More than halfway through their year-long campaign, we check in with Waking the Feminists, a grassroots movement to address the gender imbalance in Irish arts.
Eight months on from their momentous public meeting in the Abbey, the Waking the Feminists campaigners show no signs of slowing down in their mission to achieve gender equality across Irish theatre. Lian Bell is the woman at the epicentre of the movement.
The focus so far has mostly been on the top theatre organisations. Bell explains: “We really decided that the best use of our energy was to look at policy and organisational change because we felt that that would make the biggest impact long-term.” Meetings with the Arts Council to bring in gender and diversity policies for all organisations receiving public funding, along with declarations from the seven top-funded organisations of their commitment to gender equality, have been some of their major successes.
“Nobody is saying that this isn’t a problem. At our meeting in March the seven organisations, the Gate and the Abbey, Druid, Dublin Theatre Festival, Rough Magic, Dublin Fringe Festival and Project all essentially got up and said, ‘Yes, this is a problem, and we’re going to have to be part of the solution.’ So we’re talking to them now about what that actually means, what the practical steps can be, and the fact that if they do something together it’ll have a much bigger impact.”
But low-level personal change has also been central to the campaign for Bell. “The really encouraging thing for me has always been the fact that so many individuals feel like they’re a bit more confident in calling out stuff that they don’t agree with. You know, saying in rehearsals or online if they feel like someone’s being sexist… Just the sense that everyone’s carrying themselves a bit more upright, if that makes sense. So for me, that sort of personal change has been really important, as much as us looking at the top organisations and policies and all that kind of thing. Just the fact that women feel more confident is amazing.”
She is full of praise for the Abbey, the theatre whose overwhelmingly male-dominated Waking the Nation programme sparked this entire movement. The female-dominated autumn-winter programme has just been announced in an extremely self-conscious statement from outgoing director Fiach Mac Conghail – a clear attempt to make amends. Bell is tentatively optimistic, particularly after the appointment of new directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren: “That’s a really huge opportunity, just because there is going to be change already in the organisation. They’re going to hopefully embrace the fact that this has happened and just go, ‘Right, well now we have a chance to do something.’” Still, the official Waking the Feminists response to the new programme refuses to let the theatre off the hook (“While it is an important step in the right direction, it does not represent full equality for women artists yet – it’s redress, but not overall balance”), and insists that there remains a long way to go.
One company singled out by Bell for their efforts in combatting gender bias are Fishamble. They “have just tried really small changes – the way that they phrase their application forms, the language that they use… framing their own application process in a way to try and more actively invite women to apply. And it worked, apparently.”
“There’s kind of a question of scale; there’s the huge ‘we’re changing policy at a national level’ scale, and then there’s ‘we’re rewording our application process around this small thing here.’ And both of those things are really important.”
One of the defining features of the Waking the Feminists campaign has been its insistence on grassroots organisation. The organisers issue calls on social media for people to set up their own gatherings and events at a local level for occasions like Nollaig na mBan and Feminist Midsummer.
Bell explains this strategy: “When I looked around the actual auditorium of people [at the November public meeting] they were all dying to talk to each other. Everyone was just talking solidly for weeks about it. And I just thought, well that’s what we need to try and do. Create ways for people to just meet each other and talk. And we can’t personally be doing events all the time, because that just takes up all our energy. And also, then it would be really Dublin-centric, because the small group of us mostly are based in Dublin.”
“There’s a kind of a natural explosion and a natural amount of energy that came from those first few weeks that is already sort of naturally dying away, which is absolutely fine. It’s unrealistic to think that we could all continue to live at that state of high doh. But I think that the baseline of what we’ve been trying to say by doing things like that is that it’s not us, we are not going to be the ones to turn around and fix everything for you. It has to be you doing something as well. You have to, at the smallest of small scales, you know, call something out when you see it, or support somebody else if they’re having a tough time, or have a cup of tea with somebody and have a natter about it, and just share ideas and share solutions. So it’s really important for us to try and push the energy out, so that the expectation isn’t always landing on us. But also, the more people get riled up and get invested in it, the better it is and the more solutions we can find.’
And individuals have certainly answered the call. One example is MAM (Mothers Artists Makers), a group set up to support mothers working in theatre. “Which is brilliant, because otherwise it’s a very small engine trying to push a huge machine, whereas if there’s lots of small engines it gets a little bit faster.”
When asked to pick out the highlights of this eight-month whirlwind, Bell struggles to settle on a single moment. “Both of our public meetings were pretty extraordinary. The one in the Abbey was just emotionally overwhelming, and we were all exhausted as well, which didn’t help.”
“The seven companies getting up and saying that they recognised there was a problem and that they were going to help solve it – that was really momentous, even though it felt like quite a straightforward thing.”
“There’s the fact that we got this award in New York [the first ever international Lilly Award]. I wasn’t there myself but I know the two women who were there were hanging out with Gloria Steinem and this kind of thing – it’s bonkers, the whole thing is quite bonkers.”
“It hasn’t happened very often, but the odd time, maybe three or four times, a young woman has recognised me, that I don’t know, and come up to me. And they might go ‘you’re the person from Waking the Feminists – thank you so much!’ The fact that people themselves feel like they’ve got agency out of it is brilliant. Yeah, that’s my favourite part, definitely.”
One of the most exciting projects to come out of the Waking the Feminists controversy is the documentary Them’s the Breaks. The title comes from a tweet sent by Fiach Mac Conghail in the early discussions around the Abbey programme. But director Sarah Corcoran explains that despite the punchy title, this will not be an aggressive, confrontational film: “No, I think because in order to do that we’d have to vilify somebody. Fiach would be the person who we’d probably think of because of the title, but we don’t want to do that. We do think it’s a societal problem, we do think it’s an international problem as well, so not isolated to Ireland. So we are kind of, in our interviews, trying to make people question their own bias, their own privilege, that kind of thing, but in a clever way if we can, because we don’t want to be confrontational.”
Producer Sarah Barr adds, “We have every right to be angry, 100%. But I think that for this film to be received, and not just received by people who understand the problem… we’re making it for people who are part of the movement as well, but they already get it. So we want to make it for more than just the people who already get it.”
Having travelled around the country filming and interviewing, Barr and Corcoran are ideally placed to comment on the movement as a whole. Both have noticed a change in the people they have been speaking to over the last number of months. Corcoran comments, “I think there’s definitely more of a willingness to talk now. Because the movement is so loud now, people aren’t ashamed to talk about it.” Barr agrees: “I think there’s definitely more of a confidence there, for people to say, ‘This isn’t good enough.’ Women’s stories might be a bit different but they’re just as creatively viable and just as commercially viable, there’s no proof to say otherwise. People are far more willing to say that now. I think it’s just an attitude change, which is hard to quantify, but it’s definitely there, you can feel it.’
Director of the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, Kris Nelson, agrees that Waking the Feminists has changed the conversation around gender bias in the Irish theatre scene. “I think people are talking about it, I think people are very sensitised to it. There’s an enormous amount of solidarity within the Irish scene. Waking the Feminists, the movement, the conversation around it, it’s really asked people to question things. It’s made for some uncomfortable conversations I think, and those are important. So within that solidarity, it’s okay to have a bit of dissent and a bit of dissonance. Ultimately that will help feed the sector and make the sector more equitable.”
As one of the organisations working closely with Waking the Feminists, Fringe are carefully examining their structure; “looking at where we need to calibrate the process of applying to the festival.” Nevertheless, Nelson is confident that the programme for this year is “extremely diverse” in many ways, including its gender representation. “Our 2016 festival programme includes 70 works made by 104 lead artists. 55 of these lead artists are women, 49 of them are men. Identity terms are fluid and we don’t ask for that information in our application process. We’ve counted according to our perception of the gender identities of the artists in this year’s festival. We could be wrong and we’re happy to be corrected.”
“It’s not where I would like to see it in terms of cultural diversity from the Irish contingent. As a sector we need to resource and support and identify and help diverse artists in this country make their careers.”
Singling out the Australian act Hot Brown Honey as a “super feminist show,” Nelson insists, “That’s a piece I think that we would be presenting regardless of Waking the Feminists. It’s a piece that I think is going to have a terrific resonance here. It’ll have a double resonance now because of Waking the Feminists and I’m excited for those echoes to happen. I feel like Fringe is this place where we are leading the way in a lot of ways in the Irish sector in terms of giving a platform to new voices. Now the question for the sector is where else are those artists going to have opportunities?”
With a self-imposed time limit of one year, Waking the Feminists hope to keep the momentum going at this level until a second public meeting planned for Monday 14th November, back where it all started in the Abbey. Bell says, “We said that we’d push it for a year and see how far we got. It just felt like if we put a time limit on it, our brains wouldn’t explode for a start, but also we’d put a bit of pressure on everybody else. You know, this thing had to happen now. Now we have a chance to fix it, let’s just go and fix it.”
Having spoken in the past about being a somewhat reluctant leader of the movement for gender equality, Bell is relentlessly modest and self-effacing about her own role.
“I think it’s a case of, right, we just have to do it, and now is the time. There is never going to be this moment again, this same kind of moment, so we just have to go for it. I’m exhausted, which is partly because I’m doing my other work, my real work, on the side. But it is an exceptional year, so it’s just like, right, well I’ll put my head down for the year and just go for it.”
“It’s hard to judge in what way and how much it’s changed my life or my work because I haven’t really come up for air yet. I keep saying after November I’ll just go back to my normal life, and I can see people laughing and I’m like ‘what are you talking about, of course I will!’ Ask me again in December!”
To find out more about Waking the Feminists, go to wakingthefeminists.org.
Them’s The Breaks is still in production, following on from their recent successful Fund:it campaign. You can keep an eye on its progress at themsthebreaksfilm.tumblr.com.
The Tiger Dublin Fringe kicks off next month and runs from Saturday 10th to Sunday 25th September. Check out next month’s issue of Totally Dublin for in-depth coverage.
Words: Naoise Murphy
Images: Fiona Morgan, Rosie Goan