Australian Women Theatre Directors
© Donna Benjamin, 1994
The Art of Invisible Leadership
Australia's women theatre directors are apparently invisible. Apart from a handful of articles talking about the merits of particular director there are no published studies of the work of these women. Their achievements are not however invisible. Gale Edwards is one woman who has directed some very high profile work and has won some space in the published press for doing so.
Directing theatre is an act of invisibility. It is about creating something that can never be touched. Some people believe, that at its best, direction can not even be sensed. Theatre, by its nature, is a public event and is in very many ways a form of visual art, visible art. Over the centuries many have questioned whether indeed the dramatic form is art, but today it is a generally accepted premise. Today indeed, the theatre is often said to be held in the director's hands. It is the age of the director's theatre. Ironically this is hard to believe when attempting to study the work of women in Australia who tackle this task.
A play is measured in many ways. Usually by its script, that is, the work of the playwright. It is also measured by the work of the performers and by the visual reality created by the set designer. It is also measured by the number of people in the audience. However, only when all this fails is its direction particularly noticed.
Indeed, it is the role of directors to make themselves invisible. The task is most often one of illuminating the meanings offered by the playwright. A director might do this by stitching together the seams of the scenes into a careful and flowing narrative or by emphasising the structure of the work. Directors focus the attention of the audience onto the performers, and thereby into the fabric of the play. The performers deliver the play, by voicing the words, and giving life to the action. They do so by inflecting these things with nuance and feeling. The set designer offers the audience the frame for this action, the setting and visual guides which add to the world the playwright conceived. Lighting and sound equally add layers to this careful creation. The unseen worker who pulls the garment together is the director. When the curtain goes up, and the final creation is realised and no longer fragmentary, this person has all but disappeared and is now perhaps nothing more than a name in a program.
The directors' work is invisible to the audience because it is largely finished before they enter the auditorium. The play is dissected, analysed, pulled apart and broken down. Once compartmentalised, the director invites the other creative agents of the process to add their own embroidery. Each performer is given the opportunity to explore the character they must present to the audience. Invited to see their characters' roles within the structure of the play, performers usually begin to see the whole only from the perspective of their individual parts. In some cases they do not see the work of the performers with whom they don't share scenes until the final stages of rehearsal (Dame Edith Evans, in her younger years, when performing the role of Lady Macbeth was heard to ask `How does it end?'). Each scene is styled and crafted individually as though it were a single panel in a complex garment. The director holds the pattern and finally brings all the pieces and panels together after a process of piecemeal detailed work. Pulling the whole together in the very last stages of the process, directors complete the garment. It is not complete however until put on display, taken out of its box and worn by the model down the catwalk. By that stage, the director's job is over and it is the stage manager who delivers the final product to the audience.
The prime responsibility of the director is to deliver to the audience the work of the playwright: `The play's the thing', which is the object of the entire theatrical project. The director, if nothing else, must render it presentable to an audience. How directors go about doing this varies widely but presenting a vision of the narrative, or focus of the writer's work, and lifting it from the printed page is their prime task. A good production hides the arduous work of ensuring a play's continuity and integration into a whole and finished product. As this is the prime responsibility of the director's task it is, by its very nature invisible. What must be finally visible is the playwright's work, and the bulk of the director's work goes toward ensuring that very thing. Even in the case of Australia's most performed playwright, William Shakespeare, it is still his play that is billed, no matter what the directorial interpretation may be. Classics, however, perhaps offer directors the best opportunity to visibly present their own work in the process of play production.
The final aspect of the invisibility of directors lies in the inherent professionalism of the role. Often, it is only other theatre workers who are able to appreciate the work of a director from seeing the performance alone. The final production of a play is not the place where an uninformed audience member would learn much of the direction. Predominantly it is the work of the performers and the set designer upon which they make comment. A theatre professional is more likely to appreciate the work which has been done by the director. For an audience, the director is in fact invisible.
Theatre critics, it would seem, do not feel that the work of the director is worthy of much comment either. It is often left to the last paragraphs of a review before the director's name is mentioned. This perhaps could be due to the reviewer's lack of understanding of the director's role; however, this is unlikely. More likely it is attributable to a perception that discussing direction is not a review's main purpose. It does not interest the readers, and hence does not interest the audience. Also possible, is that as it appears to be a minor consideration in critics' reviews of theatre, and is often left to the final paragraphs, print sub-editors, reliant on the space requirements of the publication, sometimes trim these very paragraphs, leaving a review bereft of any comment on direction at all. Theatre reviewers often reveal the plot or story of a play in their writing, especially if it is new work. This then takes up a large part of the article, which once fleshed out with comments on the work of the performers, the designer and the technical considerations, leaves little room for complex analysis of the director's part in the process. In reviewing classics, writers are more inclined to discuss the director's touch on the play and discuss its form rather than its content. This is largely due to the fact that in these cases the content is already known to many potential audience members. This is another factor which leads to the invisibility of directors and women in particular. Women, on the whole, are less likely to direct classics on our main-stages, than are men. Often they work with new plays. Reviewers review the plays women direct, but not, on the whole, their work, further submerging their visibility.
Peta Tait's new important work on feminism in Australian theatre, entitled Converging Realities, highlights the invisibility of directing. Although the index points the reader to discussion of playwrights, it has no entry for directors. Unless readers are aware of who Australia's women theatre directors are, and know the names of such fine directors as Gale Edwards, Ros Horin, Kerry Dwyer or Lois Ellis, they could be forgiven for thinking that directors were not discussed in the book at all. Female producers, playwrights, critics, audiences, theatre companies and even theatre spaces have sections of the book devoted to their discussion. Directing, as an art, is not discussed in any detail. Perhaps direction by Australian women is so powerfully invisible that Tait is unaware of their contribution.
Dealing with Feminism
Peta Tait states that directing is a non-traditional occupation for women in theatre. British author, Michelene Wandor, discusses some of the difficulties faced by women directors in her work Carry On Understudies. Authority and leadership have been seen as male characteristics. Women have been conditioned to be nurturers and not leaders. A director holds `more reins within the production process itself than anyone else.' (Wandor p109) A director is responsible for the artistic vision and coherence of the production. It is a role which is inherently powerful. A director is a leader and society has been slow to see women as natural leaders, or holders of authority. Wandor argues that women directors fight not only against the difficulties of attempting non-traditional work, but against the fabric of their own social conditioning. In reality, directing is a task which requires qualities that are usually associated with both masculine and feminine modes of behaviour. Wandor says `the traditional notion of the male artist allows him to combine the two extremes of `hard' and `soft' qualities, but it has been less easy for women to do so, since female artistic authority is rarely seen in public.' (p109)
This lack of a visible female artistic authority leads many women working as directors to feel isolated. British director, Clare Venables, is quoted by Wandor as saying that `most directors don't know how other directors work. It is a very private activity carried on only in front of the actors.' (p109) It is this sense of isolation that led to the creation of the Australian Women Director's Association: a group committed, amongst other things, to raising the visibility of women directors. In doing so they hope to achieve greater equity in employment. As outlined in the minutes of the group's meeting on January 14 this year: AWDA's mission statement is to work for equal work opportunities for women directors, through lobbying, educating, networking. AWDA is only what activities, ideas, structures its members instigate. Please let prospective new members know this - not to do the passive thing of sitting back and saying AWDA is something determined. It's not! It is only a legal and social frame for members to act toward better futures for themselves and other new directors, to meet others who are sympathetic to or share similar needs and experiences, and who might wish to work on a project with you - activities such as the directory or forums, oriented in any way toward our mission statement. It is not a group proscriptive of an kind of homogeneity. It's a group to protest the right for a diverse presence. When you are interviewed, remember to say you are a member of the Australian Women Directors Association.
AWDA was formed in October 1992. It came about after the administrators of the Ewa Czajor Memorial Award found that many of the applicants for the award felt isolated within the community. The Victorian Women's Trust, who organise the giving of the Award, held a meeting, at which some forty women gathered. Among them were Kim Durban, Louise Permezel, Andrea Lemon and many more who hold impressive resumes which show they are highly experienced. These women have proved themselves over the last decade. They would all like to be working on more than one production a year. (Trengrove, `Glass Ceiling')
Artistic directors are seen as great holders of power in the Australian theatre industry. They are in a position to select what plays will be produced, and to employ the directors who will do so. Wandor, writing about the director's role, suggests it as having been crucial to the development of Avant Garde theatre. She assigns the growth of British theatre since the 1950s and 1960s to the initiatives of directors working in theatres such as the Theatre Royal and The Royal Court. `Directors who have secure jobs as directors have a great deal of power.' (Wandor p109) In Australia, to have a secure job as a director would largely mean being the artistic director of a theatre company or at the very least, an associate.
The limited number of women directing main stage theatre in this country leads to the question as to why this may be the case. Opinion is divided over whether gender makes a difference to the actualities of directing. Pamela Payne and Liz Jones both wish to promote the work of female playwrights. Payne was director of Playworks, an organisation based in Sydney, which encourages the development of more scripts by women. The workshop was formed in 1985 by a group of female performers and directors with the idea that if women were encouraged to write scripts then this might lead to greater employment opportunities for female performers and directors. Jones, La Mama's artistic Director, believes that there are good directors and bad directors and that is irrespective of gender. One of my priorities though has been to encourage women directors and I think its because I have felt that up until recently almost all the major theatre companies' artistic directors were men and if you actually looked at it very few women were breaking through past fringe direction, and even there weren't actually even all that many women directors working on the fringe. I mean if you look at La Mama in the early days 1967 to 1974, there were no Australian women playwrights working at La Mama but there weren't any Australian women directors working at La Mama either. One of the first women to work here as a director was Sue Neville and she directed the play that was the second Australian woman's play that was on here. One of the reasons that I felt that women needed more encouragement to work as directors as well as giving them a go was that I felt that there was a likelihood that they would actually listen more intently to the female voice of the writer and that would assist women writers in breaking through too. I think especially if the concerns of the play are very female or its a one woman play often you find women there are definitely women who want to work with another woman in those terms. There are other women who want to work with a man but I think all the time its very important to keep those options open.
Susan Pilbeam, a Melbourne director who has completed a Master's thesis on women directors said to Kim Trengove that men make their mark by taking a well-known classic and doing something radically different with it. Trengove quotes Lisa Dombrowski, another Melbourne theatre director as having said : There are more kudos if you do a classic because you don't have to compete with the writer for credit. Usually they're dead. With a classic, you don't have to spend weeks getting the play into shape; you just have to make your mark on it. Women break their backs nurturing new works and a lot of it is voluntary. Men aren't as interested in that sort of work.' (Trengove `Glass Ceiling') This is not strictly true. Directors such as Neil Armfield and Aubrey Mellor are known for their work with new plays. However, she has picked up a general trend that women work more often with new material than with classics, this is certainly the case in main stage theatre companies.
There are many different accounts published which outline the main distinctions between various feminisms (see Jagger, Case, Dolan). Gayle Austin also summarises the main forms of feminism. Peta Tait says however that it `is impossible to reapply simplistically these political positions to the work of women practitioners in Australian theatre.' (Converging Realities p9)
American author of Feminist Theories for Dramatic Criticism, Gayle Austin, sensitively discusses the numerous positions within feminism. She cautions us, however, not to make categories too important. `In compensating for a past in which political biases were generally not clearly expressed and therefore `invisible,' there is a danger of creating a present in which political lines are too clearly drawn.' (p4)
British playwright and theorist, Michelene Wandor, outlines three main forms of political feminism in her book Carry on Understudies. She discusses bourgeois feminism, socialist feminism and radical feminism. She clearly places herself as a socialist feminist, and her bias is evident when she discusses the other two forms. It is important to qualify a critique of her analysis by saying that her book is now eight years old, and the post-modern embrace of the validity of positions belonging to `other' groups, has swept through feminism just as it has through many forms of theory. It is also probable that Wandor herself may feel differently. Since she wrote that book, the socialist countries have been completely reformed and many socialists have re-evaluated their positions.
Wandor's analysis of bourgeois feminism has always irked me: she ends her discussion with the words, `Not to be recommended.' (p136) In the Australian context, `liberal feminism' is more often used to describe this branch, and refers to a small `l' liberal democratic ideal, rather than to the principles held by the Liberal Party. Australian feminists have now begun to voice clearly the differences they perceive themselves to have to those from Europe and America. In Australia, liberal feminism has made great inroads into changing our society. The Women's Electoral Lobby was partly responsible for the changes in legislation we have seen over the past twenty years. Equal Pay, Anti-discrimination laws, Anti-sexual harassment laws, and equal opportunity legislation are all a result of the actions of Australia's liberal feminists. Women such as Beatrice Faust, who has just published a pamphlet called Backlash? Balderdash!: Where feminism has gone right are now showing how the Australian context contrasts with overseas situations.
Wandor accuses `bourgeois' feminism of being individualistic, and `radical' feminism of having little or no concern for class issues. Her analysis does not apply to the Australian feminist context today. In Australia, a majority of those in the feminist movement have been left-wing. However, deep in the socialist movement's history, is the much touted Harvester Wage Case in 1907. (see Hagan p17) This has been hailed as a watershed event, enshrining the concept of a living wage. What it also enshrined, and is given less credit for having done so, was the concept of a different wage for men and women.
The Australian Women Directors Association is founded on a principle of gaining greater equity for women directors. Directing is a position of power. Equity is a liberal democratic ideal. AWDA can be seen to hold a liberal feminist stance, although this is something with which all it's individual members may not agree.
Part of the motivation of this study was to explore the idea that more women directors working in Australian theatre may lead to significant change and greater employment for women in theatre generally. More female directors may lead to the production of more texts written by women, which in turn could lead to a greater variety of roles for female performers. Liz Jones has indicated that at La Mama, when she gathered together a group of women directors and gave them scripts to consider for production, half of them chose scripts written by women and the other half chose scripts that were written by men. Her intention in gathering together this group of women directors was to attempt to give women playwrights greater opportunities at having their plays produced. During her Artistic Directorship, Liz Jones has seen La Mama move from a company producing scripts almost invariably written and directed by men, to one that reflects the gender balance of the population. Roughly fifty percent of La Mama's directors are women, as is the case with the playwrights that have their work produced there. In some years, more of the directors have been women. She stated that this was not necessarily an intention, but just the way it worked out. This is a positive indication that the Australian Theatre industry is undergoing change. La Mama is a training ground for directors and playwrights alike. In fact, Australia's most prominent playwright, David Williamson, had his early work premiered there as did Louis Nowra and Tess Lyssiotis.
If Peta Tait ignored the work of women directors in Converging Realities, she certainly did not in an earlier study titled Women Behind Scenes.
This is a study of women working outside of performance behind the scenes in theatre. It includes all fields of work for women such as the jobs of technician or director. It does not include catering and cleaning staff employed by the venue although it recognises that in smaller venues these functions often overlap. Women's work behind the scenes in theatre has traditionally been associated with areas such as wardrobe and box office which conform to the traditional social roles of women. (p7)
It is evident from this research that the work of women directors is particularly problematic, confirming the insidious way that women's behaviour is judged. If women are still expected to demonstrate traditional gender-defined qualities, it is probable that women directors would encounter the most difficulty gaining acceptance because they confront these attitudes when they take control of decision making. A director openly interacts with others in ways which challenge the auxiliary or complementary status usually attributed to women. Women directors believe they are judged as a category of women, while their male counterparts are accepted as individuals. If they want to succeed, women directors explain that they must carefully monitor their behaviour to appear to be within the parameters of acceptable behaviours for women. Paradoxically, some women also recognise that the male dominance of directing means in order to gain acceptance they must simultaneously adhere to pre-existing patterns of work established by men. (p5)
Rosemary Neill, Sydney theatre reviewer for The Australian in an article called `Men Still Call The Shots' called Peta Tait's report Women Behind Scenes `a ground breaking study.' (Fri 14/5 1993) Indeed it is, uncovering data which shows that in the Australian theatre, equal opportunity and equal pay legislation has still not made enough difference. Tait's most recent work, Converging Realities, is also ground-breaking. It is the first book of its kind to be published in Australia. The first full length study that examines the work of Australian women theatre practitioners and feminism in general. Unfortunately, it is also flawed in some ways. For this study, the most disappointing omission is the lack of any discussion of directing. This is interesting, as it is Tait herself who raises directing as the most problematic area for women in theatre in this country, and yet when it comes to her own book, she perpetuates their invisibility.
Directing a theatre production is an exercise in managing an artistic project. While it is a collaborative exercise, directors are responsible for making choices and decisions. It is the overall eye and guidance that directors have over a production that lends them their invisibility. Ultimately it is the work of the other creative artists that is visible. But it is the director who has designed the place where that work can be seen. The lighting designer, composer, costume and set designer, the performers, the writer, the publicist, and even the lighting, sound technicians and stage manager, to varying degrees are all able to have their work recognised by an astute audience. The director's role is hidden. It takes place before the play is presented to an audience. The director creates a space where the artists all collaborate to present a final multi-dimensional product.
Working with the performers, the director will refine and enhance the creativity they have to offer to the presentation of the writer's work. This is assuming that there is a writer, as there is a good percentage of theatre where this is not the case. However, assuming that there is indeed a script, a director will find ways in which to render it meaningful or distort the meanings that are suggested within the words. Behind the words, or framing the words, is a whole world or sensibility which also must be created. The director will work with the visual and aural artists to define and render that world visible and meaningful.
It is not possible to go into detail on every aspect of a director's role here. However, three of the main functions a director has control over are dramaturgy, casting and leadership. Part of the difficulty in defining the role of the director lies in the fact that the role means many things to different people. Directing a piece of theatre is different for everyone who does it. British director William Gaskill believes that directors quest to create something that has already existed in the mind of the writer. He says they do not create something new (A Sense of Direction p140). Kim Durban, however, sees a play script as a map. She speaks with an assumption that the director's work is creative.
The director often performs a dramaturgical role on the script. Although dramaturges are often employed in addition to directors, from Liz Jones' perspective dramaturgy is one of a director's most important functions. It is especially important in the case of a new work, for which the script is still untested and untried. Dramaturgy involves working with the writer in the case of a new play, or researching the background and existing criticism of a classic. This part of the process involves illuminating the text. In some ways it is preparatory work undertaken before rehearsals, yet it also takes place during the rehearsal process. This is, as Liz Jones says, a vital role, but it is an invisible one. This task is very rarely, if ever, appreciated by the audience. At La Mama, says Jones, this is the first role of the director because the plays being performed there are having their first productions. She sees that this task for directors lies chiefly in their relationships with writers.
Jones says that directors must feel passionate about the scripts they choose to direct; that they must have a belief in the work. In her role as artistic director of La Mama she states that she is always on the look out for directors that can work sensitively with writers. She mentions Aubrey Mellor as an example of such a director and suggests he rose to his position of artistic director at Playbox because of his abilities with working with the likes of David Williamson. Kim Durban also cites Mellor as having this quality suggesting that his relationship with Hannie Rayson, the playwright of Falling From Grace, was very good. To the playwright, every word is precious, but for the production of the script this may not be the case. `The process of dispensing with words, or changing things is a delicate process and the writer really does have to be involved in that all along.' (Jones, personal interview)
Kim Durban speaks of an incident when this was brought home to her all too clearly. Due to a misunderstanding with the writer of a work she was directing, she believed the playwright was not interested in being involved in the process at all and so did not contact her about the changes she felt to be necessary. Jones says `writers get terribly angry if they come along on opening night and discover that the ending's been changed or a big slab's been dropped out or whatever, and so that dramaturgical role is vital.' (personal interview)
Durban's unfortunate experience with that particular writer cautioned her against making changes to a script without the writer's involvement. Once when working on one of Chris Dickins' plays for St Martins, she states that she had been nervous to take up his offer to do with it what she wished. He had told her to do whatever she wanted with the script, because she had previously worked on another of his plays. `You become so vulnerable as the director dealing with a new work if you're not getting the assistance for the development of it.' (Durban, personal interview)
Jones carefully notes, however, that the ability to work well with a writer is not a talent inherent in either gender. Some directors work well with writers and others are best at working with plays written by someone in a remote time or place.
Casting is another prime concern for directors. Sue Rider, the artistic director of La Boite theatre company in Brisbane, speaks of casting at some length. Her most recent example was in casting Deborah Mailman, an Aboriginal woman, in the role of Kate in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Rider explained that she had a small cast, and intentionally cast the play across traditional gender and race lines. In pre-production, she was told that rural Queensland was too conservative to accept a `black' Kate. Rider went ahead nevertheless and cast Mailman. She proved that casting as she had brought people to the theatre, when the production was on tour, that may not otherwise have ventured in. She was careful to point out that Mailman had been chosen for the part because of her talent, that this was `colour-blind' casting rather than an attempt to shock, or be `politically correct.' Nevertheless, her choice gave the production a greater scope of attraction for audiences when it toured.
Kim Durban believes that directors are responsible for bad casting. In saying this she was referring to the practice some theatre reviewers have of picking on one member of the cast, and devoting the critique to that. This discussion came in response to a question about the lack of comment on the part of reviewers in relation to direction and directors. She says `we are overlooked because we're not visible. There are very few directors in Australia who people know by sight.' (Durban, personal interview)
Durban finds the lack of comment on direction by reviewers as incredibly insulting. She states that the supposition in those reviews is that the actors did it themselves, and that directors merely tell them where to stand. When a paragraph on direction is written, invariably it discusses how well a particular physical problem was handled. Durban proposes that directors are not mentioned by reviewers because perhaps they do not know what directors do. Whatever the reasons, this is one of the key factors leading to the invisibility of directors. More insightful comment on the direction of productions reviewed in this country could lead to an increase in the visibility of directors of theatre in general.
Liz Jones believes that a good cast will aid the dramaturgical process, and so a director's ability to make skillful cast selection is a valuable asset. She says that good actors will sit with the director, raise problems with the play, talk around the play and discuss its structure. All this takes place in the early stages of the rehearsal process. The director is then able to take this feedback to the writer, who can utilise it in a re-draft. Casting is a major consideration for directors, but ultimately they are leaders. According to Jones, at La Mama the director is responsible for everything. `The director is the bottom line constantly.' (personal interview)
She adds that as well as this responsibility, directors must also have excellent interpersonal skills, because invariably there will be differences amongst the cast. Conflict resolution, is something else at which directors need to be accomplished. However, when the women I spoke with mentioned control, without exception they would qualify the term ensuring that it is not understood to mean tyranny.
Liz Jones thinks that a really great director has `a vision splendid.' A unifying vision and concept of the whole. She suggests that it is because of this unifying intent that Barry Kosky has been so successful. She is referring to his recent appointment as artistic director of the Adelaide Festival, before his thirtieth birthday. She says however that she does not like all of his work, as sometimes the vision misses its aim.
Sue Rider believes that a successful production is one which is electrifying. She believes that it must be spiritually, emotionally, visually and intellectually stimulating for the people who see it, the audience. She mentions that of course good reviews and box office are also measures of success, but her ideal is to create something that tests the complacency of the norm. She sees in herself a move away from an autocratic style of directing in her younger years, to one where she is more focused on an ensemble approach. She says she has learnt to trust the contribution performers give to the process and has found working that way to be much more fruitful.
Rider believes that `a director has to create an environment where creative artists can be creative.' Directors need to be clear and flexible about their vision. Playing with options is very important, and flexibility means being open to change or accommodating the new. Ultimately however, she says a director needs to be decisive, needs to be able to say `yes, that will work,' and those final decisions have to come from one person. On the journey to that point there is a lot of negotiation and give and take between the director and the other creative artists. Some of the things we've achieved are that the final result is much greater than the sum of the individual parts and we've all felt that and fed into each other and have seen the thing rising up in our hands and it's very exciting, very thrilling at the end of it' (personal interview) When asked if she perceived there to be a difference in the direction of men and women, Rider mused that a while ago she would have said that there was. She said in my experience it tended to be male directors who were more authoritative in their direction. They tended, perhaps, to feel a bit insecure when people suggested things to them. But that hasn't always been so and I think it's wrong to make generalisations like that. (personal interview)
Vanessa Pigram, who recently was in charge of the Melbourne Fringe Festival's Swanston Walk project, speaks of her own directing style as collaborative. She says she likes to work with performers who not only take direction but contribute to the process; performers who ask intelligent questions, who wrangle with ideas and pose alternatives. It's almost like team management for me, it's certainly not about ruling with an iron fist it's about listening to what other people have to offer [yet] always keeping the original vision and end goal [in mind]. (personal interview)
Although Jones believes the `vision splendid' to be the mark of a great director she also believes that a good director does not try to make everyone conform. She sees that as limiting and as an exercise in control. She says `A good director has a vision which liberates everyone and everything in the production'. Directors need to be strong, decisive and have the ability to wear responsibility, and so they are often dominant personalities but, Jones asserts, they must be able to liberate `all the talents and all that they have at their disposal all the time rather than trying to control it.'
There is, nevertheless, a great discrepancy between the feeling that the work of directors should be intangible, and a desire that they ought to be more visible and therefore recognised for the role they play in the theatre making process. What is perfectly clear and understood by all these women is their responsibility for the end product. Perhaps invisibility is a back handed compliment to the quality of their work.
Ros Horin, who is now the artistic director of Sydney's Nimrod theatre, in an article called `Women's theatre in Sydney' wrote: Let's pause for a moment to consider the rather central question, what is women's theatre? Is it to do with content, form, or simply the key personnel involved? Is it synonymous with feminist theatre? Chris Westwood believes `Women's theatre in any other part of the world is ipso facto feminist theatre. Here however it just means that there are more women involved than men.' (p142) Personally, I find Chris Westwood's view very exciting. If this is indeed the definition of women's theatre then, by definition, most Australian theatre is women's theatre. Richard Fotheringham's analysis of funding formulae takes on a new dimension within this definition of women's theatre. The world of the subsidised arts, where more for some inevitably means less for others, is an intensely jealous one, where words like `standards' and `professionalism' have been hurrah terms guarded by the mainstream companies and words like `community' and `amateur' were boo terms used to denigrate the rest. In Australian society generally the larger companies have, through their high media profile and subscription advertising, created a false impression that they represent the bulk or the best of theatre in Australia. (p26)
The Melbourne Theatre Company's fortieth anniversary season contained nine plays, eight of which were directed by men. In the prior season only one of seven dramas produced was directed by a woman. Similarly, the 1993 Melbourne Playbox theatre company's season included seven plays on the main stage. One of which was directed by a woman. Significantly, Playbox's management points out that most male and female playwrights request that a man direct their plays. This highlights how deeply ingrained is the view that women are intrinsically less capable directors than men. (Neill, `Opinion')
Susan Pilbeam, found that dating back to 1969 the Melbourne Theatre company had employed women directors 21 times, 16 of those since 1988 when Roger Hodgeman took over as artistic director.
Most amateur, community, regional, and youth theatres have more women involved in them than men. Mainstream theatre is the only area where this is not the case. And therefore the hurrah words and subsequent funding privileges have gone to the boys and the boo words and subsequent lack of funding privileges have gone to the girls. Thankfully this is changing. The Australia Council's Training Artistic Directors program was open to men and women. It was mostly women who applied and received the grant. Kim Durban is at Playbox with the assistance of this scheme and Robyn Nevin is at the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Fotheringham goes on to suggest that the above analysis is a little superficial and deepens his argument by saying that the new companies have black actors; migrant actors with their own accents; actors who are deaf and otherwise disabled; actors who want to analyse the ethics, politics and educational values of what they perform; actors who must learn to cope physically and psychologically with informal performance situations with imperfect facilities. (p26) It would not be going too far to propose that all of the above have often been women. All of which is potentially threatening to, in Fotheringham's terms, the `orthodox theatre professional'.
Peta Tait, in her book Original Women's Theatre examines `women's theatre as opposed to `feminist' theatre as well as the notion of women as personnel. Her major study on women behind the scenes shows that women are found in fifty percent of behind the scenes theatre work in Sydney and Melbourne. It has been stated elsewhere that women often make up more than fifty percent of employees in theatres which are less prestigious.
Affirmative Action is one of those tiresome concepts which arouses much conflict in the hearts and minds of men and women. It is often argued that it is an anti meritorious form of action. Alternatively, it is condemned as `positive discrimination'. In reality, it is a weapon which forces decision makers to think `well, is there a woman who can do the job?' It asks them to think about considering her application seriously, or trying to find her if she hasn't applied. It is often argued that `it is always the best person who gets the job' when Affirmative Action is raised as a means of addressing gender inequity. Michelene Wandor suggests that this answer `inevitably defends a status quo which refuses to question the reasons for male dominance in the theatre.' (Carry on Understudies p110)
Jim Della-Giacoma in an article called `Right Direction for leading ladies' stated that not all women agree with Affirmative Action policies. He spoke with director Melissa Bruce, who has been getting considerable work with the main stage theatre companies. He says that Bruce shuns labels such as `woman' or `young' director. `So long as you label us you are perpetuating the very thing we are trying to make the norm,' Bruce says. `I say it's just tough for artists. It's tough for everyone in a recession.' (p10)
In 1993, playwright Louis Nowra at the National Press Conference, attacked the Australia Council's policy of Affirmative action claiming the funding body's `politically correct' policies had placed him and several theatre companies under pressure to hire female directors. The council denied his claims that they instruct companies about whom they should hire. His attack generated considerable debate in the industry. (Neill, `Opinion') As numerous references to it in the press can testify.
Feminist theory is only beginning to address the issues that women themselves should take responsibility for assuming positions of power. Naomi Wolf, in her book Fire with Fire , speaks of victim feminism as opposed to power feminism. She asserts that women who subscribe to power feminism are taking responsibility for their situations rather than seeing themselves as victims at the mercy of external influences. Wolf also suggests that men get more because they ask for more. When AWDA first met, guest speaker Jill Smith, the administrator of Playbox Theatre, said men got more work because they had no qualms about bowling into her office and saying, `Here I am, this is what I've done. I'm going to make my mark on things.' Women wait to be recommended. (Trengove `glass ceiling')
Claire Dobbin, when interviewed by Hilary Glow about her involvement with women's theatre and the Australian Performing Group, touches on these ideas. Dobbin responds to a question about how the critics received Betty Can Jump by saying: First of all we were terrified of the critics. You want them to understand your work although you usually despise what they write. All the critics were men. The men at the Pram Factory used to talk to critics after the openings, standing around drinking, and the women didn't - we could have but we didn't. I suppose it was just that we weren't part of that easy camaraderie they seemed to have. We banned critics from our first shows because we felt they wouldn't understand them. ( Meanjin 1984 pp134-5) Dobbin also talks about the fact that women often didn't come forward and initiate ideas until after the Betty Can Jump project. It gave all the women involved lessons in assertiveness. As stated earlier, affirmative action can serve to uncover the reasons why women don't apply for certain positions. Uncovering those reasons can assist women just as Betty Can Jump gave the women at the Pram Factory more reason to speak up.
Kim Durban has stated that she stopped hiding in the toilets at theatrical intervals and started talking to people; other theatre workers and critics. People now ask her why she knows so much about what people are doing in the industry. She merely answers `I ask them'. This anecdotal material reflects Wolf's argument that by taking more assertive responsibility for their situation, women may in fact find themselves better off. Perhaps if women begin to assert that most theatre is women's theatre and is grossly under funded compared with men's or mainstream theatre, then things might change. Chris Westwood's view might appear to present Australia's theatre practice, in relation to women, as politically naive. It seems to suggest that in the `here' of which she speaks, the wider consequence of examining a feminist framework is largely ignored. I prefer to see it as a wildly radical celebration of what is indeed possible in Australia.
The goal of the Australian Women Directors' Association is to act as an advocacy body that can lobby policy makers and potential employers. They also hope to raise public awareness about women's roles in the arts and to run forums and create publications. AWDA is an organisation that is fighting fire with fire. They are standing up to be counted and demanding recognition from the industry and the public for the work of Australia's women directors. Women's equity with men at all levels of the industry is what will assure them that it is not their gender which hinders their progress. Invisibility is not good enough.
a breeze is blowing
This study was based mostly on personal interviews. This is predominantly due to the limited materials available on Australia's women directors. The work of Peta Tait, and a handful of newspaper articles are really the only published indications of the existence of such a group of people. The MLA bibliographic database as well as the APAIS database have no category for looking up women directors. In fact in APAIS, when I entered that search requirement, no references were suggested. This was frustrating as I was aware that articles existed but such is the invisibility of the woman theatre director that I was not able to locate what had been written about them. A good proportion of the articles I have cited came to me through the hands of women I spoke to, not through normal research methods. Gale Edwards, according to the database has had four articles written about her. Kim Durban has had one, as has Ariette Taylor. Some time ago I read an article about Mary Hickson, but was unable to locate it for this study.
The overwhelming sense that this small study gives is that the Australian theatre industry is in a state of flux. The opinions are too contradictory to come up with any steadfast conclusions about women directors. One of the motivations for this study was to examine the concept that more women directors on our stages would lead to greater employment opportunities for women generally in the theatre industry. A greater number of women having control over artistic decision making, that is directing or running theatre companies may lead to an increase in the number of plays being produced that were written by women. In turn, I am assuming that were more female writer's works being produced there may be a greater rise in roles for female performers. This may not be the case, but it is my suspicion that it is true.
Certainly over the last ten years there has been a significant increase in theatre productions directed by women, and according to Geoffrey Milne's research there has been an increase in the number of plays produced that have been written by women. His examination of The Australian in 1973, 1983 and 1993, shows a marked increase in the Australian content of theatre produced in this country which is reviewed in our daily national newspaper. In 1973, Australian plays comprised 40% of those reviewed. Three of the 54 plays were written by women. In 1983, the number of Australian productions reviewed in the paper had increased to 97, (43% of the total), and works by women overall, not just Australians, now comprised 17% of the total of plays reviewed. Writers such as Dorothy Hewett, Alma De Groen, Pamela van Hamstel and Jennifer Claire represented Australia. In 1993, Australian content comprised 49.5% of the total. Showing an overall rise over the 20 year period. In that year, 26% of the total number of reviews were for plays that were written by women. That is a jump from 5% in 1973. Katherine Thomson and Mary Morris were `fortunate' enough to have their work reviewed in the national paper that year.
As to the correlation of these two things, it is impossible to say, but it is possible to conjecture that the increase is due to the growing prominence of women in our theatre industry. Australian women, throughout society are becoming more prominent. They have enjoyed greater legislative victories than their sisters in most other countries. However, in theatre this is still hard to see. It would seem from this study that women see directing as a collaborative and creative task. They see themselves as responsible for the end product and ensuring the collaborative harmony of the team. Change is slow and frustrating. The cry from women directors is for greater equity. I believe their cry will be met, for in the Australian theatre industry a breeze is blowing...
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This dissertation was written by Donna Benjamin as the key requirement of an Honours Degree in Theatre and Drama at La Trobe University in 1994.