By MARYAM PHILPOTT
Picture the scene, it’s not so long ago, in London and you’re off for a night at the theatre. You look around you in the street and everything seems fairly normal, again in the theatre things seem fine as you take your seat. But then the play starts and something’s missing… It takes a while but suddenly you realise – there are no women up there. Oh wait, here comes one but she’s behaving strangely, she’s not like any woman you’ve ever met, she’s essentially a two-dimensional shade in a skirt. Where are all the real women, like the ones sitting around you or who passed you in the street, where are their stories?
Tonic Theatre was established in 2011 to answer this very question and, on 22 June, took over the Ambassador’s Theatre for the inaugural Tonic Celebrates…, an evening of lively and insightful discussion with three of theatre’s most outstanding women – celebrated and multi-award winning lighting designer Paule Constable, Indhu Rubasingham, Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre, and writer / director Jessica Swale – interviewed by the no less impressive Lucy Kerbel, Director of Tonic. Tonic Theatre takes a multi-platform approach to improving gender equality in the theatre industry, from practical initiatives such as developing scripts for use in schools, direct consultancy projects for theatre companies and original research on the barriers to equality, to events such as these showcasing success stories.
The purpose of the event was to “take a moment to celebrate”, Kerbel explained, and to contribute to a much wider resurgent interest in equality. Although a highly gendered evening, Swale was clear early on that she wanted to reach a point where it’s the work that becomes the focus: “I don’t want people to come and see something because I’m a woman,” she explaines, “but because it’s good.” And progress has already been made, especially now that there are women in visibleand senior positions, Rubasingham confirmed, who can act as inspiration and mentors for the next generation of female artists. Backstage, however, Constable counselled, there is still more to do to achieve proper diversity.
I don’t want people to come and see something because I’m a woman… – Jessica Swale,Playwright
One of the highlights of the event was hearing how each panelist ended up in their chosen profession, which was unanimously down to opportunism, chance or accident. Notably, Rubasingham and Constable talked of starting out in the sciences and only later discovering a way to merge those analytical and technical skills with the creativity necessary for drama. While the 15-year-old Rubasingham jokingly asked for work experience at a regional theatre, Constable was considering an academic career when she impersonated a friend one evening to operate a follow-spot. Swale by contrast formally studied direction and convinced Out of Joint’s Max Stafford-Clark to take a chance on an untested Assistant Director, and now makes it a policy in her own company to hire a “first timer” on every production.
A second major strand of discussion focused on balancing multiple-roles and being able to adapt their skills to a changing industry. Today’s financial climate, Swale argued, means theatre professionals need to have multiple talents to survive and it is becoming increasingly common to see, for example, directors who write or actors who manage. Rubasingham reiterated that point, particularly having moved from a freelance creative role to being an Artistic Director where she is now creatively and financially responsible for a building and its people, as well as delivering a vision for the direction of the Tricycle.
The second half of the event was given over to some wide-ranging audience questions looking at how to develop flexible policies for theatre workers with families to managing setbacks, writing historical figures and whether women are more reticent about their achievements. Although it is often the actors who garner the lion’s share of critical focus, the panellists were keen to emphasise the emotional investment and belief in the project from all members of the cast and crew so that working with creative and interesting people, as well as being part of moments where theatre is able to transcend differences in language and culture are key motivations.
Tonic Celebrates looks set to become an insightful fixture in the London theatre programme, with hopes to run similar evenings every few months. As these become more established it would be interesting to have some men on the panel to discuss their experiences of equality, as well as the challenges of regional and fringe theatre with even fewer resources. With prices as low as £5 for a two-hour discussion, this is a cost-effective way to learn more about the creative process and acknowledge the achievements of some of the industry’s leading figures. With so many valuable initiatives already underway Tonic Theatre is making a significant contribution to improving the workings of theatre, and if it has its way it won’t be too long before we see plenty of recognisable, real and multi-layered women on stage either.
22 June 2016 | Images: Contributed