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  • Chris ORourke

An end to the beginning for #wakingthefeminists

Liam Bell speaking at #wakingthefeminists

A lot can happen in a year. The past twelve months has seen Lian Bell's spark of rage prompted by gender inequality in the programming for the National Theatre combust into the multi award-winning, grassroots movement #wakingthefeminists, calling for equality for women across Irish theatre. A movement that has gained international recognition and support, establishing branches as far afield as New York. Indeed, so successful has #wakingthefeminists been in transforming the face of Irish theatre, you could be forgiven momentarily for thinking it had done its job. No wonder they’re winding down their social media campaign.

They even have the evidence to prove both the rampant inequality and their efforts to address it. The headlines alone are pretty impressive. An Arts Council funded research into gender equality across the top ten arts funded organisations over the past 10 years, a serious of groundbreaking guidelines on gender equality from the Abbey Theatre, the first appointment of a female artistic director at The Gate and a general acknowledgement by theatre companies and arts organisations that they need to check their gender bias and privilege and are actively doing so. A year on and everything’s changed it would seem.

Yet if November 9th, 2015 was a wake-up call to gender equality, the headlines surrounding the US Presidential Election result on November 9th, 2016 was a wake-up call that misogyny and patriarchy don’t go away quietly. Indeed, the US Presidential Election highlights the normalized misogyny at the heart of society. Trump came to power, in part, because of it, with a staggering number of women voting for him. Since then there have been protests, but there’s also been an overwhelming number of people who’ve taken a "calm down my dear" approach, "it'll all be okay, it won't be as bad as it seems." Of course not! Normalised misogyny is never as bad as it seems. What could possibly go wrong with that position? From this angle, a year on, and very little has really changed.

The success of Trump as US President Elect was on the minds of many of the speakers at the #wakingthefeminists one year anniversary event, ‘One Thing More’ at The Abbey Theatre yesterday. If last years event was characterized by exuberance, with just a hint of exhaustion, this year it was all grown up with the mood less euphoric and more sober. A transformation perfectly evidenced in founder Lian Bell, exuding a quite, steely confidence and self assurance garnered over what has unquestionably been a demanding year. Bell spoke eloquently about the end of #wakingthefeminists year-long commitment to raise awareness on gender inequality, to instigate conversations and change and of the shift from that initial energizing impulse to the painstaking gathering and analyzing of evidence. Evidence to be presented in February 2017 in the form of a report on gender inequality in Irish theatre, with preliminary findings being presented at the event by Doctor Brenda Donohue, Doctor Tanya Dean and Doctor Ciara O’Dowd. Together, with their team, they have amassed some fascinating statistics on the state of gender inequality amongst those receiving the largest funding from The Arts Council, with all coming up short and with some having some serious work to do.

#wakingthefeminists November 2015. Photo by Fiona Morgan

If statistics served as the final, focal point, the two-hour plus event was dominated by equal amounts of passion and personal anecdotes from those far and wide in the field of theatre, and beyond. Indeed, the inclusion of DELL’s General Manager for Ireland, Niamh Townsend, the CEO of the Institute of Advertising, Tania Banotti and Colonel Maureen O’Brien, the first woman Colonel in the Irish Defence Forces, brought home just how much impact #wakingthefeminists has had in the past twelve months outside the sphere of theatre.

But #wakingthefeminists began with a specific remit for theatre, and prominent members from theatrical organisations, and often their board members, including Druid, The Abbey, Fishamble, The Project Arts Centre, The Gate, Dublin Theatre Festival and Tiger Dublin Fringe were keen to hold their hands up and to acknowledge the ways in which they were addressing change. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Seana Kerslake, Rory O Neill and Eve Ensler, amongst others, spoke of their individual experiences, as did a passionate Anne Enright, who acknowledged that #wakingthefeminists had given her back her politics. Activism was writ large with Mother Artists Makers who came stating their cause and case, as did Michiline Sheehy Skeffington, reminding the audience there’s still a way to go.

But it wasn’t all serious and statistics, and some much appreciated comic relief came courtesy of comedian Alison Spittle, and actor, Brian F O'Byrne, who reminded the room of theatre’s sense of playfulness. Chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan ended with a stirring rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” yet it was eight year old, Amelie Metcalf who spoke about the need for making relevant theatre for young people, who very nearly stole the show.

The entire event was dominated by the question of what one thing more can you do to further gender equality. For some it was to stay awake, for others to stay strong or to stay vocal. For all there was a silent sense that a watershed had been reached, that what was being witnessed was the end of the beginning. A sense of pride in what had been achieved and a hint of excitement and trepidation about the unknown future ahead. The goal is for 50/50 gender equality across the board in five years. It may take five more for the results to be fully evidenced. But, whatever happens next, the Bell, no pun intended, calling time on gender inequality in theatre has been rung, and it cannot be unheard.

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