By Saoirse Anton
“This is what collaborative feminist power looks like and it is a powerful, playful and inclusive thing.”
In just one succinct sentence Sarah Durcan, general manager of Science Gallery International, and a member of the Waking the Feminists group, summed up the atmosphere in the Abbey Theatre today [14 November 2016] at Waking The Feminists’ One Thing More.
On 28 October 2015, the Abbey Theatre launched its 2016 programme marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising, a programme that featured only one play written by a woman, and only three directed by women. In no time Ireland’s feminist alarm clock, Lian Bell, had posted her now famous Facebook post highlighting the issue of gender imbalance, not just in the Abbey, but across the sector, and the wheels were in motion. Just two weeks later, the first Waking the Feminists meeting took to the Abbey stage, kicking off what was to be one of most active years of evolution and change in Irish Theatre in over a century.
Today, Waking the Feminists filled the Abbey Theatre for their final event, One Thing More. The aim of the event was to take stock of the year that was, and to discuss where the work of the campaign could lead in the future. With too many speakers to reference individually, dozens of diverse voices made their one point about Waking the Feminists. Young, old, Irish, American, English, Welsh, Scottish, men, women, writers, producers, managers, actors, people from every corner of the sector and beyond added their voices to the discussion. New directors of the Abbey Theatre, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, offered an open call for everyone’s “outrageous,” reminding us that “regardless of race, gender, age, or the money in your pocket, the Abbey is your theatre” and re-iterating that the National Theatre exists to serve, not be served.
Later, Amelie Metcalfe, the youngest speaker at only eight years old, told the audience of the reasons she is proud to be a girl in Irish theatre, but asked when it was going to “wake up to children”, appealing to her adult colleagues with the words “Excite us. Inspire us.” From a child then on to a parent, Tara Derrington of Mothers Artists Makers (M.A.Ms) spoke of their work over the past year, and of their continued aim to highlight the unequal care burden that is pushing many mothers out of careers in the arts.
We need to make our presence felt at every level.
Not only were there speeches in person on the stage, but a number of supporters sent video messages to be played as part of the proceedings. Emma Rice, outgoing artistic director of The Globe, took to the screen to much applause as she asserted that “we need to make our presence felt at every level.” With one speaker just off the plane from America, another a long-time emigrant returned to Ireland, another sharing her experiences of theatre in Poland, messages from England, America, and across Ireland streaming in, and a wealth of passionate voices both on and off the stage, there was a tangibly electric and powerful atmosphere throughout the venue. Orlaith McBride, director of the Arts Council, said that Waking the Feminists is “a perpetual flame, it is a fire that will not go out,” and the energy in the Abbey mirrored that.
Towards the end of the morning, the #WakingtheFeminists research group, led by Dr Brenda Donohue, who compiled a study of gender equality in Irish theatre over the past decade presented a number of their findings, sending a cacophony of gasps and sighs rippling through the auditorium. The full report is due to be published in early 2017, but even today’s snapshot painted a stark statistical picture.
As happened in 2015, with the now iconic sing-along to Aretha Franklin’s Respect, the meeting ended on a song. Camille O’Sullivan sang the event to a close with her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, bringing many to tears and all to their feet by the time she sang the final lines.
Waking the Feminists has been a historical moment in Irish theatre, and One Thing More was a fitting end to it. To borrow a quote from Jane Daly: “to do nothing is simply not an option.”
• Saoirse Anton is a theatre critic, student, writer and feminist