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All Change Please by Lucy Kerbel

Former director, Lucy Kerbel has – commendably –  turned gender equality in the theatre industry into her life mission. First came her enlightening 100 Plays for Women. Now we have All Change Please. Both titles are published by Nick Hern Books.

Six years ago Kerbel stopped directing shows and founded Tonic Theatre, an organisation which works with theatre companies, venues and practitioners to find practical ways of granting the fifty per cent of the population who don’t have a Y chromosome the same opportunities as those who do.

Hang on a minute. Are we suggesting that the industry deliberately shuts women out? Because that just doesn’t ring true. Well of course, Kerbel reasons, it’s a lot more complex than that. One of her most interesting observations – and something I have to confess I hadn’t previously thought about – is that youth theatre of all sorts is dominated by female participants, many of them very talented and focused. So are many drama school courses. But by the time these same people are in their early twenties artistic posts – acting, lighting, sound, directing and so on – have gone to a higher proportion of males. So where have all those women gone? Mainly, Kerbel contends, into administrative work in theatres. As soon as you look at marketing, education departments, box office, front of house and the like you find far more women than men. And that allows theatre companies to claim – and indeed firmly believe – that they are committed equal opportunities employers. Kerbel, of course, wants to change that and find ways of  getting relatively equal numbers of women and men working in both artistic and management roles.

Stressing that this isn’t a how-to book she then suggests ways of changing your thinking. Set yourself small achievable goals. Read one play a month by a woman playwright, pre-dating 1950, for example. More broadly we – and a critic I’m as bad as anyone at not doing this – should accept that the traditional concept of what “good” means is no longer enough. The established classics are limiting and we need to add other sorts of plays to the mix. That means we must read them, produce them and go and see them.

On the other hand we can – and should – also think more radically about the classics and how we do them. Why does Juliet always have to be played by a petite actor? Is there any reason why she shouldn’t be size 18? Can Mercutio be played by a woman? Kerbel mentions in passing the work done at the Donmar by the company directed by Phyllida Lloyd and led by Harriet Walter. She also acknowledges that huge strides have been made even in the two years it has taken her to write the book.

Yes there’s a lot of interesting stuff here and I agree generally with the thrust of most of it. I do think, however, that she rather glosses over the key thing which most assertive feminists tend to make light of because it’s inconvenient. Biology is a stumbling block. Women and men are different – not better or worse but different. And it is always going to be harder for women in the workplace because they, and only they only, can produce and breastfeed children. And the vast majority want to do more for their offspring than take three weeks off work before dropping the newborn into the hands of carer, even if that carer is a willing and supportive partner. Although we must all do everything we possibly can to equalise opportunity that fundamental is not going to change.

Making such a point is, however, probably a no-brainer because Kerbel would almost certainly attribute it to “unconscious bias” of which she argues that we are all guilty. And perhaps she’s right.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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