Book Review: ALL CHANGE PLEASE, Lucy Kerbel

Book Review: ALL CHANGE PLEASE, Lucy Kerbel

Another week, another dispiriting gender equality statistic, as research by The Stage reveals 75% of West End musicals staged in the past decade had no women on their writing teams; removing jukebox shows from the equation, just 9% featured music by female composers. It's hardly an historical problem, either, with not one new musical crediting a female writer or composer in 2014.

Yet temporary collective handwringing is too often the response to such (shocking, yet not - sadly - surprising) research. How, then, can and should theatres and theatre-makers address such statistics in pragmatic terms? Enter Lucy Kerbel's eminently practical book All Change Please.

Kerbel, who founded Tonic Theatre in 2011 to support the industry in achieving greater gender equality, makes her case in calm yet resolute fashion, busting common myths and giving readers the tools to spot and combat imbalances - both collectively and individually. It is, she states, a springboard, not an instruction manual.

That does mean principally general strategy; on the whole, specific shows, theatres or individuals exemplifying either positive or negative practice escape mention. It results in a book far less likely to date than, say, a raging editorial about Emma Rice's departure from the Globe, but occasionally too cool in its neutrality.

Yet what blazes through is Kerbel's passionate counterargument to the oft-bleated "Women would get more work if they were better or more committed" (see David James's response in that Stage article). Jennifer Tuckett, director of University Women in the Arts, recently demanded a Government inquiry into barriers holding women back, noting that the high number of female arts students tumbles dramatically at the professional level.

Kerbel's stats do indeed make grim reading. Taking one night in September 2014, Tonic found that of the directors represented in the West End, only 29% were female (38% in subsidised theatres); female performers 29% (37%); and The Mousetrap the only play by a woman (8%). The West End had no female sound designers at all.

Yet drama classes and youth clubs are teeming with girls, so where do they go? Kerbel notes more are to be found in important but comparatively undervalued roles: administration rather than artistic, supporting rather than leadership.

Why? Not merely because of choice or talent level, but because the freelance nature of those creative roles (which in turn build a CV deemed worth of an artistic directorship) means constant uncertainty and the lack of a safety net needed if you're planning or supporting a family.

Not only that, but the freewheeling nature of recruitment in theatre - subjective, informal and fast-paced given the high turnover - means those in power often employ others like them (unconscious bias looms large in the book), and there's far less oversight or feedback to assess prejudices and create a successful working space for a diverse range of people.

Kerbel's driving point is that this is a widespread systemic problem, but - here's the good news - solvable by making small but important changes to established practice: the 5p plastic bag tax approach. Drama is driven by change, so why should the industry that makes drama be so afraid of it?

"Fix gender equality" is a daunting task for the already overworked, so Kerbel encourages day-to-day, achievable goals and targeted strategies. She practises what she preaches - for example, Tonic and Nick Hern Books' Platform programme, correcting a vast imbalance by commissioning plays for young people with majority female casts and prioritising women's stories.

One of the most striking sections in All Change Please is Kerbel's experience of a focus group with youth drama participants. The lack (and poorer quality) of parts for girls meant a steady erosion of their confidence, while the boys - fortified by their smaller number and wide choice of empowering roles - were gradually built up. Boys were more likely to challenge if they weren't given a part they wanted; girls learned not just to accept rejection, but to do so with a smile lest they be labelled difficult.

It's not hard to see how that can shape people's views of relative gender importance and entitlement; just look at social media response when a woman ventures an opinion, or those discouraged from entering public leadership or politics because of the level of abuse. Kerbel makes a strong case for theatre as a key facet of social change: not a luxury, but a necessity.

The book is arguably idealistic in its suggestions for addressing reactionary forces - again, look at the level of vitriol on social media, or patronising complacency among some arts leaders. How many pieces railing against women taking men's roles are routinely published, while male dominance is accepted as the norm? (In response to news of Dominic Dromgoole's Wilde season, producer Jake Orr tweeted: "Can't wait for prominent female director to take up a year long residency in West End directing only plays of a prominent female playwright".)

Tuckett has advocated for strict diversity quotas; Kerbel is more circumspect. A utopian view, perhaps, but at a time when many progressives feel powerless, Kerbel's belief in the industry's ability to change, the benefits it will bring, and the joy we can find in advancing that change is much-needed inspiration. We so often despair at the negative; here is a brisk spur to take action and create the positive.

All Change Please by Lucy Kerbel is published by Nick Hern Books

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