The women changing British theatre

Miriam Sallon 16 August 2021

Here we celebrate five women in British theatre who have been at the forefront of creating change in the industry

At the start of this year, a report on Women in Theatre showed a shocking disparity between men and women in the industry.

Combining data from a number of wide-ranging institutions, the findings showed gender inequality in every aspect of the industry. Between 2015-2018, for example, women’s theatre companies received only 0.64 per cent of Arts Council funding. In addition, not only do women make up a paltry 31 per cent of artistic directors, they also control only 21 per cent of funding.

But perhaps the most concerning finding, nothing has changed in the past ten years. Where other industries are working towards greater equality, the theatre industry appears to have stagnated, still a long way off where it should be.

So in a staggeringly male-dominated industry, we wanted to celebrate some of the women breaking new ground and making a name for themselves as pioneers in their specialties.

Vicky Featherstone

Artistic director of the Royal Court theatre since 2013, Vicky Featherstone is best known for championing new and exciting writing, from both complete unknowns as well as long-standing household names. Under her tenure, the theatre has hosted powerful new work with Featherstone’s trademark themes of urgency and hyper contemporariness, from writers such as Caryl Churchill, David Ireland, Jez Butterworth, and Lucy Kirkwood to name a very few.

With theatre moving towards some version of normality, Featherstone has no intention of letting her audiences get too comfortable. The Royal Court’s “The Song Project”, opening on the August 17, sees award-winning singer and composer Wende collaborate with choreographer Imogen Knight and writers such as E V Crowe and Stef Smith to stage a defiant “bold experiment” of a musical, which seeks to set music to those feelings too complex to express merely with words.

Sharon D Clarke

Describing herself as a “30-year overnight sensation”, Sharon D Clarke has racked up quite an amazing selection of roles on the stage over the years, including the award-winning The Amen Corner in 2014, the award-winning revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2016, the award-winning Death of a Salesman in 2019. Need we go on? It seems that casting Clarke is a dead-set strategy to being a smashing success. And it’s no wonder, with her uncanny ability to fill the auditorium with a quiet power, the audience enrapt by the slightest movement, the smallest sound, and a singing voice, also showcased in the Kiln Theatre’s Blues in the Night, that carries a weighty yet wry intensity.

In Tony Kushner’s latest musical Caroline or Change, Clarke took the lead, first in Chichester, then Hampstead and the West End. And come October, she’ll be taking it to off-Broadway at Studio 54, no doubt with a Broadway transfer not far behind.

Katrina Lindsay

With a portfolio including such major productions as Small Islands (National Theatre), Porgy and Bess (Open Air Theatre) and the outrageously all-bells-and-whistles Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (for which she won an Olivier), Katrina Lindsay has established herself as the very best in costume and set design. Taking on each project with fresh eyes, the only constant in her work seems to be excellence.

Come December, her work will be displayed in the brand-new musical Hex at the National Theatre. A new take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale, this is sure to be another breath-taking production, full of sparkling, ethereal detail.

Nina Raine

Since 2000 when she began her career as assistant director at the Royal Court, Nina Raine seems unable to avoid winning awards, including the Critics Circle’s Most Promising Playwright, the Charles Wintour Evening Standard Award, and an offie for “Best New Play”.

Her latest work, Bach and Sons tells the story, as the name would suggest, of the great composer and his children. A family drama at its core, Raine illustrates the trying realities of artistic genius as Bach struggles to garner any unity amongst his own. It is currently enjoying a roaring success of a premier at the Bridge Theatre, already labelled “a wonder” and “a hymn to the power of music”.

Emma Rice

The rockstar of theatrical direction and production, Emma Rice marches to the beat of her own drum. Appointed artistic director of the Globe in 2016, she enjoyed the shortest tenure to date, holding the position for only a year before the board decided that, in short, her ideas were too radical. They might have been right, but her productions that followed, under her new company Wise Children have blown audiences away time and again with her “radical” take on lighting, music, staging, casting; her gloriously corrupting perspective on seemingly conventional narratives.

Rice’s latest production, Baghdad Café has opened to rave reviews across the board at the Old Vic, described as a “joyful wish” and a “visual masterpiece”. Based on the 1987 film by the same name, it tells of an unlikely friendship between two women—a German tourist and the owner of a remote café and motel. And of course, it’s full of magic and music and glitter.

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