Looking through a different lens

Bechdel Testing Theatre in 2016


2016 is looking exciting, as the conversation about #WomenInTheatre continues to intensify, with deeper questions building and expanding on the theme of “Where are the women?”. 
Last week saw an article in The Guardian featuring some of the best female practitioners of recent times railing against (and occasionally smashing down) the barriers faced by women in theatre. Sarah Crompton’s article rightly applauds the writers and directors who are “tearing up the script” of theatre’s long-embedded sexist hierarchy in senior jobs, building a new canon and shaking up the old classics to find and create opportunities for actresses. Despite this heady sense of change in the air, Crompton notes that there is still “a general feeling among female playwrights that their gender means their work is viewed differently”, and ponders why this might be, since “It’s not as if women are absent from the theatregoers’ gaze” (a claim made with reference only to the Royal Court’s latest lady-laden season – a shining example to much of the theatre world, where we still have to focus that gaze concertedly to find such a diverse range of women on stage). Duncan MacMillan muses on responses to the female protagonist of his play, People Places and Things: “the character’s gender is very visible somehow, whereas if it was a male character I don’t think we would think twice”, and Vicky Featherstone wonders if last year’s lukewarm-reviewed How To Hold Your Breath had “had a male central character, would people have liked it more?”, whether it is “something in our cultural DNA that makes us respond differently when a play has a central male character?”. 

They’re some big questions, as Crompton points out. They’re complicated, but too important to just be left hanging there. Researchers have been looking for possible answers:

Do audiences respond differently to male characters?
Hailey Bachrach conducted a revealing experiment, showing the same play, created through the same preparation process, swapping the characters genders in various combinations, and recorded audience responses. Lo and behold, audiences interpreted exactly the same lines and actions differently according to gender, using different words: “coward” for men only, “strong” and “independent” for women only, and passing different judgements on the character’s “emotional” state of mind or “moral compass”. It seems that characters under a spotlight suffer from the same gendered behaviour expectations as people do real life, with their fictionality allowing viewer bias to be highlighted as audiences are encouraged to express their judgements openly and honestly. Note, Michael Billington’s description of Maxine Peake’s “chirpy, bright-eyed resilience” in the How To Hold Your Breath review linked above. 


Whether audiences and critics would have favoured a play with a male protagonist isn’t proved by this experiment, but it is certainly evident that responses to characters are highly influenced by gender.

Maxine Peake, remaining chirpy in spite of dystopian circumstances

It’s also notable in the audience feedback that much judgement of characters was based upon how women and men interact with each other (for example assuming that it is a man’s duty to ‘protect’ a woman). This leads a Bechdel-tester to wonder what the influence on perception might be if female characters are seen interacting with other women in a scene before any men are present on stage, perhaps asserting authority or showing excellent negotiating and debating skills, would their relationships to men be less likely to be viewed stereotypically, as either dependant or interfering?
I would be interested to see a version of this experiment where a Bechdel-passing scene is inserted and removed, to test what difference it makes to perceptions of women on stage when they’re seen outside of their relationship to men.

Do we prefer male characters, written by men?
Purple Seven‘s study (reported in The Stage with a positive headline emphasising equality improvements of recent years), explores the gender gap in opportunities available to women in theatre, and in critical ratings. Their findings:

  • Male playwrights write 37% parts for women. Female playwrights write 60% female parts. Male writers and directors command bigger stages and higher ticket prices, and in 2015 wrote 68% of plays staged.
  • Critics award more 4 and 5 star ratings to plays with majority casts of their own gender, with male reviewer’s bias more heavily weighted towards male casts.
Stats from PurpleSeven

On the question of whether greater ticket sales mean that audiences “prefer” male-led plays, the findings are unclear because without equality of opportunity – a similar number of female-led plays staged in equally sized and priced venues – it’s difficult to say whether we “simply attend what’s on offer”. It may be that producers and artistic directors believe that male-led plays are a “safer bet”, however, with a 65% female customer base, reviewer ratings showing that women like watching women, and a trend towards female prominence rising, it’s hard to imagine that it would be a wasted effort to search out and commission female-led plays.


Whilst not comprehensive, this study and Bachrach’s experiment go some way to confirming that the suspicions of the professionals feeling a distinct difference in tone of critical reception as well as level of representation, are based on reality and not some kind of feminist-biased paranoia. Purple Seven’s stats offer hope, showing that the number of jobs for women in theatre is growing, offering an increase in opportunities for women to take control of the way we are presented, to create characters that challenge the gendered readings of human interaction shown by Bachrach’s audiences, and transform perceptions of women on stage and in society


Looking through a different lens
There is understandable wariness in this creative industry of looking too long and hard at statistics, a justified fear of producing new work to tick boxes and satisfy quotas – but while playing a numbers game is no method for creating great art, there is evidence that where women are given extra support, encouragement and opportunity, by companies making an effort to combat the extra level of judgement and bias faced by female creators and characters, a balance can be achieved without sacrificing quality.

In an assessment of their work following Ireland’s #WakingTheFeminists movement, new play company Fishamble, found that the gender balance of playwrights was higher in female representation when specific submissions were called for, or when active support was offered, than amongst unsolicited offerings – it was when the company made an effort to reach out that a greater standard of equality was achieved. This important discovery which contains a valuable clue as to how to practically and effectively balance gender-representation within a theatre’s programming, came about thanks to the loud voices (in person and on social media) of women in the industry and audience who spoke out and made demands for representation. #WakingTheFeminists is a powerful example of the impact and changes that are possible when campaigners at all levels of our career or involvement in theatre get together and make a lot of noise.

Wear your feminism on your sleeve (or bag, or lapel)


Vicky Featherstone said that she disagrees with quotas in favour of ‘choosing the best play’, but herself has demonstrated a willingness to seek out a high number of female writers and directors and include a more diverse range of roles for women that represents statistical progress towards equality in gender representation. Though not using a quota system, Featherstone’s gender-balanced and high-calibre season demonstrates the effectiveness of putting a feminist with acutely-honed gender awareness in a position of power. She has, as she put it herself, the ability to look ‘through a different lens’ as a result of being part of the conversation about women in theatre, using her own feminist perspective to fulfil quotas without ever having had to impose them. The fact that her season has made headlines suggests that more pressure is needed on other theatres, producers and artistic directors to make a 50% female season normal instead of noteworthy.

Harris and Featherstone, unfortunately still part of a minority amongst theatre establishment figures


Shout to be heard 
More noise can still be made about the importance of aiming for equality of representation, whether it’s achieved through high-level awareness of feminists in programming positions or through stats being published and companies being held to account, but that noise needs to come from somewhere, which is why @BechdelTheatre encourages audiences, actors, directors, anyone participating in this industry at any level, to cheer loudly at every step in the right direction. Shout about every great script or show that represents the diversity and complexity of the female humans who make up half of our population,  and do it just as loudly as we condemn every male-centric season or stereotyped female casting. Remind your colleagues and fellow theatre-goers to switch on their internal gender-awareness alarm when reading a script or casting breakdown, or buying a ticket to a play. Make a resolution to always ask:

  • Is more than one woman involved in this show? 
  • Are they writing or directing? 
  • Does it pass the Bechdel Test? 

If you know of a female-led production or company at any level, representing a diverse range of women in high-quality work, congratulate them, support them by buying tickets, and next time bring along a feminist friend who thinks “theatre’s not for me” – to prove them wrong. 

If you’re a playwright, deviser or looking to create brand new work this year, you could commit to answering the questions above, and then go a step further by consulting the Sphinx Test to put women at the centre of your stage:

Sphinx Theatre’s list of considerations for theatre-makers writing female characters


The big hope #WomenInTheatre for 2016 is for everyone inspired and empowered by #WakingTheFeminists to put even more pressure on artistic directors and producers to use their audience-eye-view, step up to the mark and consider which plays and characters will most please increasingly diversity-aware female-majority audiences, and which ones will help shift the (white/straight/upper-class/non-disabled) male-preferential bias (in both theatre and society) into the realms of history.


Why Bechdel Test Theatre?

What is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is a blunt but enduring tool used in feminist film criticism and analysis for 30 years to check for the representation of women on screen.
To pass, a film must
A) contain 2 female characters (preferably named), who
B) must talk to each other, about
C) something other than men.
For more information on which films pass, and a depressing skim of how many fail, visit BechdelTest.com

Why is it important?

The fact that this very basic minimal benchmark is still often not met means that, despite attracting criticism for its limitations (more on this later), the test is still a frequent provoker of debate. In the decades since it was conceived, in a light-hearted 1985 comic strip (below), to highlight the lack of women characters in film and the desire of women to see our own gender on screen, the test has remained as a starting point for wider and more in-depth discussions. By drawing attention to the problem of underrepresentation – still as relevant as ever, the test encourages the film industry to take steps, however small, towards positive change.

                     Alison Bechdel’s original comic strip

How does it apply to theatre?

It seems worth considering whether the theatre industry- suffering from similar problems of underrepresentation noted in the worlds of film and TV, could benefit from Bechdel testing its play scripts.
At a recent Open Space event organised by GAP Salon and Devoted & Disgruntled at Camden People’s Theatre on the topic of gender in theatre, I raised the question for discussion, of whether it would be useful to apply the test to stage scripts as well as screen.

                     #DDGender GAP Salon

The question was prompted by recent practical applications of the test reported in the media: Swedish Cinemas introducing a Bechdel ‘rating system’ in 2013, and this year’s Bechdel Test Fest screening and celebrating films that pass with flying colours. These initiatives to highlight representative films changed the way the test was considered- as an interesting, sometimes funny, occasionally confounding, red-flag for (self-confessed) frustrated feminists. The test has long provided fuel for complaining rants, but applied with a slant that highlights positive examples, it has potential to induce more practical consideration of solutions. When the test flags up the ‘passes’ rather than the ‘fails’ it seems the media, the public and the industry start paying attention, audiences and creators feel empowered to work together towards greater representation rather than merely bemoaning its lack.
In the theatre industry good intentions are already being expressed to increase diversity, and change is evidently more immediately possible in our fast-adapting industry, with race-blind casting, all-female productions and female-led shows already far more prevalent (though still with a way to go) in mainstream theatre than in film. If initiatives similar to the Swedish ratings system and the Bechdel Test Fest were to exist in this industry, it’s not hard to imagine that the ‘trickle up’ could be a speedy one, from a grassroots fringe theatre idea to a standard topic for consideration amongst major West End producers.

What about the problems with the test?

There are three main issues that have aroused debate over whether the test is a useful indicator of equality and diversity in representation – debates which have lead to some interesting Bechdel-inspired alternatives, and adaptations of the test.
The problems with the test reflect the depth and range of problems with the industry (and society!) that the test on its own is not wide-reaching enough to address. These limitations in themselves provoke consideration of issues related to and beyond the test itself which should and will continue to be discussed at length wherever the test is applied, and can do so without invalidating the usefulness of the test as a simplified starting-point.
The 3 most commonly-noted problems/limitations with the test:

It’s not feminist enough
The test is not an indicator of how feminist or sexist a script or characters may be, but a simple method for identifying scripts that are not entirely male-centric. It does not address how women are represented, but purely asks whether they are present at all. The test is a food-for-thought first-step into more in-depth feminist analysis, gender awareness, and other equalities issues that could play an important part in extending the discussion beyond those of us already engaged in the representation conversation.

It’s not inclusive enough
The test is limited to gender-checking, and does not cover other areas where representation is just badly lacking: race, disability and size being a few. It also assumes a gender binary whereby all characters are identified as male or female, without considering characters that may identify as transgender, gender-fluid, gender-neutral or any other possibilities.
Many of these issues are to do with actors than characters, and diversity can be increased by looking at casting and using methods such as blind-casting or quotas, at a later time than the writing or script-development stage where the Bechdel test focuses its attention.
Regarding the question of non-binary gender representation it may be useful if the reference to ‘female characters’ is interpreted as a flawed/outdated simplification meaning ‘female-identifying characters’ or ‘non-cis-male characters’. Even without that qualifier, it may be argued that by encouraging the representation of characters who aren’t depicted entirely in the context of their gender (binary or not), is a small step towards greater representation of characters as complex humans rather than simply males or females.

It’s not imaginative enough
The test does not expressly take into account cross-gender or gender-blind casting, one woman shows, silent or non-verbal performances. There are a number of caveats that can be taken into account when flagging up a show that passes, some examples mentioned so far include: one woman shows featuring 2 female characters mentioned talking, if not shown; 2 female performers in non-verbal communication, adaptations where previously male characters are played as female-identifying. Many of these ideas are theatre-specific and hopefully will be debated at length as part of the process of searching for Bechdel passing shows on stage and scripts on shelves.

What’s next?

Since the discussion of the Bechdel test’s relevance to theatre, in a room full of creative feminists at Camden People’s Theatre, attention has been brought to existing groups and individuals already using the test, or derivations of it, to facilitate more Bechdel-passing performances: Sphinx Theatre have created their own ‘Sphinx List’, a tool for writers that goes deeper than the original tes, designed to help writers create scripts with that put women centre stage; Whoop n Wail Represents… is a new-writing night that has staged 3 successful show-cases of plays that pass the test.
The first stones have already been laid in building a movement to use the test as a positive tool to increase representation of women in theatre, and a number of ideas have emerged in the past couple of weeks for developing practical ways to apply the test on and offline.

Using Twitter to raise awareness
Beginning online with a twitter page @BechdelTheatre designed to note & promote current productions that pass the test, has started to gain followers and raise awareness amongst audiences and reviewers.

Twitter is a great tool for connecting theatre-makers with audiences and each other. Putting the criteria for the test in audiences’ minds and pooling the crowd-knowledge of gender-aware audiences to assist fellow theatre-goers seeking more representative shows, and if used extensively will let theatre-makers know when audiences appreciate seeing autonomous women on stage and want to see more.

Building a database of scripts
Inspired by the bechdeltest.com mission to list all films that pass or fail, in order to highlight the scarcity of women on screen, the idea has arisen to compile a list of published plays that pass the test. With the more positive approach of noting only ‘passes’ and not ‘fails’, the idea is to built and maintain a searchable database for directors and producers looking for plays to stage, and actors and acting teachers seeking scenes for showcases and workshops.
Beyond the crowd-sourcable task of checking and listing scripts, the job of building a complete website with the opportunity to search and add to the list, is a long-term project requiring special skills, so get in touch if you have the will and the way to help out.

Bechdel Theatre Festival
A festival celebrating women in theatre by hosting pop-up conversations in theatres with shows that pass the Bechdel Test. March 2016 – March 2017 Get Involved!

@BechdelTheatre