Today's Guardian reports that 'too many plays performed in theatres subsidised by the taxpayer are dominated by male roles' and that the actors' union Equity has contacted 43 directors of subsidised theatre companies, asking them to rectify this situation. Lynda Rook, chair of the women's committee at Equity goes on to say "If young women want to go into the arts and they are not seeing their gender reflected that is a problem - you can't be what you can't see."
Wise words indeed - ones which got me thinking, perhaps the blame shouldn't entirely be lain at directors' feet. Yes, they choose which plays their company will perform, and therefore have a duty to ensure parity in gender roles as far as is at all possible. But responsibility for the number of women in plays lies with playwrights, not directors. And it's easy to find plays with fantastic and substantial male roles - not so much with female roles. Macbeth? One main female role (wife) to five main male roles. Death of A Salesman? One substantial female role (wife) and two flimsy female roles (one a call girl, the other a mistress) to five key male roles. It's not just numbers though. It's about decent parts too. And this is something I noticed when, as a drama student at an all-girls school, I regularly ended up playing male roles (even though I've never topped 5'2", teachers clearly sensed my 'masculine energy' from somewhere!). The male roles were often so much more complex, nuanced, interesting and fun to play.
Would I have swapped my role as Eddie in A View From The Bridge for that of obedient wife Beatrice or naive niece Catherine? No chance. I got to stand on tables howling 'I'm a patsy, what can I do?' while all the female characters got to do was simper. Similarly, as Deputy Governor Danforth in The Crucible I got to boss all the other characters around, preside over the courtroom and bellow 'HANG THEM HIGH OVER THE TOWN!', whilst the female roles were limited to exhibiting either hysteria or noble piety. The Crucible does at least have a variety and number of female roles, I suppose. But as far as I could see, female characters never really got to push boundaries. They were Madonnas or whores, evil bitches or good wives. Whereas I just got to be a man - the one role seemingly immune to easy labels. And yes, it was great fun getting to break away from the tedium of teenage girlhood by playing men - and yes, we did study a lot of Arthur Miller at my school.
So I suppose the approach taken needs to be twofold - directors do need to choose plays more wisely, and not just keep putting on Henry V (although an imaginative director would realise the actors playing male parts don't necessarily have to be female - just look at my long reign as the gender-bender of St Albans High School). But plays featuring decent, complex, stereotype-breaking female characters also need to be written in the first place. More Beatrices, fewer Ophelias. We need to see female characters with lives and identities in their own rights, not just as complementary figures to a man's struggle. Otherwise who do we have to blame when, raised on a diet of male-dominated plays like War Horse, Dr Faustus and Journey's End (standard texts for GCSE and A Level English), schoolchildren and theatre students alike come to see women as merely incidental to the crucial events of life and art?