PART 1: Festival Fatale – shining a light on gender parity, representation and opportunity
Emily: What has your role been in the lead up to Festival Fatale?
Lizzie: I suppose I’m more like a glorified producer of the show, because I’m Festival Director, but we’ve had an amazing selection panel that read all of the applications and put together a shortlist.
Emily: Anyone could apply to be a part of it, couldn’t they?
Lizzie: Yeah, anyone basically – obviously more open to work by women (laughs). That was kind of exciting because we kept it very open-ended. At our first WITS forum we had a lot of responses from the general public that they had wanted something like this theatre festival, and because it was sort of inspired by the community, I wanted to make sure it didn’t have too much of a single drive or focus so that people felt it was open to them and that whatever activity they were working on, it would be in line with the festival. So it’s quite a broad umbrella in its first year, which has been really good. It’s meant that we’ve got performance art, devised work, and plays.
Emily: It’s amazing! I feel like I’m bursting with excitement. When you first established Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) I was so excited.
Lizzie: That’s so great!
Emily: It’s something that I care so much about but I feel like you need people who have a degree of industry influence to get a movement going. And as quite a young creative, I look at the industry and feel sometimes that prospects for me look a bit grim – there are aspects of the industry that concern me. So to see you guys getting together and doing something about the issues is so wonderful to see. Those statistics that you released recently about gender parity in major theatre companies show that what you’re doing is working!
Lizzie: WITS has a huge support base that is very young and is just entering into the industry and that’s great. I’m just about to turn 28, so I’ve been in the industry for long enough to be not very happy with the way that some things have panned out, and I think some of that has to do with being a woman. I didn’t want to be someone who in 20 years time is watching someone else in their 20s being a voice of dissent and asking myself, ‘why didn’t I do something when I had the opportunity?’ There’s definitely an Australian quality of ‘you don’t know enough about this to step up and do something about it’. At the time when we started WITS, all of the founders were in their 20s, there was a little bit of that – and that’s fine, it’s part of it. At some point you have to be audacious enough to do something about it.
Emily: There are so many people who really appreciate the work that you’re doing.
Lizzie: You just don’t notice it do you? There’s a huge degree of apathy surrounding whether it’s an issue important enough to do something about. In the arts it’s not something we often rally or protest against.
Emily: Which is fascinating with the #istandwiththearts campaign, it’s like there’s been some sort of political upswell in the arts where people are feeling like there are issues important enough to become politically active.
Lizzie: It’s been really interesting, I did all these shows with Sport for Jove around the time that was happening, and someone would speak at the end of each show and hand out petitions. I didn’t get up and speak for the company, but watching the people who did, it’s an interesting negotiation of treading the line with the general public when introducing the arts as something that we should care about and lobby for, in terms of who we put in government. There’s pressure because none of the political parties think of the arts as an influential vote, so they don’t make any promises to us. That’s a problem because traditionally we’ve been quiet because we’re more left-leaning, so the left think we’ll stick with them and the right-wing don’t think we’ll ever change, so they don’t bother engaging with us.
Lizzie: I think it’s about creating opportunities for yourself. That seems to be the main way to get your voice out there and develop your skills. With the festival, we wanted to make sure we had a balance of emerging artists who mightn’t have had as much experience, as well as work that would get people excited because it’s coming from more established artists. There were times when we had to weigh up whether to go with the more sure-footed established artist, or the emerging artist, and we went with the emerging one – as a statement. We got 108 applications in the end and that had a lot to do with people feeling that this door was open to them and that they could actually apply. So we definitely wanted to return that in favour by saying, yes, this is an opportunity for people to try out new material, and as long as you’ve got good initiative and a great artistic integrity behind what you’re doing, we want you to know this is a welcome place for you to showcase your work. I hope other theatre companies can follow suit in that approach as well.
Emily: You talked earlier about things that have happened since graduating from drama school that you weren’t very happy with in the industry, how has your perspective of the cultural landscape in Australia since changed?
Lizzie: I think the big lesson that I learnt, was that I was aware that there was a gender divide, but the way I had gotten through life up until that point through high school and at drama school was that if you work hard enough you’ll end up getting through anyway, with that strong work ethic it will all be okay. And I had a realisation that sometimes you can feel like you’re battling up against a brick wall, and how can you get opportunities when there aren’t sufficient female roles, and there isn’t work by female writers – that door is just closed. That was a really long lesson to learn. I think it’s all about that people care enough to do something about it, because it took a long time to get over the meritocracy myth - that the best work will always be programmed. To question whether that’s really the case, and if it is, then how come again and again and again women are always underrepresented. Surely it’s not just about merit. That’s been a long lesson to learn and probably I will continue to learn.
Emily: I feel like it’s quite a unique problem for the industry, because if I was looking at a legal career for instance, hypothetically I could work really really hard and have a good career – there would still be certain barriers but with hard work a degree of success is kind of guaranteed. But I have more apprehension towards acting because I have a fear that no matter how hard I work, I may not get anywhere.
Lizzie: Yeah it is difficult. And what WITS is trying to do is put on producing workshops and bring about networking opportunities, because when you learn more about creating more opportunities for yourself, then it’s a total game-changer. I think a lot of people, and a lot of men have been able to learn that ability.
Lizzie: It would be hard for me to say that there was a core aim because it was so thrown together. It started out just being a few actors sitting around a table when the 2016 season was released, and suddenly grew to 500 women in the Seymour Centre.
Emily: What was the catalysing event?
Lizzie: People were private messaging on facebook saying we should meet up, then we created an event on facebook and so many people were coming we had to get a proper venue. Then we were going to have it at the Sport for Jove rehearsal space, then that was too small. We went to the Seymour Centre and were going to use an event area, and then we exceeded the capacity for that, so we asked to use the York Theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with that many women from the industry solely without men being in there. It was the first time that it felt like you could talk about certain things uncensored. It was a really special thing to be a part of, there was a lot of positivity and motivation in that room. People sharing and being honest about their experiences and getting excited about possibly shaking things up in the industry. One thing I definitely learnt was because it was sort of thrown together, we didn’t represent diversity well at all at that first forum and a lot of people who came to the first forum did feel alienated, that there wasn’t someone up there that spoke for them. That was a big learning curve because I suppose I’ve never been involved in the political arena for anything before, and running an advocacy group you need to be aware of what your background is and the certain privileges that you have that others don’t have. Making sure that people see themselves on the stage, it’s not enough to say that you stand for all women-
Emily: Because no one person can.
Lizzie: Exactly. It was a big wake up call for me and made me a lot more aware of intersectional feminism. I think all of us at WITS learnt that lesson very early on. Also, for me the aim at WITS has been to achieve gender parity in the industry, and it’s amazing because for us to ask to be represented equally, just to ask for equality, is controversial.
Emily: It’s laughable. Why do you think affirmative action is so frowned upon?
Lizzie: It requires more work. It requires more initiative from people to shut the door to certain artists and open the door to other artists that are more untried or have less experience.
Emily: Do you think that is the case though? Because there are lots of experienced women whose work isn’t staged.
Lizzie: There are. That was another big lesson with WITS is that actually, some women don’t need help in learning how to upskill – they’ve been doing that already the whole time, the doors just aren’t open to them. That requires people in admin in theatre companies to realise that they have been closing the doors to those people. And that takes self-reflection and accountability which is challenging. Certainly gender parity isn’t the only issue women face in the industry. Representation is a huge aspect, and that’s a much more nuanced and difficult area to pull apart. What constitutes a worthy role for a woman to play and what is two-dimensional or not worthy?
Emily: Do you think that would improve with more female playwrights’ works being staged?
Lizzie: Definitely. It’s not a fight that I’m not fighting, but at this stage I’m still learning how to be an advocate for a community, and I feel that gender parity is a good place to start because it’s a no-brainer.
Emily: And you’re doing a great job! [WITS released statistics in September 2016 regarding gender parity in Sydney Theatre mainstage seasons for 2017, with wonderful results.]
Lizzie: I hope we can tackle representation mindfully and powerfully in the future. But I think there is a flow-on effect when parity improves, so will representation. In terms of how WITS has evolved already, we started out as more of a finger-pointing group. And this is very good, but we’ve wanted to start changing the conversation so that instead of pointing the finger at the people who aren’t doing anything, we want to celebrate the people who are doing something. That’s been a real focus for us this year, showing that we’re willing to make positive changes ourselves to create opportunity for women.
Find out more and buy tickets for Festival Fatale here, and celebrate unapologetic and bold theatre created by Australian women for everyone. It's on 29-30 October at the Eternity Playhouse, 39 Burton Street, Darlinghurst.