Joanna Scanlan among actors backing gender equality push in theatre

<span>Joanna Scanlan, Stella Kanu and Gemma Arterton are among the backers of the Women in Theatre Lab.</span><span>Composite: EPA/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Joanna Scanlan, Stella Kanu and Gemma Arterton are among the backers of the Women in Theatre Lab.Composite: EPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Gemma Arterton, Joanna Scanlan and Stella Kanu are some of the figures backing an initiative to promote women in the theatre, who are being overlooked across the industry, according to the project’s founder.

Women in Theatre Lab will primarily act as an incubator for playwriting and acting talent. Its founder, Jennifer Tuckett, said the group would also put pressure on Arts Council England (ACE) to launch a review of gender inequality across the arts.

Tuckett said: “The thing that shocked us all was the lack of action being taken.” She called on ACE to create a gender advisory group, to bring it in line with the way it treats race and disability.

She said: “Gender inequality has really been overlooked and regarded as a problem that’s been resolved, even though the research shows that’s not the case at all.”

Research conducted by Tuckett in 2021, in partnership with organisations such as the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, Equity, Stage Directors UK and the December Group, found that more than 60% of women in UK theatre were considering leaving the industry, with 85% worried gender inequality would worsen after the Covid pandemic.

A year earlier, Tuckett found that 31% of artistic directors in British theatre were women, compared with 36% in 2012 when the Guardian conducted an in-depth analysis of the gender gap in theatre.

ACE’s own research into the gender pay gap in the arts found it had increased from 2.2% in 2022 to 4.7% in 2023.

The lab will follow a similar model to ones in the US and Australia where established writers offer one-to-one mentoring sessions. They will also host online and in-person advice sessions at the Jermyn Street theatre in London.

Among those supporting the lab are the playwright April de Angelis, who said it was needed to address the gender inequality in theatre, and the actor Gemma Arterton who said the lab would give new opportunities to women.

The Emmy award winner Doon Mackichan, the co-creator of Smack the Pony, said the lab “can begin to turn the tide for women”, and Joanna Scanlan, who is contributing advice sessions to the lab, said “a vigorous new reality for playwriting is on the horizon”.

Stella Kanu, the co-founder of Black Womxn in Theatre and the chief executive of the Globe theatre, said: “It’s exciting giving space and a platform to female playwrights, and the new work that will develop and the opportunity to continue to showcase important voices that need to be heard.”

Other backers of the lab include the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, Stella Powell-Jones, the artistic director of the Jermyn Streettheatre, and the former artistic director of the Southbank Centre Jude Kelly.

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After a meeting in March, when Tuckett presented the findings of a five-year research project by Women in Theatre into gender disparities within theatre, ACE agreed to work on several issues, including access to childcare.

ACE’s chair, Nicholas Serota, attended the meeting, along with the director of theatre, Neil Darlison, and the director of strategy, Michelle Dickson, who said they were considering the establishment of a gender advisory board.

Groups have been lobbying ACE to focus on gender more intensely for several years. In 2020, the arts funder was accused of displaying a “serious disregard” for women in its 10-year strategy by the then Equity president, Maureen Beattie, and by ERA 50:50’s co-founder Polly Kemp. Beattie and Kemp are also supporting the Women in Theatre Lab.

A spokesperson for ACE said: “We welcomed the meeting to discuss the representation of women in theatre and found hearing the wide-ranging experiences and insights of the group to be very valuable. As with all conversations with industry bodies, we will take their ideas into consideration as we think about next steps.”