Depending on how active you are on Twitter, you may or may not be aware of a pretty remarkable occurrence last year in Ireland. Amidst the masses of swirling articles and videos regarding the lack of gender parity in theater that are justifiably and importantly flying around the Internet, a group of women and men in Ireland joined in solidarity to effect some pretty substantive change.
It all began on October 28, 2015 when The Abbey Theater, Ireland's national theater, announced the line-up of plays for their 2015/16 "Waking the Nation" season, intended to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ireland's revolution. Despite The Abbey being a publicly-funded entity - funded, in other words, at least in half by female taxpayers - and catering to a theater-going audience estimated to be over 50% female, only one of the 10 announced plays was written by a female playwright.
In a primal cry of despair, Lian Bell, a set designer and arts manager living in Ireland, wrote a lengthy post on Facebook about the bitter injustice of the situation. To her surprise and then delight, the post immediately received a staggering number of comments, "likes," and reposts by women who shared her outrage. When Bell moved the conversation to Twitter, this collective anger took off into a full-blown movement with the hashtag, #WakingTheFeminists.
The Abbey, no doubt panicking more than a little at the depth of the outcry, offered their space for a public meeting, giving the impromptu group a forum to discuss these issues. The resulting event featured 29 speakers, including Lisa Tierney-Keogh who, as an Irish-expat living in the States, is this month bringing #WakingTheFeminists to New York. The Abbey's 619-seat venue sold out rapidly (additional live-streams around town were quickly set up), with far more people wanting to attend than could fit in the doors.
What happened inside those doors was something that Tierney-Keogh swears had never happened before in Ireland - nothing anything like it - women turned out in droves and spoke, voicing the unexpressed pain, anguish, and frustration of years of being held back in a system that chronically undervalued their work and stories. Such was the force of the movement that these 29 voices were quickly bolstered on social media by Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Debra Messing, Cherry Jones, and many other luminaries, all expressing their support and shared experience.
So what came of this, you may well ask. Within a month of that meeting, the Irish Film Board released a statement committing to achieving 50/50 gender parity in their funding of projects over the next three years. The Abbey subsequently pledged that when they announce their 2016/17 season, representation of female playwrights will be far more balanced (you can be sure there will be hell to pay if they don't follow through).
But in a larger and maybe more important sense, Tierney-Keogh says that people in decision-making positions have basically just started looking at their numbers and realizing, "Oh. We haven't programmed a woman two years." or "Oh. We really haven't been giving women's stories equal play." Some people have reacted negatively - after all, not everyone likes to be made to see their own bias - but the point is at least now they're seeing it.
Mostly what I want to is to get everybody talking about it. Because when everyone is talking about it and everyone is having those uncomfortable conversations at their work place, that's when change happens.
A lot of people don't even realize they have a gender bias - it's not out of maliciousness [that they don't program women], it's just them not realizing the underlying bias that's there. But, it's not okay anymore. It has to change.
When asked what's driving her and the 27+ other artists working full-time with #WakingTheFeminists on top of their already busy schedules, Tierney-Keogh says,
I spent many years learning to suppress the pain of being overlooked and ignored, the pain of being constantly pushed back. I watched my male contemporaries being produced and celebrated, as I kept plugging away. I had convinced myself that I just wasn't good enough and I know a lot of women have done the same. But it's just not true. And it has to change.
That's a feeling to which a lot of us women working in the arts can surely relate.
On February 29th at 7pm, Tierney-Keogh, in partnership with The Irish Arts Center, will hold the first meeting of the first US chapter of #WakingTheFeminists in New York City.
Tierney-Keogh acknowledges that the US arts scene will be a more complex problem to tackle, given the larger population and the fact that the funding comes largely from private donors rather than a central government body, but she is optimistic about the possibility for change here too through conversation, education, and activism.
So, please, if you are a woman in theater, if you are a woman who loves theater, if you are a man who cares about women's voices being given credence in theater, or if you are a man or woman who just in general likes women and feels that their stories might be important, please join Tierney-Keogh, Lisa McNulty of The Women's Project, Julia Jordan of The Lilly Awards and many other powerhouse theater artists on February 29th to begin this conversation.
Join her so that we can make practical, substantial progress on these issues in our generation, so that our daughters never have to be told through easy acts of omission that their voices are less than worthwhile.
The Irish Arts Center venue for the meeting has 100 seats and tickets are free, but must be reserved (https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe/10072081). Reserve yours now. You are going to want to be able to say that you were in the room when #WakingTheFeminists came to America.