In 2018, the Arts Council published Making Great Art Work: Theatre Policy & Strategy 2018. In this strategic plan the Arts Council stated that their investment in theatre production is primarily through three mainstays: strategic funding, arts grants funding and project awards. This is complemented by a series of specifically tailored schemes and a range of supports to individual artists.
Strategic funding supports the essential infrastructure required to sustain and develop theatre in Ireland. This funding gives a level of security to mostly established theatre organisations such as the Abbey, Druid and Project, and is expected to yield a return of quality “exemplary” work. They are also expected to engage “to a significant level” with the people of Ireland. Arts grants funding supports the artistic vision of artists and arts organisations to develop a programme of excellent arts activities over a defined period of time. Project awards offer support on a once-off basis to both new and established artists and companies.
The Arts Council’s strategy places equal emphasis on ‘artist’ and ‘public engagement’. The strategy encourages the theatre sector to invest in more diverse partnerships including co-production, co-presentation and co-curation with the aim of reaching more public. The strategy also gives specific mention to establishing robust policies within the theatre sector around gender and diversity equality.
The precarious nature of theatre workers is a prevailing issue for the sector. A recent Theatre Forum survey elaborated the precarious nature of performing artists work. The survey revealed that a third of artists earn less than the national minimum wage of EUR 9.55 per hour and 83% of the artists are paid flat fees regardless of hours worked.
A grassroots movement entitled Waking the Feminists has had an important impact on Irish theatre and culture in highlighting gender and equality issues. The movement was founded by set designer Lian Bell in response to the Abbey Theatre’s announcement of their new season programme in November of 2015. The movement took issue with the fact that there were 18 men on the programme (writers or directors) and just two women. All of the plays were written by men apart from one play, which was referred to as a “monologue for children”. Waking the Feminists was very successful in garnering public support.
Initially, Waking the Feminists was intended as a one-year campaign. However, in 2016, the Arts Council commissioned the organisation to conduct research on gender balance in Irish theatre. This resulted in Gender Counts: An Analysis of Gender in Irish Theatre 2006-2015, a comprehensive research report on gender balance in Irish theatre over a ten-year period. The report found that the four highest-funded theatre organisations had the lowest female representation. In fact, “the higher the funding an organisation receives, the lower the female presence”.
A number of actions resulted from the Waking the Feminists movement, including a coordinated effort by ten theatre organisations coming together in 2016 to consider their own record in programming and supporting women within the theatre sector. With support from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, they spent two years meeting to discuss the development of their own gender policies with the aim of producing concrete “action plans and measurable results” to identify processes that would ensure gender parity and dignity at work into the future. The resulting Gender Equality in Practice in Irish Theatre was launched by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht in 2018. Also in 2018, the Irish Theatre Institute published Dignity in the Workplace: Towards A Code of Behaviour in Irish Theatre.
The immediate impact of Waking the Feminists was to prompt policy action and public commitments from Ireland’s leading theatre organisations to gender balance and equality. The movement was a catalyst for industry-wide debate and consultation on the issues and for government policy change. But the most significant impact was the collective empowerment of women to challenge those in power on the issue of inequality, and to stir society to question how women are viewed and treated in the theatre world and in society as a whole.