Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Men still pull strings in Auckland theatre

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Rachel House will direct Hui this year. Photo / Babiche Martens
Rachel House will direct Hui this year. Photo / Babiche Martens

The performance arts have a female-friendly image - the ladies are thought to like all that theatrical stuff. But two years ago, I noted the proportion of female directors, playwrights and public-forum speakers participating at various Auckland venues and found that the more flagshippy and stalwarty an establishment was, the fewer of these key women it featured.

The number of women onstage merely masked the general chauvinistic Svengali nature of the industry, with males pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Two years on, has anything changed? Not much, although there are a few hopeful signs, a few worries - and one absolute shocker.

Non-fiction first: in 2010, slightly more women than men volunteered to present on topics of their own choice at grassroots Pecha Kucha evenings - but last year, judging by website archives, the ratio dropped to about 60:40 in favour of men. One year does not make a trend, but this is a little worrying.

The 2010 Very Naughty Patriarch award went to Late at the Museum, for having an all-male line-up for most of its monthly talk panels, and for including only one token female on the rest.

Although still lagging way behind acceptability (convenors of all seven discussions were men), Late gets a Most Improved award for 2012: only one panel was all-male, and one panel even managed to include two females, making the gender split onstage 50:50 for once (the theme that evening was "Lust"; I guess women's main expertise is in the art of seduction).

To turn to theatre, two of Silo Theatre's five plays last year were written by women (heartening), as were two of Auckland Theatre Company's eight main bill plays (less heartening), and each company employed one female director on their main bill (could do better). This year, none of the plays to be put on by these two leading companies have been written by women.

Uncharacteristically, this year Silo is putting on two New Zealand plays (including Hui, directed by the inimitable Rachel House - a woman!); "plays by women" and "plays by New Zealanders" seem to be mutually exclusive as far as Auckland theatre is concerned.

But this is the shocker: of ATC's 31 main bill New Zealand plays in the 10 years to the end of this year, 27 will have been written exclusively by men.

Only two were by women (in 2009 and 2006), and two (in 2008) had input from both sexes.

As well as restricting what its audience sees, ATC is also restricting the opportunities for female playwrights in this country. The gender balance is far better for judges, Cabinet ministers and public-service CEOs than for New Zealand playwrights produced by the ATC main bill.

Is it fair to blame the company? Perhaps the pool of female theatre practitioners is particularly small? Well, let's see. The Basement's (slightly incomplete) web archive acts as a rough measure of how many female playwrights and directors are active, as its plays are all independently produced.

It turns out that women directed about a third, and wrote about half, of the Basement's full-length shows for the past year.

It's hardly a fig leaf that ATC produced two plays-in-development by women last November, but hopefully this is a harbinger of main bill things to come ... 2014 can't come soon enough.

- NZ Herald

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