WITS on Australianplays.org
Forward by Matilda Ridgway
WITS is Women in Theatre and Screen.
WITS is a Sydney-based collective, run by practising artists on a volunteer basis, fighting for real workable change in the industry to ensure that women are represented equally and with integrity across all fields in the theatre and screen industries in Australia.
As part of the strategy to achieve this aim, WITS and AustralianPlays.org have joined forces to create a database which foregrounds women in theatre. Its mission, along with the 50 Plays in 50 Days social media campaign, is to recognise and celebrate Australian female playwrights and, more broadly, plays that explore a diverse and complex view of what it means to be a woman.
As far back as 1983, Dorothy Hewett launched the Australia Council’s Women in the Arts report with the following statement:
We have something of the utmost importance to contribute: the sensibility, the experience and the expertise of one half of humanity. All we ask is that we are able to do this in conditions of complete equality.
More than thirty years on, we are still not there.
The outspoken advocacy of the Australian Women Directors' Alliance (and many freelance artists across the country) over recent years has made an enormous impact, in terms of both visibility and actual appointments, but we are still nowhere near Dorothy’s vision on a consistent basis. It is not yet hard wired. In 2016, out of ten funded mainstage theatre companies around Australia, only three reached gender parity in their programming of writers and directors. In 2018 all 10 theatre companies achieved gender parity or better across their Australian season – though it was noted that in some instances that was more a reflection of the low number of Australian works programmed. Nonetheless, a marked improvement.
Quite apart from less income, prestige and visibility for our female playwrights, not reaching gender parity on a consistent basis will inevitably result in a less diverse and less exciting theatre scene for audiences. However, the fact that the percentages climbed from 11% in 2011 to 62% in 2018 gives us a powerful take-home message:
But it requires vigilance and persistence.
In Gender and All That, Alison Croggon delivers a persuasive argument for supporting diverse voices and those of women specifically:
|The 'human condition' has, for centuries, been considered to be a male state. And the real issue for theatre is that protecting the privilege of a minority means that its culture stagnates. Marginalising 53% of the population means limiting access to a huge pool of ideas and energy. As any ecologist knows, a population without diversity loses genetic vigour and eventually dies out. This is an important moment to be making an intervention, it’s time for new vision that is more inclusive in decision-making processes.|
Diversity and inclusivity promote an expansive understanding of humankind. We see ourselves reflected in the stories we tell, and those stories mould our individual and collective identity. The playwrights in this database are changing the world through their art; through the stories they tell, and through the women they write about and present on our stages. This catalogue of plays has a cornucopia of authentic, diverse concepts of womankind, and a variety of visions of woman beyond the male gaze. Gender is a social construction and these texts expand our concept of both the mechanics of that construction and ourselves as part of this matrix.
As humans, we are constructs of society. Society doesn’t exist as something objectively outside our experience, it’s something we actively craft every single day. In our minds, we have assumptions about what women can and can’t do, and they inform our actions. They inform our art. How do we change these assumptions? Through a broader more diverse theatre scene. Through our actions. Through our art. Art reflects society and society reflects art. Theatre has an important place in our national discourse.
-Maryann Wright, WITS Board
Gender parity is not a gift to women, it’s a right - and this is a shift in attitude our whole industry needs to make.
-Lizzie Schebesta, WITS Board
So why do we still not see an equal representation and celebration of our female playwrights?
In the above quoted Gender and All That, Alison Croggon tackles the oft-touted argument against quotas - the argument of merit:
|There are different issues in the arts to other professions. Theatre is not only an 'industry': it is a culture. Artistic merit is a central and thorny question. It's often used by artistic directors and others to evade the knotty questions - all candidates, we are routinely told by main stage companies, are chosen on merit, which, given the figures, can leave us to reflect on the general mediocrity of womankind. On the other hand, artistic merit is, in the arts, a real issue. That's why it can be so successfully used as a smokescreen: if artistic merit isn't the first aim of our striving, what are we there for?|
This database showcases the breadth of talented women playwrights in this country. I invite you all to take the 50 plays in 50 days challenge and read 50 plays selected by the WITS volunteer readership, which exemplify the richness and diversity of female playwriting in this country.
This database and this showcase are about raising awareness, about mindfulness or perhaps, to put it more strongly, vigilance.
In the 2012 Women in Theatre report from the Australia Council, Professor Elaine Lally, in consultation with Professor Sarah Miller, advocates mindfulness as one of the key tools to change our current cultural climate:
Mindfulness, by which is meant an awareness of our unconscious biases and assumptions, is not something we can decide to switch on and off. Mindfulness then, can only be achieved through processes that we refer to as vigilance.
This database is a tool for vigilance. For promoting female playwrights, promoting stories that have a significant and complex female experience at their heart, and promoting plays that have great roles for female actors. We hope it leads to a richer and more diverse theatre ecology. We encourage you to not only dive into the 50 plays in 50 Days initiative but also to search the complete database.
This project creates a permanent showcase at AustralianPlays.org that celebrates the work of women in playwriting by providing contextual information and practical tools for search and discovery.
This showcase will deliver the following features and benefits to visitors at Australianplays.org:
- An alphabetical listing of female Australian playwrights
- An alphabetical listing of plays written by female Australian playwrights.
- A new search category to identify plays that contain a significant female role.
- An opportunity to understand the issues that affect the practices of women in theatre, particularly playwrights in this case, and draw inspiration from the breadth and diversity of work that has been created.
This database is a work in progress, which is currently one third of the way through its mammoth task. This incredible resource is made available by the WITS team, Australian Script Centre and the countless hours of work by a dedicated team of volunteer readers.
Ali Aitken, Fiona Butler, Genevieve Craig, Lisa Freshwater, Sarah Furnari, Bianca Giuliano, Nicola James, Virginia Jane Rose, Imogen King, Erica Lovell, Ivy Mak, Olivia O’Flynn, Fiona Press, Goldele Rayment, Matilda Ridgway, Katherine Rodgers, Lizzie Schebesta, Gemma Scoble, Kiki Skountzos, Pip Smith, Melissa Lee Speyer, Cheryl Ward, Maryann Wright