Opinion: does the Royal Lyceum's new season display a gender bias?

Opinion: does the Royal Lyceum's new season display a gender bias?

Critic Hannah McGill takes a look at the theatre's 2013 programme and finds it lacking

Is it just the luck of the draw that the Lyceum Theatre’s programme for the year ahead features not one female writer or director? Or is it a symptom of an altogether bigger issue?

Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, Scotland’s largest producing theatre, just announced its 2013–14 programme. Artistic Director Mark Thomson is proud to have mounted ‘in tough times… a season of work that celebrates the inspiration of great thinkers, big stories and the creativity of artists’. But seemingly it’s not just a dearth of money with which the Lyceum is contending! It has bravely faced up to a horrible lack of women. Its new season doesn’t have any female writers or directors.

There are a few responses to this. Here’s one: is this a matter for whingeing about, or just the luck of the draw in any given year? Women have the same educational opportunities as men – in fact, they tend to do better at school. The doors aren’t barred; if they’re not making it, maybe they’re just not producing good enough work. When the brilliant young Scottish playwright Stef Smith tweeted about the Lyceum’s startling new season stats, one response came from Paul Daniels – yes, that Paul Daniels – who said, ‘Maybe those who applied weren’t up to scratch.’ Here’s another: tokenism, in the long run, does no-one any favours; to find the best work, the Lyceum should be driven by merit, not gender box-ticking.

Certainly the Lyceum might point out that it is still drawing its talent from a male-dominated pool, and that’s not its fault. Unlike its new writing-focused neighbour the Traverse, it seeks experienced and conventional contributors, not newcomers; that privileges jobs for the boys. It could argue, and probably will, that despite a wide-open mind, it just happened not to come across any female writers or directors whose work it wanted this year. The problem is that its gender bias perpetuates an imbalance the persistence of which across the theatre landscape bespeaks an ingrained and habitual disadvantaging of women, not just a strong year for men. Research recently undertaken by the Guardian found that while women make up around 68% of UK theatregoers, they were ‘seriously underrepresented on stage, among playwrights and artistic directors, and in creative roles such as designers and composers’.

Agitating for a fifty-fifty gender split in all things is wise or necessary. There are reasons why women are underrepresented in the arts, some having to do with still catching up on centuries of deliberate ostracism; others with ingrained and slow-shifting cultural attitudes regarding women’s confidence and creative bolshiness; and others with the fact that women’s reproductive lives tend to get in the way of the deranged all-hours commitment required to build a creative career. But not representing them at all, in a field that they consistently support as patrons surely narrows the scope of a programme of work. Wouldn’t it be more interesting, in terms of stories told, lifestyles explored, voices heard, to include both genders in the conversation? It’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable at Thomson’s talk of the ‘great’ and the ‘big’. Are women not equipped to communicate at the kind of scale he’s talking about? 

Hannah McGill is a writer and critic and former artistic director of Edinburgh International Film Festival.

We invited the Lyceum to respond to Hannah's opinion piece - here is a reply from Shonaig Macpherson, Chair of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company:

Hannah McGill’s opinion piece raises the important issue of providing more opportunities for women in the arts, particularly in the theatre for writers and directors. In doing so she has chosen to suggest that the Royal Lyceum Theatre has a gender bias against women.

On behalf of everyone at the Lyceum I refute this suggestion in the strongest terms. Anyone familiar with our work will appreciate that the Lyceum has a strong track record of supporting women in theatre, ranging from the youngest members of our Youth Theatre to the esteemed performers, directors and creative contributors that we engage with on a regular basis. Had Hannah expressed her opinion some 12 months ago I am confident that she would have celebrated the Lyceum’s gender bias in producing a season of seven productions in 2012/2013 that featured 41 female actors, three female writers, one female director, five female assistant directors, two female designers and two female costume designers.

With a board led by a female and nearly 60% of the board and senior management team being female, we understand more than most the need to provide opportunities for all and address the issue that Hannah has raised but in doing so our primary objective is to continue to produce excellent work that engages and inspires our audiences.

Shonaig Macpherson
Chair, Royal Lyceum Theatre Company