The push for gender equality on stage and screen continues

Almost 300 men and women from Australia’s performing arts and screen industry gathered last night at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre to discuss ways to address gender inequality in acting, directing, writing, designing, producing and technical roles.

Gender parity has not been reached in any of these roles in either theatre or screen. From 2009 to 2014, feature films funded by Screen Australia only had female Directors 15%, Producers 32% and Writers 23%.

These figures (along with several other recent studies) led Screen NSW to introduce a target to reach an average 50:50 gender equity in its development and production funding programs by 2020.

Screen NSW CEO Courtney Gibson spoke about the move at last night’s forum and said she hoped other state screen funding bodies would follow suit. She noted that while TV producers tend to know that you need to appeal to a female audience to achieve solid ratings (pointing to the recent success achieved by mega-producer John Edwards with female-led series), the local film industry is largely yet to recognise the economic benefits of female-skewing films, despite the box office success of films such as The Dressmaker.

The forum was the second organised by a new grassroots group Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) which formed in response to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s 2016 season. The season featured only two plays written by women and no female directors (Helen Dallimore has since been appointed to direct a play).

The majority of attendees seemed to be from the theatre sector, which was particularly well-represented on the panel with Wesley Enoch (artistic director of Sydney Festival and former artistic director of Queensland Theatre Company), Anthea Williams (associate director of Belvoir) Pete Evans (artistic director of Bell Shakespeare), Lisa Havilah (artistic director of Carriageworks), and Penny Harpham (artistic director of She Said Theatre).

Harpham’s Melbourne-based independent theatre company focuses on using women in as many creative roles as possible. She told the forum: “finding excellent female theatre practitioners is not hard for us to do.”

She said that, just last week, a newly graduated actor friend struggling to find representation was told by a potential agent that for every one role a female actor will win, a male actor will win four.

This story was echoed by another attendee who revealed that his actor wife was immediately dropped by her agent when she announced that she was pregnant. He said that she sought help from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance union but didn’t feel adequately supported.

Williams spoke about how Belvoir has achieved gender parity, in terms of its directors and new writers, noting that it was never really that difficult to find the female artists who had been overlooked because of subconscious sexism or systems that work in favour of male artists.

The discussion also turned to colour-blind casting, and broader questions of diversity, headed by Pearl Tan, a filmmaker and strong advocate for diversity in the industry.

Photo by Julia Dray

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