Writer Angela Betzien (back) and director Leticia Caceres. Click for more photos

Women take centre stage

Writer Angela Betzien (back) and director Leticia Caceres. Photo: Marco Del Grande

  • Writer Angela Betzien (back) and director Leticia Caceres.
  • Playwright Lally Katz.
  • Sarah West in Rita Kalnejais's 'Babyteeth'.
  • Director Imara Savage.
  • Ddramaturg Kate Mulvany performing in her play 'The Seed', which is in feature film development.
  • Lee Lewis will direct Rick Viede's 'A Hoax' at Griffin Theatre in July and Moliere's 'The School for Wives' at the Opera House in October.

Director Leticia Caceres and playwright Angela Betzien have earned a reputation as one of the most exciting theatrical pairings in the country. Caceres's chilling production of playwright Betzien's The Dark Room sold out Belvoir's Downstairs Theatre last year and the play went on to win a Sydney Theatre Award for best new Australian work.

In August, they have a new work, Helicopter, opening at the Melbourne Theatre Company's MTC Theatre. Caceres is tipped to direct a main-stage show in Sydney next year, while Betzien writes another play for Belvoir.

I was in a bikini or in my underpants on stage so many times. It never occurred to me to ask the director if we could try something different - Rita Kalnejais. 

Their success comes at a time when the industry is questioning how its female playwrights and directors are faring. The Australia Council's recently released Women in Theatre report found that plays written by women accounted for only 21 per cent of productions mounted by the country's eight biggest theatre companies. Female directors fared only slightly better, at the helm of 25 per cent of the companies' staged work.

With those numbers in mind, there's room for pessimism, but the theatre-makers contacted by Spectrum believe the industry is undergoing systemic change and many women making their mark have creative solutions to the gender imbalance.

''Working together has really given us strength in numbers,'' Caceres says of her creative partnership with Betzien. ''It helps us get our work on and maintains momentum and advocacy. We've had excellent commissions in the youth sector and we haven't felt excluded, but we know we haven't received the same recognition as some of our male counterparts.''

Caceres says many female theatre-makers who work at the leading edge of theatre practise and use new forms that don't always fit the main stage model. ''Theatre companies need to revamp what they think theatre is so they don't keep women's theatrical language out of the mainstream,'' she says.

''I don't want to hear any more stories about white middle-age men not coping with change. It's boring now. I want to hear the stories of indigenous Australians and new Australians and stories from women. We're not going into the theatre to see a museum piece; we're going to have our souls stirred. That won't happen with the same old stories and voices. Theatre has to evolve.''

Betzien adds: ''We have to take risks on edgier work and trust that audiences will cope with more diversity. Women playwrights and directors can't get better if they don't get opportunities, so the whole problem feeds itself.''

Actor, playwright and dramaturg Kate Mulvany agrees that women need to band together to make an impact. ''I yearn to see our most respected female actors team up with our ignored female writers and directors,'' she says. ''And I don't want to see a reworked classic. We have our own stories to tell. The audiences, I believe, will lap it up.''

Mulvany is currently on tour with Bell Shakespeare's Macbeth. Her award-winning play The Seed is in feature-film development and she's working on play commissions for the MTC, Griffin Theatre and the Australian Theatre for Young People. She is also adapting Euripides' Medea for Belvoir and the ATYP, with director Anne-Louise Sarks.

Mulvany recalls an all-female play she wrote for Bell Shakespeare's Mind's Eye project. It was directed by Shannon Murphy, commissioned by Marion Potts and performed by Sandy Gore, Deborah Kennedy, Alison Bell, Hayley McElhinney, Vanessa Downing, Maggie Blinco and Judi Farr.

''It was only a reading, but the turnout was huge because it piqued people's interest,'' Mulvany says. ''They got to see those actresses they've loved for so many years take on a fresh Australian story under the care of theatre's newest female talent.

''I believe if you commission any writer to write a play for Jacki Weaver or Cate Blanchett or Judy Davis or Robyn Nevin, everyone would leap at the chance - artists and audiences alike.''

Empowerment on and off stage has been a problem in theatre for decades. For playwright Rita Kalnejais, the thought of being on stage in her underwear again led her to stop acting and start writing.

''I was in a bikini or in my underpants on stage so many times,'' Kalnejais says. ''I'm sort of stunned by it now. It never occurred to me to ask the director if we could try something different because that's how the role was written.

''I feel much more empowered as a writer,'' she says, though she admits her acting background has made it easier to talk to theatre companies about her writing. ''I still find it terrifying to talk about my ideas but I've experienced nothing but encouragement.''

Kalnejais, who is under commission at Belvoir and developing a children's show for the Sydney Theatre Company, believes male and female theatre-makers develop at different rates and that those differences should be catered for. ''Men feel that what they have to say is worthy, and that it is worthy much earlier because they have that sense of entitlement,'' she says. ''Good on them. Women take more time and they're maybe more private. It takes a different kind of courage for women to make theatre.''

Lally Katz, whose play Neighbourhood Watch played at Belvoir last year, says she has benefited from a lot of mentoring - mostly from men, she adds - and has never given her gender a thought. ''That's how it should be for women,'' she says. ''You make theatre because that's what you're passionate about, regardless of gender. But the statistics speak differently.''

Katz says the figures would improve simply by creating more slots for new writers in theatre programming. ''We have to nurture new voices,'' she says. ''The companies need to put writers and directors together and develop relationships over years. None of this has to be a war. Women just want more room.''

Almost every theatre company contacted by Spectrum say they actively monitor gender issues and have practical steps to address imbalances. Belvoir, Griffin and the STC say they consider gender balance in every programming meeting.

All three companies have women in resident-artist programs, either as writers or directors, and female playwrights under commission. None advocate quota systems or back affirmative action. Instead, the buzzword is ''mindfulness''.

The artistic director at Belvoir, Ralph Myers, says the Australia Council report is a wake-up call for vigilance.

''This report is critical because the best way to make artistic directors stay equitable in their programming is to embarrass them,'' he says. ''As difficult as that is for me on a year-to-year basis to make everything balance, I think we will look back on this period and see that something fundamentally changed. I believe we are turning the corner.''

At the STC, where there has been female leadership for more than 10 years - first with Robyn Nevin and now with co-artistic director Cate Blanchett - the gender bias favours women at the development level if not on the main stage.

Emerging female directors and playwrights are working across the company in residency programs, workshops, readings and in assistant-director roles. New directors are gaining entry-level gigs in the STC's Next Stage and Education programs and the company is making an effort to make sure those who do have a main-stage debut get a second shot.

''Professional development and creating pathways into the industry is something we talk about all the time,'' the literary manager at STC, Polly Rowe, says. ''It is true that a whole generation of women has been passed over so we can't let these issues slip. You have to keep working at development. Some artists do get fast-tracked but we think slow investment is better for a long-term career.''

Director Imara Savage is the current Richard Wherrett Fellow at the STC. She graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in 2009 just as a furore erupted over a Belvoir season in which only one main-stage production was assigned to a woman - director Lee Lewis.

''I'm not sure if it's because of that moment, or if the companies already had steps in place, but I have been incredibly supported and mentored by both men and women in the main stage companies,'' Savage says.

''At the same time, I don't deny there is inequality, but I think it's dangerous to talk about inequality in the theatre as though it's separate to the rest of society or history. These are cultural forces that have been at play forever.''

One of the more strident critics of the industry is playwright Van Badham, now developing her new play, The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars. She maintains that unless there are systems in place to monitor gender diversity, all industries will default to traditional positions that privilege men and exclude women.

''We live in a patriarchal culture and we're still imbibing constant messages about women as a homogenous generalisation rather than individuals with their own talents and experiences,'' she says.

''In an artistic sense, this becomes hugely problematic because if women are seen as homogenous, why would you have any artistic expectations of them at all? Why would you think a woman was capable of engaging in the ancient discourse of artistic practice when your whole life you've been exposed to media images of women being pretty and that their sole narrative prerogative is pursuing men?''

One thing that will never change - and that skews the statistics - is the fact that the classical canon is loaded with plays by ''dead white males'' - Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Miller, Beckett and Brecht. Even in a list of contemporary greats, women fare only slightly better among lionised writers such as Harold Pinter, David Hare, Neil LaBute, or our own David Williamson. The weight of history is against women when it comes to getting a play on stage.

According to PlayWriting Australia figures, even if you take the dead-white-male factor out of the equation and look at the number of Australian plays staged - about 15 per cent to 20 per cent of all productions - women are still under-represented. Forty per cent of Australian plays staged in 2010 were written by women; of those, only 12 per cent were performed on a main stage. The majority are performed in the independent sector or by youth companies.

The artistic director of PlayWriting Australia, Chris Mead, says a lot of playwrights are rightly angry, but things are looking up. ''It is still bizarre that the figures are so low. But everyone I talk to is working towards change. The companies do want to clean up their act but we need to look at it over a three-year period.''

Myers says women have directed about 50 per cent of productions at Belvoir in the past two years, and that the company's most successful productions have all been by female writers.

''That hasn't been due to affirmative action,'' he says. ''It just happens that I am really excited by the work of female playwrights at the moment. I feel like I don't even need to worry about gender issues because all the writers I'm desperate to produce are women.''

After the critical and box-office success of plays by Katz (Neighbourhood Watch), Kalnejais (Babyteeth), Betzien (The Dark Room) and Roslyn Oades (I'm Your Man), Myers rejects the idea that it's risky to program a new play by a woman.

''I don't think audiences care about the gender of the playwright,'' he says. ''Nor do I. It's no more or less risky than programming the work of a man.''

The artistic director at Griffin Theatre, Sam Strong, believes it's important to make programming decisions totally transparent.

''We want to debunk the myth that the real pitching goes on in the bar on opening nights,'' he says. ''That's not true. Women can get on the phone, check out the website or make an appointment to talk to us. The pathways are transparent and it's much better than trying to have a conversation in the bar.''

One of the steps taken at Griffin was to broaden the decision-making process to include the company's resident artists. ''They will be at the programming table,'' Strong says. ''This year we have five female playwrights, one female dramaturge and one female director on that committee.''

At the Ensemble Theatre, artistic director Sandra Bates says she never thinks about gender.

''My whole energy goes into what's best for the audience,'' she says. ''It's patronising to say you have to have quotas. That's saying women aren't as important as men, which is nonsense. From our point of view, it's an even playing field. I'm just not sure where these wonderful young female playwrights are. Why haven't they sent their plays to us?''

In the independent sector, women are better represented. The New Theatre in Newtown has a high ratio of women in its Spare Room season, with writers such as Melita Rowston, Katie Pollock and Elise Hearst, and directors Lucinda Gleeson and Paige Rattray.

Across town, directors such as Kim Hardwick, Kate Gaul and Cristabel Sved are taking projects to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company.

Rowe echoes what many are saying. ''It isn't just gender,'' she says. ''It's diversity in general in the theatre. Without diversity, it's just plain old discrimination.

''If theatre wants to sustain itself, it has to address this in a meaningful way.''


Women making theatre: what's on the way

Playwright Melita Rowston, director Lucinda Gleeson.
Fast-paced murder mystery collides with a high-school reunion.
New Theatre, now playing.

Playwright Alana Valentine, director Toni Main.
Coming-of-age story set in Newcastle when the Pasha Bulker ran aground.
Australian Theatre for Young People, Walsh Bay, from May 30.

Playwright Melissa Bubnic, director Anne Browning.
Disparate office workers ponder the dreams they once had.
Glen Street Theatre from July 3.

Playwright Vanessa Bates, director Shannon Murphy.
Comedy focused on two Generation X couples who seem to have everything.
Griffin Theatre from June 20.

Playwright Rick Viede, director Lee Lewis.
Inspired by "misery memoirs" that have turned out to be frauds.
Griffin Theatre from July 20.

Playwright Annie Baker, director Shannon Murphy.
The games people play in a small-town acting course.
Ensemble Theatre from August 2.

Playwright Hilary Bell, director Sarah Goodes.
A couple attempts to reconnect with their child who returns after an inexplicable disappearance.
Sydney Theatre Company from August 15.

Choreographed by Lucy Guerin.
A new dance-theatre hybrid.
Belvoir from August 25.

Playwright Jackie Smith, director Laurence Strangio.
A mother is trapped in a house with her two estranged daughters.
Glen Street Theatre from September 4.

Playwright Elise Hearst, director Paige Rattray.
When Bob finds Eva washed up on a beach it's not long before he falls in love.
Griffin Theatre from September 5.

Playwright Laura Eason, director Jocelyn Moorhouse.
An inter-generational love story played out online and in real life.
Sydney Theatre Company from September 28.

Writers Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks (director).
Adaptation of Euripides' tragedy.
Belvoir from October 11.

Adapted by Kate Box and Cristabel Sved (director).
Reworking of August Strindberg's tale of seduction and remorse.
Darlinghurst Theatre from October 17.

Playwright Moliere (translated by Justin Fleming), director Lee Lewis.
One man's misguided mission to find the perfect wife. A Bell Shakespeare production.
Opera House from October 23.

Playwright Gina Gionfriddo, director Anna Crawford.
Comedy by a former television writer for Law & Order about a blind-date that goes wrong.
Ensemble Theatre from October 25.

Created by Eamon Flack and Leah Purcell (director).
One-woman show starring Purcell, based on Ruby Langford Ginibi's memoir.
Belvoir from November 29.