“I went to the Donmar the other night and saw My Night with Reg, which is brilliant, but it’s eleven male characters and not one woman walks on stage – and that’s so the norm.”
Mel Heslop is stating what is increasingly coming to be acknowledged as an unhealthy fact about theatre today: the continuing and significant imbalance between the genders. For instance, between 2003 and 2013 thirty one plays written by women were staged at the National Theatre out of a total of 206 productions. Similarly, just four female writers have ever won the Olivier Award for Best Play. Yet, according to the Society of London Theatres, women comprised sixty eight per cent of theatre audiences in 2010.
The latest reaction to the gender imbalance is not one of rage, and it is quieter than it has been at other points in time. The Vagina Monologues, which premiered in the late 90s, is still frequently performed, but more recent female-centric productions have avoided coming across so provocatively. In 2012 Phyllida Lloyd directed an all-female version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse in London. In October she will be doing the same thing with Henry IV, an amalgamation of the Henry IV, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part 2.
Another such female-centric production, though one that is not aggressive in the way feminism is sometimes stereotyped, is Win/Lose/Draw, currently showing at the Waterloo East Theatre. Built up of a series of three shorter plays, Win/Lose/Draw begins with two mothers waiting to see whether their daughters have made it into the finals of a beauty pageant. In the second section, a woman attempts to regain custody of her son, and in the final part two women, strangers to each other, bond over binge-eating. There are no bras flying or vaginas being discussed; the plays just explore female friendships.
“In the process of finding a venue, I showed the script to someone at a theatre who said, ‘It sounds entertaining but fundamentally it’s two women bickering and talking about puberty, and in the second part it’s two women talking about being a mum, and in the third thing it’s eating disorders – it’s just a massive cliché about women’,” recalls Lucy Eaton, who stars in Win/Lose/Draw alongside Heslop and Charlotte Purton.
“That is the problem,” she continues. “People are looking at plays like this and saying, ‘Eugh it’s just women talking about women issues.’”
“But it’s not a cliché,” Heslop adds, “because problems with eating and maternity and beauty are quite central to most women’s lives.”
“That is kind of what we all think about, because you have to if you live in this world,” Eaton continues for her co-star. “It’s not a cliché, it’s a fact.”
Win/Lose/Draw was written back in the Eighties, the era of the Aids crisis, Thatcher, and Duran Duran. Much has changed in the world, but in theatre, the role of women is not so different from what it was when Win/Lose/Draw premiered. “I’m not sure it’s changed much at all,” says Ara Watson, who co-wrote the plays with Mary Gallagher – the first two at the behest of the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, and the third because of interest from commercial producers.
“I am a feminist and have proudly called myself that since I was in my late twenties,” Watson continues. “However, I never set out, in any of my writing, to write a ‘feminist’ piece. I set out to write a good story with multi-faceted characters and I always want to write good lead roles for actresses of all ages.”
An obvious challenge stage actresses face, which Win/Lose/Draw does something to combat, is that many plays in English have far fewer parts for women than for men. It is not very surprising, since most English literature was written before feminism gathered strength – the English word was not coined until the late nineteenth century, more than three centuries after Shakespeare was born. Not to mention Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, John Webster, and the hordes of other English playwrights whose works are still justifiably popular. Even Aphra Benn, one of the first prominent female authors, did not include a vast number of parts for women – The Rover, her most famous play, has twice as many male characters as female.
But there are other problems actresses face that have less to do with historical attitudes than contemporary ones. “It’s a standard thing, when you’re getting headshots done, people say, ‘Oh but you don’t look sexy in it’,” Heslop says. “I’m like, ‘Look, I don’t need to have a headshot where I’m’” – at this point she rolls her tongue as loudly and seductively as possible. “When I walk into the room, you get a strong whiny woman, not a sex goddess.”
The occasional association of actresses with prostitutes has not died off, either, which came to Eaton and Heslop’s attention because, as well as staging plays in theatres, they put on site-specific shows in people’s living rooms. “People are making jokes but they say, ‘So you’re saying I get a group of actresses to come to my house’,” says Heslop, “and I say, ‘No, we do a play and it’s very specific.’ Then they’re like, ‘So loads of actresses are coming to my house’.”
“And it’s not funny, and it’s really annoying,” she continues, sounding a little weary.
Female playwrights also have a difficult time, despite the fact that their job ought not to be bound up with historical attitudes. In 2011 going on 2012, the top ten subsidised theatres in London produced female-written plays less than thirty five per cent of the time. Moreover, in 2009 an American experiment, in which identical scripts were sent out to theatres, half with a female name at the top and half with a male name, showed that artistic directors and literary managers rated the apparently female-authored scripts less highly. Female directors and managers, incidentally, were found to be no less guilty than their male colleagues.
“Support for women playwrights, it seems to me, goes in cycles,” Watson says. “And it looks to me like we’re in another ‘up’ cycle now in this country [the USA], at least in terms of numbers of women writing and being produced. But it is still so far below the number of male writers it’s disheartening.”
“There are some amazing women getting produced,” she adds, “just not enough of them.”
Gallagher agrees with her erstwhile writing partner: “Despite there being so much more interest and opportunity, and so many playwrights, women and men, working in every conceivable style and exploring every subject you can think of or imagine, recent studies show what we already see, that most of the plays produced are written by men.”
The fault may not lie entirely with men, however. Eaton recalls how at university she and two female friends put on Yasmina Reza’s Art as an acting exercise. In the play, three male friends discuss a painting one of them has just bought, which is a white stripe on a white background, although the show is as much about friendship as about art.
“We just changed all the ‘he’s to ‘she’s and the ‘wives’ to ‘husbands’ – that’s literally all we did,” Eaton recalls. “Then we tried it and it was marvellous and it worked perfectly. None of it didn’t make sense.
“Then I remember reading an interview with the writer in which the interviewer asked what she would do if women decided to take on the play. And she replied, ‘I’d be absolutely furious. It’s a play about masculinity, no woman is ever allowed to do it – I’d never allow the rights for it.’
“And I thought, ‘What a shame that you do not understand the worth of what you’re writing and that women and men are not that different.’
“We did it and it was just as brilliant, so it’s fascinating that in her mind she had written a play about masculinity. I think that’s proof that there’s a lot of hang-ups people have got about plays about men and plays about women.”
Win/Lose/Draw is at Waterloo East Theatre, Brad Street, London, performances from 23 September to 5 October, excluding Mondays.