Seeking a Leading Role? Women’s Theatrical Future

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by Sarah Fortescue


The National Theatre’s recent 50th anniversary celebrations sparked something of a debate about whether the National, and many of our other leading theatres, have a problem with women. If our theatres, cultural hubs in which social taboos are tackled and presented to a largely educated public, aren’t representing the issues and stories of almost half the population, then our cultural society has an enormously out-dated problem.

Of course, the National Theatre’s problem with women is not so much a present one as a historical one.  Witnessing a celebration of 50 years of world-class theatre making was bound to throw up social issues; if it didn’t, the National wouldn’t have been doing its job.  More frustrating, though, was reading desperately low percentages of NT-programmed productions written by women under its various Artistic Directors; just 4 in total from Peter Hall; 7% under Richard Eyre; 10% from Trevor Nunn and 15% from its current AD, Nick Hytner. With a history of Cambridge-educated males at the helm, it does seem as though the glass ceiling at the National may have been heavily reinforced.

Of course, this is not the case for other leading London theatres. The state-subsidised and hugely successful Royal Court Theatre appointed its first female Artistic Director this year in Vicky Featherstone, who seems determined to make a powerful impact on the scene. Her upcoming production, Untitled Matriarch Play (or Seven Sisters) is written by a woman, directed by Featherstone, and has a cast of 4 female actors – its script even passes the Bechdel test.


Untitled Matriarch Play, ®Royal Court

Untitled Matriarch Play, ®Royal Court

Slowly but surely, the role of women in our theatres is diversifying, and playing a prominent part in the cultural landscape of our society – but what of female representation in productions themselves? After all, it is not necessarily the sex of the playwright that resonates with audiences, but the stories and characters of the parts they create through their writing.

While there may be a good selection of new writing for young female characters, most leading institutions for actor training such as RADA, LAMDA and AADA will ask their applicants to perform a classical audition speech. These institutions recognise that historically, most of the more ‘interesting’ roles have been penned for men, and tackle this issue by encouraging same-sex monologues as an option- so long as the applicant can justify their choice. Many women relate to speeches originally written for leading men, so the decision to encourage gender swapping is welcome. Sally Power, Head of Admissions at RADA notes that this is a process that is encouraged throughout students’ professional training at the school. However, on entering the professional world, these opportunities seem a little scarcer.

Polly Bennett runs the Monobox, a play-browsing service that helps actors source audition pieces most suited to them. When asked if gender-swapping for auditions was a popular choice, she said “I personally haven’t seen too many females audition with male speeches– I could probably count them on both hands”. This is unsurprising, given the role of a casting director and the intense competition in the theatrical world- actors will want to make the choice as clear as possible. However, when executed well, it can be a powerful demonstration of talent and insight. Polly recalls a female actor who chose to perform a Henry V speech, “It was incredibly exciting. She had worked very hard to justify that choice and make the monologue fly. That was her playing to her aesthetic and showing her awareness of the particular qualities she had –it showed she had analysed possibilities and her place in the professional world”.

While the disappointing figures from the National Theatre are concerning, they are not necessarily an accurate representation of the future of women in theatre. With the combination of the forward-thinking of our theatre training institutions; the talent of emerging actors in portraying new perspectives; and the determination of female writers and directors to break through the glass ceiling, it is now the role of theatre-goers themselves to ensure that future celebrations of historical institutions like the National Theatre are representative of all members of society, by supporting new work that gives them a voice. We can’t rewrite its history, but we can all play a part in shaping its future.





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