Why the ERA 50:50 campaign may struggle to undo the past for the theatre industry

By Laura Stevens


Women in the theatre, film and television industries are finding their voices and speaking out about things that aren’t right. The Time’s Up and #MeToo movements lit the touch paper for a new dialogue about what needs to change in those industries, and in society at large.


However, not every problem for women in the creative industries is the result of overt mistreatment and abuse. There are also subtler yet still deeply ingrained issues, such as lack of representation, to address. There are simply not enough women on stage and screen. Not enough faces being seen, voices being heard and careers being sustained. Not enough women being hired, promoted, commissioned and in positions of influence at film companies, television channels and theatres.


In the business world, companies with more than 250 employees are now required to report on gender pay gaps, which has led to a certain amount of well-meaning hand-wringing about the lack of women executives in board rooms (and a certain amount of hand-wringing simply for show). The theatre and screen industries have always operated in a less regulated, freelance and slightly-ungovernable way. If you work in these industries, it’s partly what makes them so appealing and, to a point, trying to heavily regulate them would spoil that. However, it’s the transient nature of work in the stage and screen industries that make it more difficult to tackle inequalities and injustices, and ensure fair treatment for all. And that’s not right.



Equal representation for women on stage and screen is one of the biggest issues of the moment. We’re not just talking about equal pay here (although that is an issue). We’re talking about the fact there isn’t enough work for actresses to begin with. The ERA (Equal Representation for Actresses) 50:50 campaign aims to tackle that head-on. Leading the charge are actresses Lizzie Berrington and Polly Kemp who, in 2015, founded the movement in response to a report from the Geena Davis Institute on gender inequality on stage and screen. The report, Gender Bias Without Borders, revealed that twice as many men appear across film, television and theatre than women. Disappointingly, women’s increasing voice in society has delivered no significant increase to female speaking parts in top-grossing movies in the last 50 years. Women represent approx. 50% of the world’s population, but have merely 30% representation on screen. The statistics make grim reading for any young drama school actress hoping to develop a rich and sustainable career and, as ERA 50:50 points out, it distorts our view of society. But what’s to be done about it? 


Since its launch in 2015, ERA 50:50 has gathered the support and input of a host of female and male actors. Many are high profile and demonstrate their support publicly by wearing campaign rings and badges at red carpet events, notably Claire Foy and Emma Watson at the Golden Globes. In February, ERA 50:50 hosted a campaign event ‘A NEW ERA: IT’S TIME’ supported by casting platform Spotlight and actors’ union Equity. The event brought together the most powerful figures in the industry from production companies, publicly funded broadcasters, major theatre venues, leading actors and actresses, and Members of Parliament. They challenged them to put an end to the under-representation of women across stage and screen.


ERA 50:50’s demands are both simple and complex. They want equal representation for women on stage and on screen. They ask that casting and creative decisions are held to a 50:50 gender balance requirement. Specifically, ERA 50:50 wants full gender balance in casting across film, television and theatre content by 2020. Achieving it by 2020 seems a tall order, given the timelines in getting any new project off the ground in theatre, cinema or television. But setting the bar high is often a great motivator for success. ERA 50:50 hopes to bring about this change by influencing writers, directors, producers, commissioners and casting directors to create more roles for women, and to open up more roles that women are not considered for. They want to see more women in their forties and fifties in roles that are cast age appropriately. And, perhaps crucially, they want to encourage writers and commissioners to strive for gender parity at the development stage, which is arguably where most opportunities are being lost at the moment.


It’s clear the ERA 50:50 campaign is an ambitious, long-term undertaking that could deliver a real shift in the content offered on stage and screen, not just the gender of speaking parts. But in many ways, it requires undoing the past as much as creating a new future. Film and television as mediums are voracious for new material, new characters and new stories. Therefore, it’s certainly possible for writers, directors and producers to be influenced to create more gender-balanced work. Provided the all-important financial backing isn’t jeopardised and audiences adjust to an increased feminine presence onscreen.


But on the stage, alas, it’s more complicated. Theatre is very much an old medium, with roots reaching back to the 5th century BC and beyond, and a body of plays that reflect this. There is a healthy new writing community across the UK, but new work only represents a portion of the industry and it’s a harder sell for venues. Today’s theatre draws heavily on older works, the great canon of plays produced since the classical period when equal gender representation would have been of very little concern. Women were not allowed to perform on the stage until 1660 in England, and have not occupied influential roles as directors, producers and other creatives until the late twentieth century. All of this has stifled the development of the female voice and presence on stage.


However, the plays themselves remain a problem. Theatre simply isn’t as voracious for new content as the screen. And, in terms of gender parity in the employment of actresses for female parts, the challenge to undo the past may be too great to bring about swift change. Peruse the programme of any mid-sized regional theatre and you might find anything from a fifth-century Greek tragedy to Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Pinter. Shakespeare, of course, wrote for all-male companies, where only 16% of the 981 characters he created were female and played by adolescent boys. It was simply the tradition of the time, and of the theatre before it. Even once women were permitted to perform on the stage, playwrights across the following centuries simply followed the tradition of masculine voices and bias. We have inherited a body of work with a heavy masculine bias, both in terms of the number of characters, the number of lines and the quality of roles for women. Redressing the balance is seen to be the role of female playwrights, who also struggle to achieve parity with male playwrights at major theatre venues. These male-dominated plays were written and staged in another time, with different values and priorities and these works are also our heritage, so to condemn them as un-performable on the basis of gender imbalance would be a mistake. Yet it doesn’t help today’s world and the campaign for gender parity. So, what’s the answer? All female productions of the classics? Gender neutral casting? Formal casting quotas?


In the short to mid-term, all of the above may help. At least in terms of delivering a cultural and intellectual shift amongst theatre-makers that will eventually be more instinctive. We also need a new body of work to draw on that redresses the balance, which certainly takes time to deliver. Today’s actresses will have to be patient. Change is unlikely to be swift. Yet, campaign groups like ERA 50:50, Waking the Feminists and Comedy 50:50 are doing all the right things and asking all the right questions. What’s clear, with many of the issues raised around women’s rights, is that women have to speak up and tackle the issues themselves. That good old-fashioned principle of saying what you want, loudly and clearly and persistently, until the message sinks in. The issue of gender parity touches every area of all three industries, but in theatre, there is a much tougher job to be done to unravel the bias of the past. Pushing for equal casting opportunities is a start, but it isn’t enough. The problem can only truly be solved with equal representation at every level of the stage, television and screen industries. These industries are a mirror to society, and so the challenge and the responsibility is great indeed.