Irish social media has been ablaze since the 27th of October when Grace Dyas, Dublin based theatre maker, posted about her experience with Michael Colgan, who had been the Artistic Director of The Gate for 33 years, until earlier this year.
Since Dyas’s piece, more and more women have commented on social media sharing their stories. The support for her is encouraging, but it begs the question why it wasn’t said sooner.
Earlier the same day, we saw a written statement silently appear online where a number of theatre directors condemned sexual harassment. Willie White, Director of Dublin Theatre Festival is quoted as saying that this arose after the Weinstein case and then the more recent Max Stafford-Clark case in Britain.
While it is a positive statement to have made, there seems to be little behind it other than words on a website and those who signed it likely knew more than they were publicly stating, which is disappointing for women, and men, who have been affected by Colgan’s behaviour but don’t have the same authority that these directors do.
While not everyone might be familiar with Grace’s personal story, it is something that has resonated with many women who have worked with or encountered Colgan, as well as women everywhere who have experienced sexual harrassment.
Colgan is one of the most powerful people in theatre and very wealthy; in 2015 The Irish Times reported his salary to be at €231,000. As Dyas says at the beginning of her piece “he got the Gate Lab built by making 12 phone calls because he has a lot of wealthy friends who are willing to donate to him”.
Waking The Feminists
One of the most vocal on social media since Dyas’s piece has been Lian Bell, Set Designer and founder of Waking The Feminists. After calling out the lack of women in the Abbey’s 2016 Programme, Bell and other female theatre workers drew attention to the gender inequality in Irish theatre.
Waking The Feminists commissioned research to back up their arguments and found that The Gate was overall the worst offender.
There are further accounts of Colgan not only making women uncomfortable with sexual and suggestive behaviour, but also casual sexism by being dismissive towards them in social and professional settings, and the results of this study reflected this attitude.
Despite being the second most funded organisation by the Arts Council, it fell behind in employing women in almost every category. 40% of its casts were female (although this research did not discriminate between the significance of roles in a show i.e this figure accounts only for number of women on stage, not lead roles/amount of lines spoken etc), 27% of its designers were female, 8% of its directors were female and only 6% of its authors were female.
At a Waking The Feminists meeting, Colgan said that more funding would be required to increase gender equality at The Gate, which is unacceptable from someone taking such a large salary in an industry that pays its workers so little.
The Gate appointed Selina Cartmel as Colgan’s successor, a move that was probably very conscious given Colgan’s reputation and the mood that WTF inspired in the Irish theatre community.
Class and Feminism
Waking The Feminists was unavoidable for anyone working in Irish theatre in 2016. It was positive in bringing gender equality to the fore, but could have pushed further.
It was a crying shame for it to end after only one year, but it should also have pushed for more funding into the arts at every level to create real equality between classes.
It is usually women working in education and community projects, which get less funding, while men climb the ladder to more powerful positions, despite more women working in the arts than men.
In a 2010 study by the Arts Council showed that 86% of artists had third level degrees, that in 2008, 65% of their time was spent working in either paid or unpaid artistic work, and that the average artist’s wage in 2008 was €14,676. Now, 80% of artists earn less than €10,000 p/a from their artistic work. Theatre, and the arts generally, is also riddled with internships and CE schemes.
Mother Artists Makers (MAM) came out of Waking The Feminists and exists to campaign for and support other mothers working in theatre. From the 250 of their members surveyed, it was found that the average training was 4.5 years and yet after having children, half of these women lost all of their theatre income, while 95% of the rest suffered reduced income.
While there are many working class artists, it is widely accepted that to be successful you need either luck or a privileged background to support the unpaid work and internships.
It is clear from research that this is a hugely under funded profession for the majority of its workers.
Donall O’Kelly, writer and actor, posted “Working class playwrights, women and men, have been discriminated against too, women doubly so. Class bias is not as readily identifiable as gender bias, but it’s there, has been for a century, really obviously. Its existence doesn’t ease the pressure on us to achieve gender equality in the arts workplace. Working for gender equality doesn’t distract from but enhances struggles for equality in other areas, such as resisting class bias. It’s all linked.
Travellers have experienced dire societal bias for decades, women travellers doubly so. A female playwright or theatre worker confined in Direct Provision is denied the right to work, denied even the chance to be biased against! We all need to be part of the one aspiration. Equality.”
Hollywood to Dublin
The parallels between Colgan and Weinstein are undeniable, and it is indicative of a system where arts workers are paid so little, and artists feel disposable, that those with the wealth are able to abuse their power in creating professional opportunities as well as blatantly sexually harassing women without fear of being called out.
Dyas has courageously called Colgan out and the #MeToo social media campaign has assisted women in feeling more confident in calling their own harassers out, but sexual harassment and abuse is still defended and not taken seriously enough by many – from US colleges not properly disciplining rapists to victim blamers claiming women dress too suggestively.
One thing that needs to be repeated and highlighted in the case of Colgan is that it was known in the theatre community that he would get drunk at events and that he was sexist. While hiring a woman to take his place may make The Gate itself seem like it is progressing away from Colgan’s reputation, there were still decades where he managed to get away with unacceptable behaviour and making women uncomfortable.
Calling people like this out are shattering exposures of the nature of the theatre and film industries, but they are merely a microcosm of wider society where sexual harassment exists as part of social and economic powers.
This issue cannot be overcome under the inequality that naturally exists under capitalism, and it is integral in the fight against sexism to fight against our current economic system.