Since 2014, Gilli-Bush-Bailey and I have been researching Tonic Theatre’s Advance Programme, which works with leading arts organisations to examine the causes of gender imbalance and supports them to find ways of ‘making aspirations for equality a reality’ and to address the inequalities. In 2015 Lisa Woynarski joined our research team and together we have considered, debated and celebrated the discussions and huge enthusiasm for change expressed by all the companies who formed part of the 2014 and 2016 cohorts.
Throughout both processes, run by Lucy Kerbel and Vicky Long, we have been witness to companies delving into how their organisation works and reflecting on how they can bring about and support better gender equality into their work, be it to consider how they can increase the diversity of women they employ (Clean Break), to examine what factors need to be in place to employ a gender balance of actors (Sheffield Theatres) or exploring where are all the female opera librettists (Mahogany Opera Group).
We have observed great commitment to the process and significant ‘pledges’ for change have been made — but for us the key question is how do these changes and enthusiasm for change remain buoyant? How can the impetus to sustain change survive once the cohort ‘graduates’, in face of uncertain times ahead following Brexit, or when the person who was the institutional contact for Advance leaves the organisation, or perhaps more simply, when the everyday pressures of running an organisation takes priority? What happens then?
This question leads us onto the next part of our research project, where, as project lead, I am tracking the ongoing impact of the Advance programme. Over the next three years, our research will follow several individuals and organisations, observing and tracking the changes made and challenges they face.
In March 2017, as the first of a series of follow on interviews, we met with Rachel Tackley, the newly appointed Executive Director of Chichester Festival Theatre to discuss her plans and approaches to gender equity. Rachel, who you can see talking about the challenges of taking a commitment to gender equity as the head of an organisation here, and Daniel Evans (Chichester’s new Artistic Director), were both part of the 2014 Advance cohort, Daniel as Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres and Rachel as Artistic Director of ETT. April 2017 was the launch of Daniel and Rachel’s first festival season at Chichester. In our interview, Rachel spoke about the work and practice of programming an exciting and diverse new season keeping in mind Chichester’s core audience. While the new season has been popular in terms of advance bookings, in the face of a large auditorium to fill, Rachel spoke about the influence of the Advance process in helping her and Daniel commission, cast and recruit diverse teams and contributors and of setting up new initiatives. Welcoming the opportunity to keep the conversation going, Rachel was keen to hear back about the practicalities and approaches that other organisations employ to keep gender equity at the forefront of their work.
One of the most interesting things we look forward to exploring is how people move between organisations and what impetus and ideas to better encourage gender equity they bring with them into their new organisation. And Chichester’s openness and desire to support and encourage women in theatre was all the more evident in Rachel’s and her team’s joyous welcome of Roo, my seven-month old son, who arrived unannounced to participate in the interview.