#WakingTheFeminists – Looking Back as we Look Forward

The Abbey Debate 1994
The Abbey Debate 1994

Introduction

I first became conscious of the sexist tendency in public life and the need proactively to counter it, through political and community activism in the late 1980s, when, along with many other theatre and arts colleagues I took part in the Miscarriages of Justice Campaign planning the Parade of Innocence (1989-90). This human rights project was led mainly by women; it was conscious of family realities and of the need in large public meetings, at the selection process for committees, at the nomination of spokespersons and so on, to be aware of bias and inequity. Justice would not be achieved in the outside world if it was not fundamental to the working practices of the movement. A simple and helpful guideline.

Later, as programmer of the theatre at City Arts Centre, my role in promoting the vibrant community drama movement of the time brought me into local halls and rehearsal rooms peopled mainly mainly by women, whose capacity to achieve and create art for change within collective, listening environments impressed me deeply and informed my own later working practices as a director. In the same period City Arts Centre hosted a number of shows and events by Glasshouse Productions (Caroline Williams, Katy Hayes, Clare Dowling and Sian Quill) which was dedicated to promoting and campaigning for women writers in theatre. Their ideas and public meetings anticipated this month’s revolution by two decades. When I accepted an invitation from Carol Coulter to submit an article about the Abbey to the Irish Times in 1994 (see below), I had no hesitation in consulting with colleagues in the community sector and in women’s campaigns as part of my 24-hour turnaround time, and any credit for my ‘fiery article’ as Brendan Kennelly labelled it, must be shared with those who added to my own observations before I leapt in.

#WakingTheFeminists – a historical precedent

“The failure to address women’s work is another scandal in the Abbey’s recent history. Two Irish women’s plays have been staged in [the last] five years, only one by a living author. […] The Abbey should make reparation for the systematic exclusion of women from the writer’s library. If Rough Magic can do it with a £5,000 awards initiative, surely the National Theatre can.”

This is from an article I submitted to the Irish Times (by invitation) which was published not this week but in June 1994, twenty-one years ago. Some months later, I was one of several panelists of mixed genders invited to take part in “The Abbey Debate”, a generous attempt by Artistic Director Patrick Mason and the Abbey board of the day to respond to those who had called the theatre’s policies and practices into question. (I was one of dozens in that crisis year, and the issues under discussion included not only gender but social exclusion, disability access, the closure of the education programme and a general sense that the Abbey had become isolated from the wider theatre).

At the public debate, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, whose play ‘Dún na mBan Trí Thine’ had recently run at the Peacock, stated, “The complaints directed against theatre in general and the Abbey in particular for its neglect of women playwrights are so commonplace that I hardly need to reiterate them.” Eilis went on to give a reasoned analysis of why women in past times might have shyed away from the ‘masculine’ public world of theatre writing, but noted however that “times are changing. A lot of women have been writing for the theatre for more than twenty years. Why do we see so few plays by women in the National Theatre?” She concluded, “Over the next ten years, one of the Abbey’s main tasks will be to risk taking on board the feminine voice. If it neglects to do this, the National Theatre will write itself out of the history of European drama in the twentieth century”.

Karin McCully then presented some salient statistics, looking back over her first year working within the Abbey script department. “On average, only fifteen per cent of all the unsolicited scripts received by the Abbey have been by women. Roughly fifteen per cent of of all the plays ever produced by the Abbey have been by women. In other words if we were to produce more plays by women now, we would be practising positive discrimination, and we would rather practice no discrimination.” Responding, Eilis stated, “I could not bear the idea of being positively discriminated against. It is as bad as being discriminated against negatively, worse in fact. But as far as women and plays are concerned, there probably is a case for nurturing them. I think women need to be drawn into the world of plays.. […] I would never myself have thought of writing a play if someone had not approached me.”

Earlier, Éilís had commented that “drama only exists in performance, and playwriting skills can best be learned by working in the theatre. Women writing alone in the corners of kitchens, where they have for centuries written their poems, short stories and novels, cannot create plays.”

That was in 1994. In 1995, the Arts Council stepped in and initiated “The Review of Theatre in Ireland”, a year-long research and consultation process which helped to realign overall national theatre policy and address some of the fundamental inequities raised in the 1994 debates – but, as history has shown us, not the gender inequities. I have written elsewhere that the promise of the Theatre Review and most of the reforms it did appear to bring were squandered anyway in the decimation of the independent sector in 2008-9. So in many ways we are back where we were in 1994, with one difference. There are now considerably more professional women embedded within the Irish theatre and thousands of others at home and abroad who have risen together and who will not allow this situation to repeat or continue any longer.

I have written a second essay this week, contemplating what forward movement might look like after #WakingTheFeminists – but I am holding it back as I suspect it will add nothing to the intelligence that will emerge from tomorrow’s public meeting at the Abbey. For now, I stand in solidarity outside the Abbey with the women who have gone in to change it.

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