News: Addressing gender imbalance across the arts

Wednesday 19 October 2016 by Mark Doerfel

Vicky Long Advance Symposium boards. Photo: Hannah Quigley

Leading performing arts organisations from across England have committed to address gender imbalances within their organisations. The Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells and Northern Ballet have worked with other arts organisations including The National Theatre, Northern Stage, New Wolsey Theatre, Mahogany Opera Group, Cast and Clean Break worked through a six month process called Advance, designed and led by Tonic – an organisation set up in 2011 to catalyse change in the arts – which addresses gender inequalities in the fields of opera, dance, and theatre.

On 22 September they came together at an industry symposium hosted at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (Tonic’s academic partners on Advance) to share work done during the programme and where it will lead them. Speakers included The Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director Kevin O’Hare, Associate Director of Opera for The Royal Opera John Fulljames and National Theatre Executive Director Lisa Burger.

Tonic ran an inaugural Advance programme with theatres in 2014. Royal Shakespeare Company Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman described it at the time as “one of the most empowering and significant exercises in looking at equality that I have experienced”. Following the 2014 programme the participating theatres made a range of commitments including Sheffield Theatres’ pledge to implement a 50:50 casting policy and Headlong to commission equal numbers of male and female playwrights.

Tonic’s Director Lucy Kerbel said that Advance takes a root and branch approach, going to the source of systemic imbalances in the performing arts:
“There has been much talk within the performing arts about gender inequalities. Advance exists to turn that talking into action. By supporting these organisations to look on a granular level at how they operate, as well as encouraging them to see the big picture of the change they – as leaders in their fields – have the capacity to initiate, Advance is giving the arts a new and effective way of addressing a very old problem. We have been impressed by the commitment with which the participating organisations have addressed the challenges set to them by Advance and feel incredibly positive about the plans they all now have in place for the future”.

In the first Advance programme the focus was purely on creative teams, and in particular actresses, directors, playwrights, and designers. The second Advance programme has continued to examine the situation for women in freelance creative roles, but the programme has also broadened into territory such as workplace culture and communication styles. National Theatre Director Rufus Norris said: “Our work with Tonic’s Advance Programme went far deeper than simply setting straightforward targets to address gender inequality. We started by examining the core of our working structure – how we communicate internally, particularly in meetings – thinking critically about how gender informs this and looking to improve our approach as a result. Advance has provided us with a springboard to develop a collective self-awareness, which is vital to our ambitions in diversity and inclusivity.”

Across the participating organisations there is a commitment for this work to lead to a more balanced landscape in the performing arts and to connect this with broader work on diversity. Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Sadler’s Wells said: “We had been aware for some time of an imbalance between the number of women and men transitioning from emerging to established choreographers. We want to see a different future and to make change happen you have to dig deep into the culture of an organisation. Working with Tonic as part of the cohort gave us the time and space needed to interrogate everything we do. We have really enjoyed the challenge of the programme.”

The second edition of Advance marks the first time that major dance, opera and theatre organisations have joined forces to address gender imbalances. David Nixon, Artistic Director, Northern Ballet said: “It was energising and often enlightening to be part of a cohort drawn from across the performing arts, made up of different thinking individuals who brought a range of experiences and entry points to the discussions.”

Further information on Advance:

Photo: Hannah Quigley

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