Equity in Theatre: Launching A New Canadian Initiative

by Laine Zisman Newman and Rebecca Burton

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive| Thrive} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

Introducing the Project:
The under-representation of women in key creative positions in theatre and the arts is a systemic, global problem, not at all unique to North America, yet increasingly present here. In a Canadian context, the problem has repeatedly been identified, for instance, at the national level with the 1982 Fraticelli report, the 2006 “Adding It Up” report, and the annual surveys conducted since 2007 by the Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC). Earlier this year, the Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) joined forces with Pat the Dog (PTD), the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association (CAEA), the Associated Designers of Canada (ADC), the Canadian chapter of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA), and others to launch an initiative to help remedy the under-representation of women in theatre. Equity in Theatre (EIT) is a new Canadian initiative that focuses on gender inequities in the theatre industry. It was conceived with the understanding that a deeply rooted problem of this nature cannot be resolved with a single study or one-off event. Rather, what is required is an ongoing project of national scope that addresses the differing needs of diverse communities of women playwrights in Canada.

EIT aims to redress gender inequities in the theatre industry. Specifically, it seeks to address the under-representation of women playwrights on Canadian stages by executing a multi-pronged initiative that will work to raise awareness, rectify imbalance(s), and engage with the theatre community as a whole (individuals, institutions, associations, patrons, and consumers). The following article is intended to contextualize the objectives of EIT as well as outline the projects we intend to implement as part of the initiative.

Contextualizing Gender Inequity:
Studies show that although women form the vast majority of theatre school graduates, amateur artists, behind-the-scenes support workers, administrators, and audience members, when it comes to key creative roles in the profession, the numbers diminish significantly. Between 2000 and 2005, women comprised 33% of the nation’s artistic directors, 34% of the directors, and 28% of the produced playwrights. The playwright finds herself at the bottom of the pyramid, and if she is a woman of colour, her plight is worse yet, given the 4% production rate for the same period (Burton ii ). Figures for the 2012-2013 theatre season suggest that the situation is worsening rather than improving over time. Although women form 50% of PGC’s membership base, they authored only 23% of the nation’s productions last year. The statistics for women of colour were lower yet (Playwrights Guild).  Thus, there has been regression in rates of representation for women playwrights on Canada’s stages since the study conducted in 2006.

The issues and challenges that arise from gender inequity in the theatre industry are not simply being overlooked or ignored. There are organizations, theatres and producers who are directly confronting and contesting gender imbalances in the performing arts. And yet, these issues are ingrained within systemic and ongoing patriarchal ideologies. They are not beliefs or actions that one can opt into or out of, but rather, are conditioned and pervasive, making them difficult to address through a single event or production. With that, however, the conversations and awareness around these imbalances seem to be increasing. In Washington DC, for example, Peter Marks hosted a conversation with artistic directors in the area called “The Summit.” Though not originally intended to do so, the primary controversy at The Summit revolved around a claim made by one artistic director and echoed by others on the panel, that women’s plays were not being produced on their stages because of a lack of plays written by women. A debate immediately erupted on social media—theatre practitioners, spectators and playwrights argued that the problem is not due to the absence of creative work but instead a lack of resources, productions and funding. Texts by women playwrights exist, but, without secure, ongoing support and funding to promote women’s plays, their works and voices often become suppressed and invisible.

The Summit is one example among many. Conversations around equity in the arts are becoming more common. If dialogue is taking place to disrupt these ideologies, the questions now are : What is next? How do we nurture and change the environment within theatre communities? How do we move beyond conversation to action and implementation? How can we work to subvert the dominant culture and ideologies that normalize gender inequities throughout North America?

Confronting Inequity
There are innumerable ways in which we can (and must) address and challenge gender imbalances in the arts, but no one solution can combat prejudice and inequity on its own. Increasingly, virtual environments are being created to engage these discussions, and symposiums and panels on women’s theatre are organized by various associations to continue the discussion on women in the performing arts. The solutions are multiple and must be diverse because there is no one singular or independent project that can purport to resolve the imbalance in isolation. It is with this in mind that Equity in Theatre attempts to foster and facilitate dialogue locally, provincially, nationally, and internationally; to generate greater awareness of and exposure to Canadian women playwrights; and to develop community-based action plans to remedy existing industry imbalances.

As a new Canadian theatre initiative, EIT will implement a multifaceted approach comprised of the following four aspects:

  • Research
  • Symposium
  • Virtual Presence
  • Follow-up Events

Recognizing that equity groups across diverse sectors have been confronting gender disparities for many years, the research component of the project will draw on this expertise to attempt to identify efficient means of addressing inequality and producing change and social justice. Equity studies and resultant actions carried out in the past by other countries and other industries will be analyzed as a means to increase efficacy and formulate a set of best practices and recommendations to be disseminated via pre-programmed partner events. Studying prior initiatives will allow us to uncover what has previously worked and not worked, ensuring that we do not repeat the same mistakes, and that we capitalize on successful responses. This research will provide a foundational framework for the future work of EIT, including, but not limited to, the second major component of the project, which takes the form of a symposium event. The 2015 symposium will offer an opportunity for major stakeholders in the arts, as well as audience members and independent creators, to engage in discussion and begin to develop a strategic plan for improved equity in theatre.  In addition to the research and symposium, EIT will launch a website which will act as a virtual hub for women playwrights, designers, performers and theatre creators. Offering resources for women practitioners, a calendar of theatrical and political events, and a directory of women in the arts, the website will create a new space specifically intended to disseminate and support women’s work in the industry. Finally, following the symposium, follow-up events will be launched throughout the country. The content and form of these events will be established through discussion, needs-based assessments, and strategic planning at the symposium. Based on the understanding that solutions must be ongoing and ever-evolving, the follow-up events will ensure that EIT continually finds new, progressive ways to strategically work with women in theatre and the arts to establish equitable practices.

Towards Equity
It should be noted that the gender imbalances in the arts community are not unique to Canada: they are systemic in nature, having multiple and complex root causes, which exist in the United States, internationally, and among many diverse cultures and communities. There are already numerous organizations that attempt to rectify this unequal distribution of resources and funding and EIT is privileged to join them. Through a comprehensive campaign of education and redress involving the participation of the sector’s major stakeholders, EIT will bring together industry leaders, artists, administrators, and audiences to engage in sector-wide conversations and strategic activities aimed at greater equity in professional theatre. Through diverse virtual and live environments, EIT will help right past wrongs, encouraging improved equity, and in turn, greater artistic innovation and diversity, which aims to reinvigorate the industry, bringing the nation’s stages in-line with the realities of Canadian culture in the twenty-first century.


R  Burton Pic

Rebecca Burton is a theatre practitioner, academic, and arts administrator. She has a BA in theatre from the University of Guelph, an MA in theatre from the University of Victoria, and she is a PhD ABD in theatre with a specialization in Canadian women’s and feminist theatre (though lapsed) from the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto. She has taught theatre at Brock, Wilfrid Laurier, Ottawa, and York Universities. She occasionally freelances as an editor and a researcher, for instance, having authored the 2006 national study on equity in Canadian theatre, Adding It Up: The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre. Currently, Rebecca is the Membership and Professional Contracts Manager at Playwrights Guild of Canada, and she is one of co-organizers of the upcoming EIT initiative.

Laine z  Newman - HeadshotLaine Zisman Newman is a theatre creator, scholar and documentary filmmaker. She received an MA in Drama from the University in Toronto in 2010, and her MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, where she directed and edited “You’re Not My Target Audience.” She is a dramaturge with Pat the Dog Theatre Creations and currently working on her PhD in Theatre and Sexual Diversity at the University of Toronto. Her practical work in theatre and her research focus on creating and promoting equitable practices in theatre and performing arts. Her creative and scholarly writing has been published in Canadian Theatre Review; Studies in Documentary Film; Able Muse; The Rusty Toque; and Journal of Dance, Movement and Spiritualties (forthcoming). Zisman Newman is co-organizing the Equity in Theatre initiative.