THE VALUE OF EQUALITY IN THE ARTS
On the 12th November 2015, at the Abbey Theatre, something shifted. The change was significant, and most importantly, it was noticed. It was a clarion call to artists, and a shot across the boughs of the institutions they worked at; that what we, as female directors, playwrights, actors, producers, designers, administrators, technicians, and theatre workers, were being offered, was no longer enough. At that first public assembly of Waking The Feminists thirty of us spoke from the Abbey Stage. We had 90 seconds each to address the audience and to articulate what we felt about gender equality in our industry.
When I think about that day now, I remember the fear. I remember my first thought was: ‘What a privilege to be invited to share a stage and have an opportunity to listen to these incredible women.’ My second thought was: ‘I know a lot of these faces here, but I have never heard them speak before.’ My third thought was: ’90 seconds? Fuck that! What can anyone say in 90 seconds?’ But I’ve sat through a lot of bass baritone in my time, so it’s definitely time for an hour or two of shaky soprano, I remember thinking.
But, joking aside, let us think about that for a second: about the fact the organisers of that event didn’t single out three or four of our most shiny, spangly, fabulous females to address this insult, this latest oversight. They had an hour on the stage, and they asked thirty of us, thirty, to share that single opportunity; of course they couldn’t include everybody, but they decided on thirty from across the spectrum of experience, age, and geography. Thirty women each given 90 seconds. What a simple, direct demonstration of equality that was. I learned something very important that day, and it was this: you have to embody equality to expect equality.
When something is pressing, urgent, necessary, of course it can be said in 90 seconds; in fact it can be spoken in 3: Notice and choose better.
When you hear something spoken thirty times, by thirty voices, in thirty different ways, you don’t forget it.
So, ladies and gentlemen, as a direct result of that day’s impact on me, and probably on the people who asked me to speak here today, just like hundreds of men who came before me, and in the interest of equality, I am standing on a stage before you and I have nothing of note to say. I have no wisdom or insights to share. I can’t present you with a neat Power-Point presentation that, succinctly, breaks down my findings on equality into, a handy pocketful of statistics and quotes. What I can offer is this: I am a story-teller, a theatre director, and I love, and am passionate about my work. I work here on both sides of the border on this island, and in England, and I can tell you how that has been for me.
And the honest answer is: tough. It has been tough and painful to stay in this industry, and some of that is because I am a woman. For example, I was told in London that I would never work as a director because I was female, Irish, and hadn’t been to Oxford or Cambridge. I was told in Belfast that there are too many women directors, and we don’t need another one. I was told in Dublin that I couldn’t become a director, as directors don’t just come out of nowhere. They have family connections to the theatre. So, I suppose you could say in some ways that it has been equal. I was equally rejected as a director across the board. But remember, you have to embody equality to expect equality. And this was a harsh truth: I wasn’t equal because I didn’t think I was equal.
If I could make you all understand one thing from my experience working in our industry, it is this: you choose to be equal. It is not bestowed on you. You choose it for yourself; male or female, binary or non-binary, gendered or non-gendered, underrepresented, or misrepresented ethinicity or class, none of us any longer have to wait for equality. But, and this is a big but: you do have to embody it to expect it. That’s the hard part, because that is deciding to be fair, and being fair takes a lot of work. Which, by the way, was the thrust of my 90 seconds back in 2015.
In 2008 I went to New York to spend three weeks with a company called Labyrinth Theatre Company, often abbreviated to LAB: Latino Actors Base. Phillip Seymour Hoffman was the Artistic Director. Every summer that company, which had 150 members, plus guests, would go and spend three weeks reading new scripts, living together on a university campus, which in those days was either Bennington or Bard, in upstate New York. About forty plays were selected every year. Breaking into numerous companies, we would rehearse a play for eight hours, and every evening there would be rehearsed readings – maybe three plays in an evening. The beautiful thing was that anyone in the company could submit a play. From the newest member, even an intern, to John Patrick Shanley, or Stephen Adly Guirgis, or Lucy Thurber. The other noticeable thing was that everyone in the company was expected over the three weeks to try another discipline; actors and producers were encouraged to write; directors and writers were encouraged to act. But, and here’s the thing, every single play written was given the same consideration, the same weight, the same attention to detail, the same respect. And it was performed by the the same actors, often recognisable Hollywood players, such as Ethan Hawke, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Yolanda Ross, and Elisa Davies.
I remember seeing Phil read a part in a first play by young inexperienced writer. Sitting there listening to it, I distinctly remember thinking: what a pile of shite. And, not just that, but to have asked this genius to read it. How could they? He must have sensed my distain, however, because later that day he said to me: ‘You know, we have to help this guy believe he can write a great play. We have to give him the respect he earned spending the time to write it. And never forget that every opportunity to work is a chance to improve your craft. You must never waste the chance to practice.’
I only knew him very briefly, but the greatest actor of our time (IMHO) demonstrated equality in every fibre of his being. Something fundamentally changed for me that day. Because, you see, I was in New York with LAB as part of a Clore Fellowship, which I had applied for because I wanted a break from the work I was doing. I had been directing new plays by first-time or emerging writers that I decided weren’t good enough. I had been working on community projects with people who, in my estimation at the time, weren’t even ‘proper actors’. I had decided, with my own particular blend of uncertainty, arrogance, and insecurity, that I needed to get out, take a break, and try to meet some people who would understand my frustration, see me for the frustrated artist I was and give me an aul shunt up the ladder. But, you see, you have to embody equality to expect it. And at that point, I didn’t.
I’d say there are a lot of us here today who grew up in a household with the mantra: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. My parents would drill that into us, over and over, until the words became a rhythm, a verbal tic devoid of meaning, a platitude. The first time I heard it after coming back from New York it hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t need Philip Seymour Hoffman, or anyone else to teach me how to behave. I had been told it my whole life, I just hadn’t noticed.
Do unto others as you would have done unto you. The simplicity of the philosophy behind that statement belies the apparent difficulty of its achievability. It takes practice, because it forces us to think about our relationship with the world and how we live with other people. For me, it asks us to notice. To see, and to act, according to what we understand; to be fair and just and kind; to treat each other equally. That sounds like something out of a trite Christmas cracker, until you actually attempt to put it into practice, because you need to do it all of the time, with everyone, every day.
More often than not, it is asking us to change our behaviour. No, more: it asks us to take responsibility for our behaviour, and for all of our actions, not just the ones we can humble-brag about on social media. It asks us to embody equality. By now, at least, I have learned to practice it. I’m still learning. I’m still practicing.
In the last year 18 months I have worked with Big Telly in Portstewart as their Creative Shops Director, manning shops in Bushmills and Cushendall, working with sheep farmers one day, and contemporary dancers the next; I have taught directing at Magee College, in Derry, and acting to a women’s group in Donegal; I have directed the National Youth Theatre in Dublin; I have directed a play by Kevin Barry in Cork, and one by Roddy Doyle that toured pubs around the country; I was made Associate Director at the Abbey and workshopped a new play at the Lyric. I did a workshop on a play about Countess Markievicz in Dublin, one about Bobby Sands in London and a workshop about Lundy in Derry. Last month I had my first play on the main stage of the Abbey, On Raftery’s Hill. This month I am working with a boat builder in Moville, and making a show that will happen on piers in Donegal. My whole working life I have criss-crossed the border, and worked inside and outside the great institutions of our industry. And all I can say is this, and I hope any of you here today I have worked would confirm it, I treat every job I do the same, no matter where it is, what it’s about or what scale it’s on. What I give of myself to it is exactly the same, and that is: everything I’ve got. If that sounds boastful I don’t mean it to. I just don’t see the point otherwise. Of course different jobs have different requirements, timeframes, and budgets. But I’ve never forgotten Phil’s mantra: every chance I get to work is an opportunity to practice my craft. Why would I do anything less ?
Speaking of budgets and timeframes, I have to say that as a freelance director, at this point in my career, I have not experienced much difference between working in Belfast, London, or Dublin. Or, indeed, between Tyrone, Shrewsbury, and Donegal. The experience of working in any capital city is the same, and the further you move away from the major cities the experience is the same. Budgets and scale may vary, but the real inequality, in my opinion, exists between Donegal and Dublin, Tyrone and Belfast, Shrewsbury and London. The inequality is in how we, in the industry, treat the so-called regions. In my experience it is very difficult to get an audience to come to work in the regions, to get effective marketing, and especially to be part of the national artistic conversation. That is something we still need to change, but how it happens I’m not sure.
Something that is at the heart of my process, particularly in the rehearsal room, is identifying the moment of change in the room. That moment where there is a pressure drop, or where the ground shifts and what we think we know about the characters and the situation is completely overturned – that is the moment that thrills me most in the theatre; it seems at in those moments, everything is blown open and everything is possible. In our culture right now I believe we are experiencing such a singular moment, where our previous knowledge is overturned and our understanding and engagement with the world has to be fundamentally recalibrated. The late poet and essayist Adrienne Rich said the moment of change is the only poem.
The moment of change is the only poem.
It’s a beautiful idea, and I think it’s true. It’s certainly informed my process as an artist. For it acknowledges a capacity for growth, and for an expansion for our understanding of a shared humanity. It means that our coordinates as artists are never fixed, but always in a state of flux. Rather than fearing this uncertainty, this lack of a fixed position, I believe that as artists we can inform the culture by constantly embracing this change. Does that mean an abandonment of all we hold precious, all that has gone before, all that is good? Absolutely not. It is not a binary choice. For me the Waking The Feminist moment was a set of coordinates that needs to be constantly replotted and reimagined.
So where does that leave us now?
Since November 2015 have things changed? I would say yes, from my experience, they have. Has my work, or my approach to my work, or the type of people I work with, changed, since 2015? In essence, no. But what has changed is the way we talk about culture, and particularly about the way we acknowledge the work of women who had previously gone under the radar. This is good, of course, but is that change happening fast enough, and is it being enshrined in policy change that ensures far reaching consequences? No, and not yet, I would say. Being fair takes work. It takes consistent effort and intelligent pressure to ensure that what began as a grassroots call for change evolves, and continues to evolve, into something enduring.
Revolution is temporary, but evolution is constant.
Change has happened, and is happening. I’ve seen it. As an artist I’ve experienced it. The way work is being created, and the type of work that is being recognised of being worthy of inclusion in the so-called canon, is changing. Even the notion of a ‘canon’ is being challenged. This is significant, not because it hasn’t been addressed before, but because of where it is happening. It is happening all across the sector in institutions and in individuals.
When I was asked to talk in this session I must admit my initial impulse was to get hung up on the word equality, and the notion of being ‘exactly the same’. I had an entire and somewhat aggressive reaction based on the fact I don’t believe equality has any place in the Arts. I want to cast an actress because she’s the best actress for the part not because it’s her turn on the rota. Creating quotas and instigating policy change is laudable, but it is not the only way to achieve equality. Being fair takes work.
I want to talk for a minute about On Raftery’s Hill.
On Raftery’s Hill by Marina Carr is one of the greatest Irish plays ever written, period. It was first produced by Druid in 2000, and has had very few outings since. Why? Is it more violent than A Whistle in the Dark? No. Does it have more references to obscure Greek mythology than Translations? I don’t think so. Is it more shocking or upsetting than A Little World of our Own? I would say not. So, what happened? Why did it disappear? Was it because the writer was female? I don’t know. But in terms of reviving it I know exactly what happened.
Simply put, Waking the Feminists happened; the referendum on the 8th Amendment happened; and suddenly On Raftery’s Hill spoke to its moment and its audience, an audience that was desperate for change, for acknowledgement. I would still query why it needed a moment, but that is a debate for another day. It is an extraordinary play which goes to a very dark place, and yet a very redemptive one. Its redemptive power lies not in the plight of its characters, but in in its raw and unvarnished humanity. The bringing forth into the light the darkest of truths redeems precisely because it is true, and we are not used to hearing, or seeing, the unmediated truth in a public forum.
Theatre is the place where we go to hear the truth, to pull the thorns out of our souls. And I think it does that because the storytellers share the same space as the audience. We are all alone together, in the dark. Open, vulnerable, receptive. Where else is this strange communion of language and music and movement and story possible? The simplicity of it is hardwired into our DNA. It is why it survives the continual ravages of technology, because our need for it doesn’t change. Because in these stories are encoded messages of survival, of endurance, of hope, and of our shared experience.
At the heart of On Raftery’s Hill is an act of violence; a violation that is shocking because it is so eerily recognisable. It occurs just before the interval, and a few audience members were too upset to return for the second half. I understand that. It is absolutely brutal. And yet the real brutality comes after the interval, when we expect some kind of reckoning. Instead, what happens is the normalisation of the act and its assimilation into a twisted familial mythology. A father rapes his daughter, who also happens to be his granddaughter, as we discover a dense tangle of incestuous relationships that predates even this generation.
I am forever grateful to Neil and Graham, for their trust in agreeing to programme On Raftery’s Hill, especially because I was questioned by several colleagues about my choice of play. Did we really need to see another play that shows the brutalisation of a young woman? Well, yes, I’m afraid we did. Because Marina’s point, I think, is that the more enduring act of violence, the real psychological violence, comes after the physical violation. In the accommodation with it. The amelioration of it. The normality of it. And to get to that point we had to show the act absolutely as it is. Not to make a metaphor of it. Not to stylise it. Not to make it expressionistic. We needed to see the base mechanics of it. The casualness of it. The slow, easy, dangerous drift into the velocity of it. Marina’s point, I think, is: who makes the monsters? And that is not a comfortable question to be faced with, because it doesn’t let its audience off the hook.
In order to go through this horror, to get it right, I had to create a safe place for the actors. I had to protect them. We had to protect each other, and nurture each other. Respect was absolutely crucial. In the interest of full disclosure, and having just heard Dr Anne-Marie Quigg’s presentation about bullying in the theatre workplace, and the questions from the audience following it, I have to confess, that I have not always managed to create that atmosphere of mutual respect. I am one of those directors who has experienced being bullied in the rehearsal room. I had an older, well known, and respected actor, who made the room very difficult to hold, and impossible for me to create a safe space to work in. I also have to confess that I worked with an actor who felt I bullied him; he felt I spoke to him in a different way to how I spoke to the other actors, and that I noted him in a different way to how I noted them. Now I believe that if you genuinely feel like you are being bullied, then you are, and so I had to face the fact that I had made this actor feel vulnerable and exposed. We talked about what was happening, and I have to admit he was right; I did speak to him in a different way. I made a judgement call that he wasn’t as experienced as the other actors, and I was noting him differently. I am happy to say we resolved the issue and are now firm friends, but it was a shock to realise that all the same.
Fortunately, that was not the experience with On Raftery’s Hill; this time, I’m glad to say, I did manage to create a safe environment for the actors. It was essential to do so in order that we could best share our knowledge and craft, and consequently there was an openness, a willingness, to play, to try stuff, to go to the dark places, to put everything on the table. I think a sort of myth has grown up around presenting dark and unsettling material, that somehow the rehearsal process itself has to be similarly fraught and edgy – and that this ‘danger’, this ‘edginess’, would somehow translate into a sort of raw ‘truth’ in performance.
I absolutely do not buy into that. The way to create good work that allows performers to truly explore violent and troubling situations, and deals with those elements of our humanity that are discomforting to look at, is by creating work spaces that are safe and open and respectful. Anyone that tells you different is talking absolute shite. Tyranny, whether it exists the relatively mild form of a theatre director, or whether it is the prevailing culture, is an impediment to creativity.
Does this mean that we cannot create work that is dangerous, provocative, and that challenges consensus – even when that consensus is a progressive one that we ourselves might subscribe to? Does it mean that we have to shy away from that dangerous subject matter that is so difficult and upsetting to watch, for fear we might offend certain sensibilities? Absolutely not. Repeatedly, in my practice I have found that the darker the material is, the more protected you need to make your actors feel. Rather than this creating a touchy-feely, let’s-not-tread-on-anybody’s-toes-in-case-we-upset-anyone rehearsal room, in fact it achieves the opposite.
When actors feel that you have their backs they are prepared to go to the darkest places, because they are, by their very nature, explorers. They like to get down and dirty in the sticky, messy substance of the unconscious, and bring what they find to the surface. The best of them are fearless, such as the cast I had for On Raftery’s Hill, who everyday in the rehearsal room took my breath away.
Theatre is a place where we rehearse catastrophe. It is where we grapple with the icky substance of our collective subconscious, where all the unpalatable devises and desires and rage and guilt and joy and pain and hurt are locked. It should be a safe place to explore the most outrageous and explosive ideas and actions that animate our society. This contradiction is at the heart of what we do, and equality is essential to achieve that perplexing equation. Equality is an aspiration, but it is an achievable one. Equality, in theatre, doesn’t mean ‘the same as’, it means ‘to have an equal investment in’. For it is when we are invested, and when we feel we have been invested in, that we give the best of ourselves.
When I was invited to speak here today I was asked to consider what was the difference, if any, between Northern Ireland and the south in terms of equality of opportunity and practice. Here again, I have no statistics I can offer you, only my personal experience. I can’t really say if there is or isn’t any more equality here as opposed to Dublin. I have been equally supported and insulted both sides of the border, with extraordinary parity, in fact. But working across this Island, and on our neighbouring one, I can tell you that the same values carry weight. Integrity, respect, constancy, and rigour. They are the building blocks of equality; their absence are the places where we notice injustice and disparity, and gaps in our industry. That is where we have to work hard to be fair. And in those values exist an extraordinary opportunity: it is the opportunity to embody equality and the opportunity to expect it.