The focus of the National Arts Festival this year may be on celebrating women, but the everyday reality of women in theatre is that of being marginalised and overlooked by its overtly patriarchal structure.
While there is an increasing number of women in powerful positions in the theatre industry, there is still room for transformation, particularly across mainstream platforms. Women remain on the fringes, existing in the alternative spaces which have been established solely by their passion, talent and tenacity.
Theatre is an elite society; there are established networks which may be more difficult for women to enter than men, and even more so for black women. The possibility for collaboration and sharing of opportunities is possible. The problem, as panellist Warona Seane explains, is that “there’s no way anybody who is in power is just going to just hand you their power. There’s no way that’s going to happen.”
Seane was joined on the panel by Phyllis Klotz, Jackie Rens, and Jade Bowers via Skype. Chaired by Lara Bye, the discussion delved deeper into the process of transformation, the experience of black women in theatre, the stories we chose to perpetuate and issues of funding. Rather than being a formal academic space, the panellists shared “their own obsessions, struggles, challenges, themes and current projects that they’re working on,” as encouraged by Bye. Being a diverse group with many varying talents, this made for an interesting and engaging conversation.
“I have always been attracted to stories about warrior women, strong women,” says Rens, explaining her immediate attraction to bringing Ruth First to stage. Ren’s production Ruth First: 117 Days is a prime example of the South African stories that need to be given a space to exist in South African theatre.
Ren raises an interesting perspective on the issue of women empowerment. “We cause our own polarisation, actually, by trying to be what we’re not. Instead of trying to do away with all the differences, we should be celebrating it,” she says.
This could be problematic as there is often insufficient space for women to be themselves in an industry dominated by starkly held, patriotic and often colonial ideals. “I’ve heard a lot of performers, theatre-makers, complaining that there aren’t enough opportunities for women in theatre and my reaction is, let’s look within,” says Ren. “If there aren’t opportunities, why aren’t we making them?” she goes on to ask.
So how should women go about creating opportunities in an industry that does not communicate in the same cultural language and network as she does? Klotz brings attention to the cultural barriers and differences that still exist today. “My concern is with the young girls that I work with every day from the township…who do not have the know-how of how to work the system so that their talents can be recognised.”
Reflecting on her time creating You Strike a Woman, you Strike a Rock, Klotz further suggests that women can and do create these opportunities for themselves, making use of the alternative spaces. “The alternative spaces were created by people who were in the theatre to have a voice against apartheid and in the struggle and therefore, women had an equal part to play and were in positions of power.”
As a successful black woman in theatre, Seane provides perspective on how women have made opportunities for themselves. “My feeling is that the black female voice has been forcibly silenced, by whatever it is that you chose; by apartheid, by patriarchy, by religion, by politics, by economy… There is almost an intention to keep it silent”. For this reason, Seane has usually gravitated towards stories which address concerns of black women.
Seane lists a long and impressive list of black females who enjoy success in theatre. But when has anyone ever had to make a list of successful white people? This alone suggests that there remains room for transformation.
Reflecting further on this list, Seane says that “these are people making amazing work in the alternative spaces because we are on the fringe and we have accepted we’re on the fringe so let’s make the fringe work for us, it’s the space that we have… at some point mainstream will catch up, or not.”
Bowers goes a step further and discusses her engagement with the middle stories. “I feel like a lot of our discourse in South Africa, especially coming to the arts is about black or white or male or female. And what I find interesting in the space of the arts is the in-between stories, the individual stories.”
Theatre should make space for stories which contradict the stereotypes that have been deeply embedded in our society. These are “little stories in the massive epic narrative,” says Bowers, and therefore should be seen, heard and experienced.
Bower’s production of Scorched is on the festival’s program from 8-10 July.
Catch Rens in Ruth First: 117 Days , from 3- 5 July.
Klotz’s Chapter 2 Section 9 is also being staged on the National Lottery Fringe.
Bye is directing the Mating Game a.k.a. Body language 2 on 5, 7, 8,9 July.