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From left to right, Caroline Cave, Tracey Power, Pippa Mackie, Susinn McFarlen, front, Amanda Lisman, Medina Hahn and Erin Moon before rehearsal for Miss Shakespeare at Green Thumb Theatre in Vancouver, B.C. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
From left to right, Caroline Cave, Tracey Power, Pippa Mackie, Susinn McFarlen, front, Amanda Lisman, Medina Hahn and Erin Moon before rehearsal for Miss Shakespeare at Green Thumb Theatre in Vancouver, B.C. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Breaking up the Canadian theatre boys’ club: New plays fight the gender gap with all-female casts Add to ...

Judith Shakespeare married in 1616, had three children – all of whom died long before she did – and worked for a time at a tavern called the Cage. But what if she had inherited her father’s creative proclivities – a way with the quill and a passion for the stage? Even for the Bard’s daughter, there was no hope for an early 17th-century woman to pursue any creative aspirations.

Vancouver playwright Tracey Power has given a lot of thought to Judith’s experience – to what it might be like to feel the frustration of unpath’d waters, undream’d shores.

“How did it play on her psyche to go, ‘You’re the most powerful playwright in [the] world; how can you not help me?,’” said Power, before a recent rehearsal. “You have a company of players; why can’t you let a woman be in those players? Why are you taking these young boys and dressing them up as women who have lost children and lost husbands and lost themselves?’”

These questions are at the heart of Miss Shakespeare, having its world premiere in Vancouver next week, along with Power’s other new play, J. Caesar. Both works feature all-female casts.

Set 400 years in the future, J. Caesar imagines a world where men have almost completely disappeared, while Miss Shakespeare, set 400 years in the past, sees Judith round up other women to create an underground show at the bar, with an opening number that declares: “Here in the Cage we believe that making theatre is like making a child: If you want to be truly successful, you need more than just a penis.”

Four hundred years later, the gender gap in theatre remains “colossal,” to quote one recent report examining the issue. While women make up about 60 per cent of the audience at festivals such as Stratford, Shaw and Bard on the Beach, it’s a different story on Canadian stages – as well as in the United States and Britain: There are fewer parts for women, fewer plays by women being produced and fewer women in the top creative positions.

“The numbers are pretty pathetic, still,” says Kris Bauske, a playwright who is co-chair of the International Centre for Women Playwrights’ 50/50 Applause Awards – which recognize international theatre companies that produce a season with at least 50 per cent of plays by women. “Women playwrights, women directors, women in entertainment across the board in film and theatre are all struggling to have a voice.”

What is changing is that there is now a spotlight on the issue. A recently released report on achieving equity in Canadian theatre was discussed at an Equity in Theatre (EIT) symposium in Toronto this week; a recent conference in London dealt with gender inequity in British theatre and the Dramatists Guild of America will release a study at its conference in July called the Count, also dealing with this.

The statistics emerging are troubling. In Canada, the EIT report finds that while women form the majority of theatre-school graduates, support workers and audience members, when it comes to key creative roles, their numbers fall below 35 per cent. Women form half of the Playwrights Guild of Canada’s membership, but don’t account for even a quarter of the country’s produced playwrights. (The numbers for women of colour are lower yet, the report says.)

The greatest disparity is for playwrights. According to the guild, of 812 productions in the 2013/14 season, 63 per cent were written by men, 22 per cent by women and 15 per cent by mixed-gender partnerships.

“What we noticed at PGC in the last three years is that the statistics for women getting produced on our nation’s stages have been regressing,” says Rebecca Burton, EIT co-organizer with the Playwrights Guild of Canada.

The key issue, she says, is programming.

“It comes down to an unconscious bias; it’s this idea that like hires like. And that really seems to be playing out. … So you have mostly men on the boards who are therefore going to hire men as artistic directors who then program work that’s written by men and then they hire men to direct it and so on and so forth. And there are studies showing that plays written by men have far fewer roles for women actors, so it’s just sort of a self-perpetuating system.”

In Britain, the recently released British Theatre Repertoire project found that in 2013, 31 per cent of new plays produced were by women and, on average, a new play by a woman has tickets priced 23 per cent lower than a new play by a man, plays in a theatre that’s 24 per cent smaller and has 69 per cent fewer performances.

“Things are still significantly imbalanced,” says Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic Theatre, which supports the British theatre industry to achieve greater gender equality. “What’s so extraordinary about theatre and the performing arts is the fact that women are overrepresented at entry level,” she said from London earlier this week. “That, I think, is why as an industry we really have to sit up and take notice. We can’t be complacent and say, ‘Oh, it’s just that women aren’t that interested.’ They are.”

Onstage

With men writing the scripts and calling the shots, parts for actresses are limited. Bauske cites a statistic suggesting the average play written by a woman has 33 per cent more female roles. “And that’s another battle cry,” she says. “There are not enough good roles for women and there are certainly not enough good roles for women of a certain age.”

This transcends the stage. Amy Schumer’s video-gone-viral about Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s “last fuckable day” (“In every actress’s life, the media decides when you finally reach the point where you’re not believably fuckable any more”) may have been hilarious, but it points to a serious problem for women in entertainment that has older female actors laughing all the way to the unemployment line.

“Finally, funny women are speaking the truth and everyone’s going ‘That’s so outrageous.’ But it’s just the truth,” says Susinn McFarlen, 59, one of the actors in Miss Shakespeare.

The issue of older women in entertainment received more attention with the recent launch at the Tribeca Film Festival of a screenwriting program for women over 40, backed by Meryl Streep .

In Vancouver, Power – who splits her time between acting and creating works for theatre such as the acclaimed Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen – says she believes the issue is gaining some traction. “Which is fantastic, but there needs to be action as well. And I think this is the action, creating opportunities for women,” she says, gesturing around the rehearsal hall. She believes she has a responsibility to carry out that action. “If I’m going to write, if I’m going to be an actor, if I’m going to direct, I’m responsible for creating more opportunities for women. I think everybody is.”

Power, 38, says she really notices it as an actor, especially with the classics. “You walk into the rehearsal room and there’s three women to 15 men,” she says. “I think it’s great to tell those old stories, but we need to find new ways to tell them.”

That is happening. For example, a production premiering in Vancouver this June of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Rachel Peake, has an all-female cast. The company, Classic Chic Productions, also mounted an all-female The Winter’s Tale last year.

At Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach, director Meg Roe transformed The Tempest’s Trinculo and Stephano into Trincula and Stephana, creating a drunken, bawdy pair of shipwrecked lady scene-stealers.

“The Bard company was so rich with female talent I thought it would be stupid not to mine that talent and make use of it,” says Roe from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., where she’s directing a new version by Erin Shields of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea at the Shaw Festival this year.

“Any project that I’m handed as a director, I always look for an opportunity to shift gender. I think that it’s really interesting to see more women onstage and we have such an enormous talent pool of women in the country that I just don’t see why you wouldn’t.”

And action

They say recognizing there’s a problem is an important first step in fixing it – so the flurry of reports and conferences and even the hand-wringing over this continued boys’ club can be seen as a positive. And there is some progress to report.

By the end of the EIT symposium this week, people were standing up and pledging change – actions such as vowing that 50 per cent of the plays they would see would be by women.

Kerbel’s Tonic has similarly prompted a number of British theatre companies to strive for change. One company has committed to employing equal numbers of men and women on stage.

Kerbel has published a book, 100 Great Plays for Women (which includes Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs) to encourage the production of plays with strong female roles. And a series of plays with plentiful female roles is being published, aimed at schools and youth theatre (where the girls who populate these programs often find themselves playing boys’ parts – because there are more of those).

There’s been an increase in the number of winners of the 50/50 Awards – 67 companies in nine countries last year, including eight from Canada. Nominations for the 2015 awards opened May 1.

And there’s action by individuals. McFarlen, after engaging in her own informal study in 2011 (counting cast lists of every production in Vancouver at the time, where she found 20 men over the age of 50 and not a single woman), co-founded Wet Ink Collective, which mentors female writers in the hopes of creating more roles for women, including older women.

“We don’t want to be on the sidelines any more,” she says. “And there’s only one way to fix a problem: And that’s to do it yourself.”

Miss Shakespeare and J. Caesar are at Performance Works in Vancouver May 5-17 (performanceworks.ca) and the Kay Meek Centre (kaymeekcentre.com) in West Vancouver May 21-29.

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