Gender Equality and Diversity in European Theatres: Interview with Heidi Wiley

by Elizabeth Sakellaridou*

Οur five aims: to support sustainability, digital theatre, diversity and inclusion, participatory theatre and theatre for and with young people

Heidi Wiley

2021 has been expected as a landmark in modern Greek history: it is the year of the bicentennial celebration of the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Modern State of Greece. By strange coincidence, the year opened with the dramatic outburst of another kind of “liberation” movement, beyond the anticipated symbolic festivities, which swept the country for several months. This was the belated but most dynamic Greek #metoo movement, which, starting from the domain of sports, found an even louder voice in the arts, especially the theatre. Actresses came out first with allegations of rape or physical and/or psychological abuse by established male directors, soon to be followed by similar allegations from other minority groups, gay and disabled actors in particular and also underage youths (some of ethnic origin not necessarily from the artistic circles), for sexual and verbal violence and abuse by celebrity male actors/directors/managers who held key-positions in the theatre world.

The situation took the form of an avalanche that shook Greek society and the media, and it pressed the State but also the private sector to strengthen existing social and judicial institutions for the investigation, punishment and future prevention of such cases of moral and criminal offence within the larger domain of culture. Under the public outcry, both the former and the present artistic directors of the National Theatre resigned from their current positions, with the latter already being detained with grave allegations for the rape of minors.

At this moment of unprecedented crisis and as the Greek theatre world is trying to reconstitute itself, the ETC initiative to conduct a cross-European research on “Gender equality and diversity” in European Theatres is more timely than ever. The published outcome of this research is the first endeavour to chart the situation in various European countries, give numbers and statistics about the distribution of power in the theatre industry along the lines of gender and diversity, and set up new criteria for allocating power positions and improving conduct throughout European theatre institutions.

I spoke to Heidi Wiley, executive director of the ETC, and asked her to define the function and goals of the ETC, explain the importance of the recently published study administered to two researchers of the University of Louvain and delineate for us the future projects of this pan-European theatre organisation.

ETC executive director Heidi Wiley. Photo: Courtesy of ETC

As she points out in her foreword to Gender Equality and Diversity in European Theatres, the study “provides gender equality and diversity information for theatres in 22 countries, comprising 4000+ employees and an analysis of more than 650 performances.” One of the key results of the research, as noted in the press release, is that  “four women are mentioned in theatre programmes for every six men and that men dominate job categories of playwright, director, and technical staff, while women hold more than 70% of the positions of “costumes” and “hairdressing.”

What follows is the interview I held with Heidi Wiley.

What are the aims of the ETC as an organisation and its achievements so far?

As the largest network of public theatres in Europe, the ETC has 44 European Members from over 25 countries, reflecting the diversity of Europe’s vibrant cultural sector. Founded in 1988, the ETC promotes European theatre as a vital platform for dialogue, democracy and interaction that responds to, reflects and engages with today’s diverse audiences and changing societies.

ETC fosters an inclusive notion of theatre that brings Europe’s social, linguistic and cultural heritage to audiences and communities in Europe and beyond. Powerful and professional ETC governance ensures that the network will thrive and grow, taking into consideration the latest trends and developments.

The ETC’s current four-year “ENGAGE: Empowering today’s audience through challenging theatre” programme offers our Member Theatres creative opportunities and project possibilities. The programme is supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.

In terms of major achievements, in November 2020 we were one of the three organisations (alongside the German EU Council Presidency and in cooperation with the European Commission and the German Minister of State for Culture and the Media) to initiate the first European Theatre Forum. More than 150 policymakers, artists, theatre-makers, theatre and performing arts structures gathered in this meeting and created, for the first time ever, a collective political voice for the theatre and performing arts sector in Europe. ETC also joined up with 11 other European theatre and performing arts networks to produce the Dresden Declaration, which set out 8 concrete suggestions for protecting the sector.

In recent years, we experimented and pioneered with international theatre practices to push boundaries, bringing theatre to wider audiences. And it’s with quite some pride that we received European prizes for our work. The ETC project Young Europe 2, creating work with and for young audiences in classrooms while developing a European repertory of plays for young audiences was selected as one of the European Union “Success Story.” The project European Theatre Lab– Drama goes digital won the “Spotlight on Heritage in Culture and the Arts,” a special Pearle* award for an individual organisation’s outstanding achievement. 

Could you tell us a bit more about your current activities and future prospects?

Alongside our professional development work, such as workshops on sustainability and publications such as this study on diversity and gender equality, we also have a broad programme of artistic activity. During May 2021 we released a major international project of short theatre films, called Renaissance, linking together 18 theatres from 22 European countries. This then counted down to a week of activity in June—the Week of New European Drama—which included the premiere of new plays for young people through the Young Europe 3 festival, a collaboration project between 9 European theatres; and the unveiling of new writing which had been translated into English for the first time.

Renaissance. Photo: Národní divadlo—National Theatre Prague

In the future, and particularly as we look to emerge from the pandemic, our aim is to continue supporting artistic exchange and international collaboration for European theatre, to continue to further our five aims: to support sustainability, digital theatre, diversity and inclusion, participatory theatre and theatre for and with young people.

What was the initial motivation for this research and where did it originate? Was it a collective demand or the initiative of the ETC administration? What was, for instance, the role of the Bratislava conference in 2018 in launching this subsequent research project?

In 2018, amid the #metoo movement, we invited theatre makers across Europe to come together at the European Theatre Convention (ETC) conference in Bratislava to drive change. They recognised that gender and diversity inequalities are every bit as inherent in theatre as in film and other entertainment industries–and that addressing the challenge would require courageous self-assessment.

The outcome was the ETC Diversity in Action Code of Conduct for European Theatres. In 2019/20, to ensure the document would not be left to gather dust in a drawer, we commissioned two researchers at the University of UCLouvain in Belgium, Annalisa Casini and Sarah Sepulchre, to conduct a study of diversity and gender equality in the staff and on stages in ETC Member theatres—and enable the formulation of concrete steps to bring about change.

The ETC International Theatre Conference in Bratislava focused on “Diversity in Action.” Photo: Peter Chvostek

As far as we know, it is the first time that there has been a “Cross-Europe” view of diversity and gender equality in theatre. In total, the three-part ETC study provides diversity information for theatres in 22 countries, comprising 4000+ employees and an analysis of more than 11,500 artists and theatre professionals involved in 650 performances.

Are the two authors of the study organically connected with the ETC or have they been chosen for their expertise in this type of scientific research, including charts and statistics?

I met the researcher Sarah Sepulchre prior to the Bratislava conference preparations in Brussels and was impressed by her expertise, her research approach and the energy she conveyed when putting forward their evidence-driven data and arguments for a more equal cultural sector that is so important to represent society. Hence Sarah took part in the debates on gender issues at the ETC Bratislava conference, where she met with ETC member theatre representatives.

Age of Rage. Photo: Sanne Peper

Was the project primarily a collaboration between the ETC and the University of Louvain and how was it funded?

Yes, ETC reached out to the research team around Sarah Sepulchre from the University of Louvain to request and commission the study. It was funded as part of ETC’s ENGAGE programme—which is co-funded by Creative Europe from the European Commission.

How was the uneven theatre membership and national representation handled in the initial stages of the research?

The study was open to all ETC members to participate on a voluntary basis. Knowing that internal structures and available capacities to join European projects vary in each member theatre, we encouraged and accompanied members to participate throughout the process. The different response rate of the three questionnaires reflects this diversity of means across the membership. While we strive to have a balanced geographical representation of theatres in our network as well as in the concrete project activities, tackling those imbalances is part of our continuous work and also important when identifying and mapping gaps that need further action.

How did the voluntary basis of participation of various institutions and their staff members in the on-going research affect the setting of criteria for valid results?

This was part of the assignments given to the researchers. Based on their professional expertise and research methodology allowing to conclude valid and thorough analyses, they indicate as part of the study results the imbalances that leave room for improvement in next and further research, as well as they highlight results that are biased due to the restricted available data. As with all research results, one needs to seriously consider the context of interpretation.

This is answered in the following questions, but it meant that we had to limit the scope of analysis in sections of the study to fit the information that we had. There were only 7 of our member theatres that provided information for all of the sections of the research, so there was some overlap, some holes. There was also some overrepresentation from some countries which skew the results. This is the nature of doing a study.

Democrisis—Theater Magdeburg. Photo: Andreas Lander

The title of the study suggests a double focus. From its two directions the first one (gender) becomes clearer as an inquiry about the equal representation of women in the theatre, especially in key- and power-positions, the target being—as indicated in the Foreword—“a triple F rating for Theatre,” as already endorsed in the Film industry. Is this because gender is a broader and more comprehensive category that would give the study a firmer basis, a more solid starting point?

Our intention with the study was to focus on all aspects of diversity in theatre staff, leadership and on stages. The first two elements of the study, sent to theatres for them to fill in, asked questions about identity, occupation, economic situation, discrimination and contract types across as wide a range as possible of protected characteristics, including ethnicity, sexuality, age, gender, disability and religion.

This yielded sufficient data for us to make some conclusions about representation in theatre. The results revealed a “noteworthy” near-absence of people from minority backgrounds in staff at ETC member theatres. This comprises sexual orientation, ethnicity, trans* and people with disabilities. Even within this very small sample size, people from these minority backgrounds were found to occupy less prestigious or artistic positions in the theatre structure. Non-Caucasian people work mainly in the administrative and technical teams, and the study found that the contract situations for the few respondents that identified as trans* or disabled were “significantly more precarious than their respective counterparts,” even though the publicly funded theatre context means this precarity was overall still low.

ETC Dresden Conference 2019. Photo: Klaus Gigga

However, the small sample sizes for some of the questions forced us to focus on gender equality for the more detailed analysis, and to make the most nuanced and meaningful comparisons. Here, we were able to dig deeper on one of the biggest conundrums and contradictions in theatre and the performing arts: How is that women continue to make up the majority of theatre staff, yet struggle to progress to leadership positions? How is it, too, that structural barriers remain in place, at least 40 years after questions about who gets to make art were first asked with any force?

The results initially paint an optimistic picture on gender equality. However, when the theatre management answered on behalf of all staff members, a more familiar and negative story emerged.

Responses from the study suggest that it’s perhaps not that leaders choose to ignore issues, or ask the wrong questions. Perhaps, instead, they ask the right questions and get answers that don’t reveal the extent of the issue.

Coming now to the second direction of the study, the idea of diversity is less clearly defined. Is this because some of these categories (with the exception of race and sexuality which have been visible for several decades now) are still much less noticeable as demanding attention in the function of the theatre industry in several countries: ethnicity and disability, for instance?

Make no mistake: all elements of the diversity study reveal that there are serious access issues within organisations for people with disabilities, from ethnic minority backgrounds, or who do not broadly identify as a straight white male. Yet, on the specific topic of gender, one slice of results made it seem as if there were no glass ceiling, while the other revealed a systemic issue.

It’s clear that any idea of diversity or inclusion cannot be restricted to gender or ethnicity alone. A true commitment to diversity includes a commitment to assessing who has access to power at every level of the organisation. It’s important to look too at the diversity of staff, performers, writers, audiences—who is not able to access our work, and what can we do to change this?

The focus on gender in the second part of the study stems from the way in which the research was conducted. The researchers analysed 11,500 performers to see who was on stage and who appeared in theatre programmes. This was done manually, with the researchers coding people as male or female based on their names alone. As we did not have detailed diversity information for every single one of the 11,500 performers, it was not possible to then say who identified as having a disability, or as non-white, or came from a particular economic background.

One thing we learned was that to do this research more effectively and efficiently in the future, there needs to be detailed collaboration with people that are closer to the shows. This way, we could know which performers and creatives had particular characteristics. We would also be able to assess whether a performer had a key role in a production, or was a peripheral character. This is clearly an important consideration when thinking about diversity on stage and assessing whether increased representation is joined by increased prominence.

For us, it’s also another reason why the Triple F Rating would be an important element, as it carries an obligation—or a recognition—of shows in which women have leading roles. The people we see on stage condition the types of stories we see on stage and in society.

Schauspielhaus. Graz. Photo: Lupi Spuma

National policies and cultural traditions on all the thorny issues of diversity still differ widely between European countries. How far have they been considered as important determining factors in the present study, or perhaps are they just acknowledged as crucial but are actually relegated to a future more detailed and exhaustive study because of their complexity?

The study clearly proves that when gender and diversity policies are already in place, the discrimination rate of reported cases was much lower than in places without. As a result, ETC will focus in the future on sharing best practices on how to develop and implement these policies in theatres across our membership, alongside with a continuous self-assessment to measure the improvement of the status quo.

There is also recognition within the study of the impact of these factors. “Even among the participating theatres, the number of participants per theatre varies a lot (ranging from 1 to 64 people). This imbalance in the number of respondents might have been a source of bias. Looking at the data, it appears thus that there is a clear overrepresentation of northern countries, such as Germany, Norway or Austria, together with Portugal (corresponding to over 60% or the sample).

“If we consider the gender equality index of these countries (mean value = 0.07) and we compare it to the one of the countries poorly represented in our sample (mean value = 0.14), we are forced to observe that the former is significantly lower (p < .001) than the latter… This indicates that the observed tendency towards equality between men and women could be due more to the impact of the particularly egalitarian national contexts than to a real change of trends in the theatre milieu.”

Renaissance. Photo: Göteborgs Stadsteater—Backa Teater

As one of the main supporters of this brave first step in charting the gender dynamics and diversity of the human resources and creativity in the European theatre world, how would you rate the importance and the validity of this pioneer work?

This is clearly a first step, and we will repeat the study again over the course of our next funding period. We think it is important to stress that while there have been discussions about the diversity of being, making and seeing artistic work within certain countries for decades, we think this is the first time that diversity has been assessed across the entirety of Europe.

It was completed by leading researchers, at an independent institution, and it has been important for us to share the full, unredacted results and appendices online.

We hope this will empower individual theatres and inspire others to follow to improve working conditions and serve as example of how to introduce behavioural change to enable theatres to be a more inclusive workplace, that represents and is relevant for the society it aims to reflect. In this context, the European Commission just launched a cross-European study on the situation of theatres in the EU countries, in which it also investigates the status quo on gender equality of our sector, and we were able to share with the research team our results.

Is there a prospect for a further, more comprehensive but also more systematic research, engaging more institutions in the questionnaires and enriching the samples of answers in various ways?

We consider the study as a starting point allowing to build upon the knowledge we have gained. It is our goal to continuously work with our member theatres to improve the stated imbalances. We will concretely introduce the provided grid for self-assessment, organise workshops and plan a second study over the course of the next 3 years to gauge the progress made. We have already begun working with other organisations to share the use of the grid.

ETC’s work primarily focuses on our member theatres, but we do collaborate with external organisations to ensure that members learn from other sources. This is something we could consider for adding more information.

ETC_Dresden 2019. Photo: Sebastian Hoppe

If one of the chief roles of the ETC is to advise and encourage theatre institutions to improve their policies for equal job distribution to diverse members of their communities, would it perhaps be a good idea, for instance, to put forward a recruiting campaign for new members from all European countries to achieve a more even representation?

ETC is an open network welcoming members from all corners of Europe, and we especially like to welcome new theatres from countries that are less or not yet represented. The variety of our activities and strategic artistic work implies that each theatre that has a desire to connect internationally can help us realise our goals together. We do also recommend that organisations consider quotas in their hiring practices. This is something that we can see in our policy paper on diversity and inclusion, which will be published after the upcoming conference.

Would it also help—you think—to intensify your rhetoric of persuasion to existing member theatres for affirmative action towards equality and diversity, on top of commissioning a new wider research on this burning subject?     

Introducing change needs time, but the current period is a moment of dramatic change, and we are intensifying our activity towards a transformative way of working that will enable theatres to better confront and address the complex challenges that we are faced with, including this burning subject for a more equal and diverse theatre.

We also lobby European bodies and figures to include the importance of theatre as a vehicle for social change. This is important as we apply for a new round of European funding.

Heidi, thank you so much for this lively, all-inclusive and illuminating talk.

I wish you the best of luck for all ETC current projects and future plans. 


*Elizabeth Sakellaridou is Professor Emerita of Theatre Studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She has taught a variety of courses on theatre and performance, English and European dramaturgy (including Greek theatre) as well as gender and cultural studies. Her other interdisciplinary interest lies in performance phenomenology. Her books and other international publications extend in all the above areas of research. She currently teaches applied theatre in an MA programme for training drama-therapists. She is theatre and culture advisor at the Municipality of Thessaloniki and board member of various European theatre journals. She also works as translator of theatre scripts from English into Greek and vice versa.

Copyright © 2021 Heidi Wiley
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