Waking The Feminists: One year on

10 Nov 2016

Lian Bell, organiser of Waking the Feminists. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

This time last year, a fire was stoked in the Irish arts scene, as a male-dominated theatre industry was deemed no longer acceptable. One year on and the Waking The Feminists movement is here to stay.

Waking the Nation, the Abbey Theatre’s celebration of Ireland’s centenary, was supposed to be a unifying call to Irish citizens. Instead, it created a firestorm.

With an almost entirely male-dominated run of plays, onlookers had had enough. Borrowing the title and adapting it for themselves, a new movement led by Lian Bell called Waking The Feminists was born.

Future Human

Within two weeks, a media storm grew to such a degree that the Abbey was left scrambling for shelter, eventually hosting a meeting between many of those aggrieved by their lack of representation.

Waking The Feminists

Waking The Feminists: Impact

The improvements since then, according to Bell, have been extensive. And the Abbey’s role as Ireland’s leading light for theatre has proved more significant than even she expected, huddled around coffee cups, with a new found group of like-minded people.

“The Abbey is the biggest employer in the industry in Ireland,” she said, “it has the biggest budget, it hires the most directors. It’s always been seen as a figurehead. I suppose even more so now.”

Since that relatively opportunistic gathering of minds in November, and a subsequent meeting in March, the Abbey has made dramatic changes.

With two new directors coming in, each “very supportive” of Waking The Feminists’ cause, things are looking up for Bell and her peers.

However Bell, who recently spoke at Inspirefest, admits it was a bit of a hectic start.

“It couldn’t have happened to a better community,” she said when asked just how opportunistic the whole scenario seemed at the time.

Bell first wrote about her grievances on a Thursday. The following Thursday, she met fellow complainants for a coffee to discuss the topic and, within a week, they were in the Abbey receiving an audience.

“Theatre people are used to working very quickly, to a deadline, for little or no money,” she said. “It really landed in the right people’s laps.”

Waking The Feminists: Opportunism

Everything was in the right place, at the right time. For the industry, had this happened in September or October, it would likely have gotten nowhere. That’s mid-festival, “a frenzy”, explained Bell.

By November, the main festivals are finished. Coming up to 1916, people were starting to think about the area of female involvement more than in previous years.

Pretty soon, Bell and her supporters learned that the gender representation problem wasn’t just about the Abbey, it was something systemic. Noticing just how broad a problem this was, Bell admits to being “overwhelmed” at first before, as a rule, everyone decided to stick to a manageable goal.

“The thing we know is theatre,” she said, “we made a conscious decision to focus on Irish theatre and not bite off more than we could chew.”

Meeting boards of Irish theatres was the way to go and, when explaining how small an industry it was and how that meant working together could garner immediate results, everyone got on board quite quickly.

By March, most of the industry was rowing in the same direction and, through a meeting with the Irish Arts Council, funding was secured to research and compile a detailed report into the Irish theatre industry in general.

“This was big,” said Bell who noted that the early days of the movement were weighed down with worry.

The report will be published early next year.

“We were always a bit afraid at the lack of the quantitative evidence was always daunting,” she said. “We could never say X number of women, X number of men. It was very testimony-driven.”

However, the absolute flood of testimonies – even bringing in support from A-list Hollywood actresses in the US – meant that was not an issue.

Waking the Feminists went so mainstream that earlier this year, it won a Lilly Award in New York – the first time the female participation and achievement prize went to a person or group from outside the US.

The movement was described as “a visceral explosion” by the award judges, with Julia Jordan – who founded the Lilly Awards – saying it “mirrored our own struggle in the US to have women’s stories told and heard”.

Waking The Feminists: Beyond

The movement is now one year old, with a meet-up in the Abbey on 14 November to be a celebration of all that has gone on before, and a discussion on where to take Waking The Feminists in the future.

Bell is currently looking at a programme to work with top companies, examining how their systems operate. Whether it’s playwrights, freelancers, choosing plays, how many women are on the stage, “we want to look at all the systems”.

“The other side is empowering individuals,” she said. “When need to do something ourselves, everyone speaking out does make a difference. We’ve seen spin-offs from US that do take in the energy of the movement.”

“It kind of sounds mad a year on, but a year ago, we didn’t really talk about this kind of thing. In the pub with friends, we’d complain about male peers scooting along faster than our female peers in the industry, but never in public. But now we talk.”

The pressure of the international attention could get quite heavy on Bell’s shoulders, though she’s a bit more philosophical about the whole thing.

“It is pressure, but there’s pressure on the theatres, too. Now they know we’re watching, everyone is paying attention.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic