What is this moment that we are in?
Vamps, Vixens and Feminists: the title promised drama and dynamism, appropriate for a theatre company of almost forty years who put women at the forefront of their work. Certainly the opening lived up to this expectation: even a non-musical theatre goer like me could not help but be warmed, entertained and cheered by the sight of Mountview Theatre School students throwing themselves into the song-and-dance number All Girl Band from the musical A… My Name Is Alice, at 10:30 in the morning.
I went to the conference hoping to find out more about the work Sphinx Theatre Company and, as a theatre director, what opportunities they offer to pave the way for increased female participation in the arts.
I was looking forward to hearing from women working in all genres of the performing arts about how current issues affected them: in particular the UK government’s recently announced spending cuts which, as keynote speaker Beatrix Campbell OBE pointed out, will be borne chiefly (72%) by women; and also about the new wave of feminism that has enlivened the world of women in the last couple of years.
There was certainly a lot of ground covered: I learned from Bidisha about how few women were represented at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts (not many); from Rachel Millward about how many female directors were features at the Cannes Film Festival last year (none); and from Esme Peach that International Women’s Day is a public holiday in thirteen nations including China.
However, I found myself wondering what I was meant to be doing with this information. At one stage, actor Maggie Steed stated that there was no point in going to artistic directors with a list of complaints; we needed ‘enlivening’ tactics and this for me seemed to sum up the problems with the event. Throughout the morning, I felt repeatedly that surely a group of creative women could come up with a fresher and more interesting way to present ideas. Why produce something which was a carbon copy of executive conferences around the nation? The splashy start could have led the way for speeches to be punctuated with real, live, current work from film-makers, theatre-makers, television producers. Contributions from females in all areas of the arts, real debate and a sense of moving forward. Instead it felt like a pub-discussion with rather high-profile companions, that might one day have led to a really compelling conference.
Diversity amongst the speakers was limited and the last session was solely young performers and directors and this seemed a strange arrangement to me, at best denying an exchange of experiences and at worst implying that these represented the ‘new’ and making the older speakers seem somehow less relevant, rather than presenting the ‘alliances’ that were repeatedly encouraged.
But, there was some good news as well. The Observer newspaper’s theatre critic Susannah Clapp spoke eloquently about how the proliferation of devised, site-specific and multimedia work had benefited women directors and performers. This was backed up by an insightful contribution from Geoff Colman, Head of Acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama, whose alternative pathway in these newer genres had reduced complaints by female students about lack of good parts and also a phenomenon he had found so disturbing which was third-years students returning after their summer break thinner, more made up, higher of voice.
Jean Rogers took the lectern to deliver an impassioned speech about her role as Vice-President of Equity, the actor’s trade union and the work and campaigns they do in regards to the UK government’s 2007 Gender Equality Duty, including going out into regional theatres to discuss programming and their current petition to see more women in film and television. And Rachel Millward had provided an antidote to her Cannes statistic with her forward-thinking Birds Eye View, all-female UK film festival.
Sadly, the audience was relatively sparse which struck me as strange given the packed feminist conferences that have been held in London and elsewhere in recent months.
Having a conference like this is invigorating in itself; listening to women speaking intelligently and feeling that there is a melting pot of female talent and potential out there gives one hope for the future. I think we all took the message that the way forward was to form alliances and take positive action. But for me, it did not go far enough in exploring Bea Campbell’s question: ‘what is this moment that we are in?’
Kate McCarthy is a freelance writer and theatre director from London.