Earlier this year, The National Theatre stated its commitment to achieving gender equality with respect to the directors and living writers the venue employs by 2021. But according to Tonic Theatre’s research study into the 179 theatres in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio, UK theatres are slow to join the campaign for change. The report revealed that as late as 2014, only 38% of directors, 37% of performers and 8% of writers were female.
In light of such statistics, the importance of the Women@RADA scheme is obvious and the strategic pursuit of its key aim – to facilitate opportunities for gender equality onstage and backstage – has been highly successful.
The volunteer scheme was set up by actors Melanie Jessop, Natasha Rickman and Rhiannon Oliver in January 2015. The core programme is the Women@RADA 100 which is a series of 100 play-readings held every fortnight during term time. Plays must have at least 50% women in the cast, and the trio look for parity across their creative teams too.
“We select plays we feel show female characters truthfully and who are central to the action,” Natasha explains. “We also run one-off discussions and events on topics such as Gender in Shakespeare.”
Women@RADA have now presented their 25th reading. Continuing at this rate (25 plays over 4 terms), they expect to have completed their 100 readings three years from now, but that won’t mean the end of the initiative as a whole (despite Rhiannon noting “It would be great if the need for a scheme like this was made redundant by the time we reach Play 100…”)
Natasha says that the idea came about when they came to the realisation that many female graduates felt personally responsible for working less than their male counterparts. “But of course there are statistically less women working on and behind our stages in the UK,” she says. “We wanted to campaign in a positive, creative way for equal representation – not just for actors but for directors, writers and other creatives too.”
But the project hasn’t been without its challenges, and presents a substantial workload for all involved. “We’re all working full time as actors and teachers, and to co-ordinate the project can be tricky – particularly if one of us is away,” Natasha says. “But we have a brilliant network of volunteers, and I think this effort speaks volumes about how much we care about the subject in hand. I always feel hugely supported by the others taking more on if I’m away, and I hope this works vice versa too.”
“We manage to share the load well,” Rhiannon adds. “We take on a bit more of the work when we have the time, knowing that the same will be done for us when we’re up to our ears in technical rehearsals or some such. I hadn’t produced much before this, so I’ve learned a lot in the last year – now that we’ve found our feet, everything seems a little bit less challenging than when we got started.”
Every time a play gets a further workshop or production as a result of a reading, or if the actors/directors/writers go on to collaborate after working on the scheme, the team feel a sense of real achievement. “Our Shakespeare and Gender Panel (Erica Whyman, Elizabeth Schafer, Ashlea Kaye, Susan Wokoma, Sue Parrish) brought together a fascinating discussion on cross gender casting,” Natasha says. “And our series of readings of suffragette plays at Conway Hall, which come from The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays edited by Naomi Paxton was a real highlight.”
Rhiannon says she found the first few readings particularly exciting. “When I started to recognise audience members who were coming to their third or fourth reading in a row, it struck me that the fortnightly regularity of the readings was lending itself to the building of a loose community of likeminded folk and that made me very happy.”
So what work are they looking for? “Work which is brilliantly written, and offers the female characters a central role where they are truthful representations of women,” Mel says. “We are also looking for them to be subjects in our stories, not just objects that allow the male characters to fulfil their storylines.”
We aim to avoid cliched representations of both women and men, and look for plays where women are fully blown humans, rather than wives, girlfriends or sidekicks.
The name of the scheme might imply that Women@RADA is for women only but the trio are keen to emphasis their belief that men and women need to work together to fight inequality. “The ‘women’ in our name is important as we can’t shy away from the problem that we’re addressing, but I think one of the main challenges is finding a way for men and women to work together to fight gender discrimination so that it becomes a broadly fought battle,” Mel says. “We need to find a way to value our voices equally.”
The scheme is definitely doing its job of nurturing new talent and Natasha says her top tips for artists to look out for include Milli Bhatia “a terrifically gifted writer and director”, Lotte Rice “a beautiful actor and writer/ performance poet” and Jenny Knotts “a wonderful young Scottish playwright”. But overall, the Women@RADA team find it hard to choose from the pool of talent.
“We’ve worked with so many incredible new artists,” Mel says. “And many established artists have so kindly leant their support too. We’ve also been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic regular audiences, the wonderful actors, directors and writers who have been involved, and by the support out there from both men and women.”