Gender balance in Cambridge theatre – and what you can do about it

Davina Moss 31 October 2013

ADC applications for Lent close today, and thus it is high time for student critics to start writing endless articles about the lack of women on stage in Cambridge. But I’m not sure that continually pointing fingers and getting self-righteous is necessarily useful. Surely what we need is a conversation about what the problem is and how to combat it? I’ve got a couple of humble suggestions.

First of all, let’s state some facts:

Lots of the Footlights are men. The majority, indeed.

Male actors in Cambridge find it easier to get roles than female actors.

The Cambridge theatre scene has had a historic tendency towards plays without ‘good’ (traditionally defined as large, interesting, emotionally complex) roles for women.

And let’s state the fact that everyone knows and recognises: none of these are good things.

Now let’s be rational about why all of this is. Or, at least, let’s begin by being rational about explanations which are not reasons for this. For one, the Footlights do not reject women for ‘not being funny’. Cambridge drama directors do not offer roles out to both men and women, and then actively deselect the women due to the presence of oestrogen. If there is a sexist director in Cambridge, they are hiding it very well. And knowing the barometer of the ADC the little I do, I believe absolutely that they would not be tolerated.

So where does this systemic problem come from and, more importantly, what can be done to fix it?

Answers to this question which are incorrect include the following: women in Cambridge are not as good at acting as men, there are not as many women in Cambridge interested in acting as men and female roles in plays are not as interesting as male roles, programmers in Cambridge do not want to stage plays with interesting female roles. There are hundreds of fantastic plays with fascinating parts for women. But at the moment we are not staging them – I know it’s been said before, but Shakespeare is a key perpetrator here: even his most fascinating female characters appear in plays riddled with males. Along with the hundreds of years of male-dominated society came hundreds of years of male-dominated art. It’s not just the Bard: many of the other canonical mainstays (Beckett, Ibsen, Marlowe, Bennett – I’m looking at you, The History Boys) have a tendency to write plays filled with men.

This is not news. We have known this for a while. But while those applying do so with texts from the canon, this is going to continue. It is not “the ADC’s” fault. In fact, the ADC is doing good work attempting to change this: its choices for the Freshers’ plays this term (the only shows which the ADC committee pick without requiring someone else to apply) include The Penelopiad – a feminist exploration of Homer’s Odyssey – and Ayckbourn’s Confusions (a fascinating little set of plays by one of Britain’s great contemporary playwrights, whose work is notable for its impressive gender balance). So if we want some pragmatic answers to how we are going to get more women on the ADC stage (and the Corpus one, the one at the Old Labs or in the Yusuf Hamied, on the Fitzpatrick boards, or walking round town giving promenade performances), we need a concerted effort from ordinary students who want to make theatre. We cannot blame female actors, or the ADC committee, or William Shakespeare. If you want to direct a Shakespeare at the ADC, go ahead and apply with it. But apply then with something else too – a play with as many good female roles as your other choice had male. Apply with Machinal, with Woman in Mind, with The Children’s Hour or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Apply with Alan Ball’s Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, the play which foresaw Bridesmaids by twenty years. If you have to, apply with Top Girls or The House of Bernarda Alba. But apply! Give the well-meaning theatre society committees some real choices. And then, if we still don’t get women onstage, we can start blaming them.

And maybe, just maybe, when we’ve empowered women in Cambridge to grasp the world of theatre with both hands, we’ll inspire them to audition for the Footlights too.