of affirmative action for men ran unabated. And it wasn’t just by using levers of policy and discussion – it was engineered, it was hard wired into employment law regarding jobs that women could and couldn’t do, and that married women could and couldn’t do and then had to give up.”

In other words, men are not only not against affirmative action – they are the masters of it. They have utilised affirmative action for thousands of years and they didn’t go for a quota – like 50-50 or 60-40 – they were affirmatively for the full 100%.


We’re always being told that women will get there by virture of merit and excellence. Give me the definition of merit or excellence – You only have to look at the parliaments to know without a doubt that selection on the basis of excellence and merit is not happening. Same with corporates: name any major company that’s in the shit and there’ll be a man in charge fastening his multi-million $$ golden parachute and bailing out.

So merit and excellence are not good criteria for anyone to chuck at us.


They must be forcefully persuaded that calling for real and strenuous efforts at gender balance among client companies is a necessity. It can be done.

Also reported in Artshub: Anna Serner took over the Swedish Film Institute in 2011, declared that the 26% rate of funding for female directors was a catastrophe – her word – and announced a 50-50 target for writers, directors and producers by late 2015. She was poo-pooed. She put together a five point plan, which involved no quotas and no restrictions on funding. 

It succeeded, a year ahead of schedule - in 2014 - women took home 69% of the film awards in Sweden. 

It can be done – it just takes leadership.

SUE MASLIN - producer The Dressmaker - says ‘“Every year, here in Australia, less than 25% of all films are women’s stories or have a female protagonist. It’s insane. This year it’s three out of 23 movies.’ 

She of course made The Road To Nhill back in 1998, a divine movie about a team of lady bowlers. The industry thought she was mad to do it, it played for months. 

The current Mad Max Fury Road should really have been titled Furiosa – it had little to do with Mad Max; and what about the tribe of divine old sheilas in the second half? If audiences don’t like women in movies, how come it’s the most successful of all time? They also loved Sigourney Weaver in Alien, and Sarah Connor in Terminator. We shouldn’t be nervous about powerful women.

It can be done - and not just in movies.


Dale Spender, now 72 and a great feminist thinker and writer defines – indirectly – why being a feminist is still the most important thing for a woman. 

She wrote, “I am old enough to have lived in a world without sexism and sexual harassment. Not because they weren’t everyday occurrences in my life but because THESE WORDS DIDN’T EXIST. It was not until the feminist writers of the 1970s made them up, and used them publicly and defined their meanings – an opportunity that men had enjoyed for centuries – that women could name these experiences of their daily life.”

Think about that the next time someone starts to say “I’m not a feminist but…”


It starts and ends in the same place. Endless meetings will kill anything - especially energy, enthusiasm and ideas.


Elissa Blake said the other day that this brouhaha had made her more mindful of her choices - in journalism - where she will now not automatically take the top bloke offered or whatever, but look to see where the interesting story might lie beyond the obvious. This made me feel like a very proud old builder because I came to the same conclusion in 1986 when I was trying to do the same thing at the Herald.

Mindfulness in our lives – and on the part of the men who are our friends, brothers, dads, lovers and colleagues – is incredibly important and will make a difference. We need to think about it and promote it.



I know that Grace is going to talk about playwriting and I want to place something in context for that. As well as gnawing the ankles of the producers and established companies, I’d like to propose we set out to form a new theatre company and set out to secure an HQ for it. 

I’d like to see a company that is not necessarily 100% female except where it matters - which is pretty much everywhere. 

But a 70/30 female to male ratio would be workable. I do think all work should be female generated, however, and mindfulness should be the company’s watch word.

It can be done.

GRACE BARNES spoke last and said (with slides not included here) …

Before I start this, I want to say two things. One, I have deliberately included musical theatre in this discussion. It is an area I work in a lot, and it is always left out of debates about gender equality in the arts. But musical theatre in Australia reaches a far bigger audience than possibly all the other professional theatre companies combined. That alone means it must be included and scrutinised in any discussion about equality and diversity in theatre. The second point is that I want us to include designers and technicians in this debate – because again, they are often overlooked. Here is a shocking statistic: In the brochures for the 2016 seasons for STC, Belvoir, MTC, Griffin, Bell Shakespeare, Malthouse, QTC and Black Swan, there is not one single female lighting designer or sound designer listed. Not one. That is truly appalling and the reason we must include designers and technicians in this discussion. 

The Female Voice in Australian Theatre

What exactly do we mean when we talk about the female voice in theatre? We mean plays, or musicals or characters that reflect the female experience. Authentically. And let’s be absolutely clear …

Men dressed as women

This is not an authentic female voice. This is a parody. Personally, I don’t see anything respectful, or affectionate, or funny about men dressing up as women. And I do have a sense of humour. But not when it comes to men appropriating female roles.

Sexualised women

This is unmistakeably a male voice. A male vision of what women are, or women as men would prefer them to be. Overtly sexualised women is particularly pervasive in musical theatre, which is bizarre given that the audience is made up of women and gay men – neither of whom have any interest in seeing women presented like this. But look at these images and ask yourself, if a woman was directing the production, would we be seeing this? I don’t think we would. So the interpretation of text is part of what makes up the woman’s voice in theatre. Presenting a story from a female perspective.

Selection of plays/male actors

We can’t deny that there is a strong male voice in Australian theatre. Plays written by men, directed by men, performed by men, designed by men and telling a male story. I have no problem with a male voice in theatre – the greatest dramatists (so far) undeniably are men – But it’s the lack of female voice counter balancing it that concerns me. Because without a female voice, theatre is not accurately representing, challenging or reflecting contemporary society. Which is why theatre exists. To reflect us. All of us.

More women than men attend the theatre. That’s a fact. 

Broadway league

A study undertaken by the Broadway League in 2011 revealed that almost two thirds of Broadway theatre attendees were women.

Society of London Theatres 

In London, a 2010 research study for the Society of London Theatres revealed similar statistics. 71% of the musical theatre audience is female. yet they are watching and hearing a male voice.

So if we know that there are more women than men in the audience, why are those women – the majority – being offered so many stories by men and about men? Well, more men than women are artistic directors of professional theatre companies in Australia. Now we can jump up and down and claim that they are programming based on personal taste or a political agenda, but there is nothing to prove that that is indeed the case. On the contrary, actually. We have a number of male artistic directors who have publicly stated that they desire a theatre company that reflects gender equality as much as we do. In the case of Darlinghurst Theatre Company and the 2016 season, there is an issue that we are overlooking. And that is the fact that Darlinghurst has an open call for submissions. And these are the figures.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company

Artistic Director Glenn Terry would be justified in saying – which incidentally he never did – that a season with five plays directed by men is an accurate reflection of the submission figures. So our focus is in the wrong place. Instead of working ourselves up into a fury about five plays directed by men, we should be looking at the 12 applications from women and asking why there were not more. Because, and this may surprise you, more women than men apply to the NIDA directing course. So where are those women and what is preventing them from responding to a call for submissions?

Biological determinism

The “hypothesis that biological factors such as an organism’s individual genes (as opposed to social or environmental factors) completely determine how a system behaves” … in other words, we behave in certain ways because we are biologically programmed to do so. This way of thinking is often given as an explanation for women’s apparent reticence to put themselves forward. Biological determinism asserts that women are:

Caring, Nurturing, Empathetic, Passive, Weak, Emotional, uncomfortable with power … and therefore bad leaders …

So let’s think about the job of a theatre director. What does a good theatre director have to be able to do?

Directors have to …

Guide, Nurture, Collaborate, Unify, Negotiate, Communicate, Multi-task … Well, according to biological determinist theories, all of those qualities are essentially female. If we also agree that women are more in tune with their emotions, and theatre is the one place where emotional outpouring is encouraged …then straight theatre and musicals should be dominated by female directors. Because it is a profession that women are innately suited to. 

But merely asking, “where are the women directors, or technicians?” is not in itself, helpful, because it shifts the burden of responsibility back onto the women. If we, as a theatre community, are genuinely committed to more opportunities for female practitioners, then we have to start by acknowledging that it is not a level playing field. That there are inherent factors in the industry that conspire to keep women out. This has already been acknowledged elsewhere in the world. 

Tonic Theatre

Tonic Theatre was created in the UK in 2011 as a way of supporting the theatre industry in a drive to achieve greater gender equality. This is from the website:

“Tonic's approach involves deconstructing the principles that lie beneath how our industry functions - our working methods, decision-making processes, and organisational structures - and identifying how, in their current form, these can create barriers for women.”

In October 2013, Tonic theatre’s Advance Programme brought together the Artistic Directors, Chief Executives, and senior creative staff of 11 major theatre companies in England. For a period of six months, Tonic worked with these 11 companies to lead them to an understanding of not only where the barriers to female participation exist within their organisations, but why they exist. One of the ways in which this was achieved was by requiring each participating organisation to ask of itself a question regarding gender and to answer it through a research process. For example, the Gate Theatre asked:

Female technicians “Men are more naturally drawn to lighting and sound design”. Is this true? If not, how can access to these roles be made more equal? Sheffield Theatres asked:

Roles for womenI In programming a balanced repertoire, what factors need to be in place to ensure a gender balance in the employment of actors?

So the programme is compelling participants to look at a bigger picture. To acknowledge that twelve applications from women does not indicate a lack of interest or talent, but is a result of a bigger issue. Such as, for example, a slot in the programme that coincides with school holidays. Other questions in the programme looked at how to give better support to pregnant actors, and ways of ensuring female playwrights were not confined to productions in the studio, instead of on the main stage.

The questions were answered through a variety of research methods including discussion panels, audience surveys, focus groups and interviews – and the results can be read online at the Tonic Theatre website.

I see no reason as to why that model couldn’t be done here. Theatre (and opera) companies brought together to acknowledge and tackle the lack of opportunities for women within their own organisations. It does of course, involve a certain amount of self-reflection and soul searching, but until theatre companies admit that they are each individually contributing to an industry wide problem, we will not move forward. And it feels to me that the position we have currently reached is a stalemate. Companies either absolve themselves of any responsibility, or assert that they do want to implement change but are unsure as to what exactly they can do. And women are getting more angry and frustrated because change is still not happening. So how have other countries responded to a call for a stronger women’s voice in theatre?

In the US, two years ago, over 50 professional theatre companies in the Washington DC area committed to premiering at least one play or musical by a female writer in 2015. The result is this. 

Women’s Voices Theatre Festival.

A six week festival, happening as we speak, at which the theatre work resulting from those commissions is being premiered. Alongside these new works there are panel discussions, workshops, readings, cabarets, special events … all celebrating and supporting the work of female theatre makers.

Women Centre stage

This is the UK: A two day festival that took place in March this year at the National Theatre, which again “celebrated women onstage”. It involved readings and performances of new works by leading female playwrights including Timberlake Wertenbaker, Rona Munro, April de Angelis and Pam Gems.

So my question is this. What’s to stop us having a festival celebrating the female voice? Why don’t we organise one? Are we waiting for the men in the industry to do it for us? Do we need their permission, is that it? Or do we simply not have enough confidence in our own ability to conceive and manage a two day women’s theatre festival? Are we limited by a biological predisposition to passivity, that renders us followers, not leaders? Is that why there are so few female artistic directors in Australia? Or is it a result of a more complex set of issues that requires an imaginative response.?

Women’s Theatre project

There is also the more ambitious option of a women’s theatre company. Why not? Other countries have them; 32 in the USA; 6 in the UK. Afghanistan has a theatre company dedicated to women and girls.

SLIDE 18 – Stellar Quines 

Here’s a great role model. Stellar Quines theatre company in Scotland has been in operation since 1993 and is funded by the Scottish Arts Council. It’s constitution states the following.
“Stellar Quines celebrates the energy, experience and perspective of women. We provide a platform for women’s stories and create live theatre driven by women and where female practitioners are at the forefront of all creative roles.”

It sounds like Utopia to me ... live theatre driven by women, female practitioners at the forefront … My God, can you imagine? I can. Quite easily. There is no reason why this can’t exist here. The Australia Council has regularly publicly affirmed it’s commitment to gender equality in theatre, so it shouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the organisation will financially support a women’s voices festival, or a women’s theatre company.

It seems to me that there is a lot of politically correct talk going on, but not much action. The Australia Council says, we’ll support the theatre companies, but they have to do it. The theatre companies say, we’ll support the women but they have to come forward. And the women say that the way the industry is currently organised is neither welcoming, nor supportive of women. And we go round and round in circles and nothing changes.

If we want change in our industry, we have to implement it. We have to stop whingeing about how hard done by we are and take control. We have to organise the festivals, the readings, the workshops, the meetings … Because it is OUR problem. It SHOULD be an industry problem, but it isn’t. It’s ours. So we have to solve it.

Because it is patently clear that no organisation, no theatre company, no individual artistic director is going to lead this campaign for change. They will support it, but they won’t lead it. That’s up to us.

We also have to ….

Be supportive

Be supportive … by giving support for shows which demonstrate a commitment to the female voice. Orlando at STC, Dogmatic or The Drover’s Wife at Belvoir. Darlinghurst Theatre Company has two plays written by women, as does Griffin. Buy tickets. No excuses. Because large audiences for plays demonstrating a female voice will be reflected in annual box office returns and can’t be ignored. 

Be proactive. Find Australian books written by women or about women and interest a playwright in adapting it, then take it to an artistic director. If plays celebrating the female voice are not on the radar of artistic directors at decision time, those plays are not going to make it into the programme. Because artistic directors simply do not have the time – and possibly not the inclination – to read thirty books and sixty plays to find a female voice. That’s our responsibility.

You must submit applications when there is a call for submissions, because five male directors out of six is only discriminatory if the application figures are more balanced. We cannot complain about a male voice drowning out a female voice if we are not doing everything we can to turn up the volume on the female voice. But be realistic. No artistic director is going to give a main stage production to a female playwright or a director with no experience. If you seriously want to direct or write then go and get training. Apply for an assistant directing positions at Belvoir or STC. Go and do the directors course at NIDA, or a playwriting course. Write and/or direct independent productions and invite artistic directors to come and see them.

Then, and only then, are you in a position where you can seriously be considered alongside the male applicants, and not as a means of ticking a box.


Our industry has to unite to tackle this issue. Because decades of discussion have not resulted in any significant change. We can lead the movement for a female voice in Australian theatre, but we cannot do it in isolation. When I talk about organising a festival to celebrate women in Australian theatre, I don’t envisage that as a separatist festival, but an inclusive one. When I put forward the idea of a theatre company that celebrates women and the female voice, I don’t visualise a company that completely excludes men. Because as I said at the beginning, theatre exists to represent, challenge and reflect us. All of us. 


We do have power. It may feel as if we don’t, but we do. And we do have the support of a lot of men in the industry who are just as aware of this issue as we are. So let’s embrace the power, welcome the support, and move forward positively. Women before us have changed the world. Surely we can change Australian theatre.



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