Gender Equality in Theatre: A Discussion With Bechdel Theatre
How do we champion equality on stage? Beth Watson of Bechdel Theatre has a few ideas.
By Christina Care
The Bechdel Test asks three questions of a work of fiction: “Are there two female characters? Do they talk to each other? About something other than a man?” It’s a test coined by Alison Bechdel, and aims to bring awareness of well-rounded female characters, and equal representation in fiction. The Bechdel Theatre in particular offers a resource for theatre-lovers who are passionate about supporting stories about women on the stage. We spoke to founder Beth Watson about the mission and latest work from the Bechdel Theatre, Bechdel Testing Life at the Bunker Theatre.
The Test is the starting point. It’s kind of a way of trying to talk with people who aren’t necessarily ‘theatre buffs’ about representation as well. Lots of people will go and see a film and be quite happy to say, “Oh that didn’t pass the Bechdel Test,” and argue about it afterwards, have a discussion. What I want is for more of those people to get into theatres and have the same kinds of conversations, because I think there can be a bit of a fear around theatre – that everyone who talks about theatre has to know loads about it. I’m really interested in ploughing down that wall.
You’re going through The Monobox’s vast collection of plays at the moment, to see what passes the Bechdel Test. What are you noticing so far?
It’s so often that even if there is a scene with two women, it’s a tiny bit of the play. But then there are plays with two women the whole way through. Even plays like ‘Three Sisters’, mostly men do the talking… We had a bit of a debate at The Monobox today about whether this passes the Bechdel Test! At the end, that final little vignette of them talking about going to Moscow, they each have a nice little chunk of text and they’re talking about the future – they are not talking about any of the men, but that’s the only point where they talk at length without talking about any of the men they’re in relationships with. I wanted to give it a pass because I think that’s the important image of the play, where you see the three sisters together at the end. The play isn’t all about the men, but a big part of their relationships is that they’ve lost their father. Someone said it wasn’t a pass but I thought, well, strictly it is.
How strict are you generally with what passes or fails? There must be a lot of grey areas…
It’s the last [criteria] that’s tricky. We’ve been making a spreadsheet [of plays that pass] but the Bechdel Test wasn’t made for spreadsheets, it was made for conversations. So, part of the point of doing this is sitting in a room together with the volunteers who go, “I’ve got a tricky one!” then we talk about the scene, the themes of the play, how much the characters talk overall, the topics – the last one is where you start having conversations, because if there aren’t two women in it, or they’re never in the same scene…
Then it definitely doesn’t pass.
Exactly. Sometimes though you find a play that’s got a man and a woman and has some fantastic feminist message, but just because there isn’t another woman in it doesn’t mean it isn’t a great feminist play. There was a play called ‘How To Date A Feminist’ that was exactly that. So, it’s not to say that if a play fails the test, it’s ‘bad’. When we are looking at The Monobox collection, we are not listing the ones that fail. It’s not about shaming, it’s about championing. When we’re talking about the ones that are borderline, they’re still interesting – they give you something to talk about. The Test is a starting point – it’s not about being strict. People think it’s strict when it’s labelled as steps, but actually…
…It’s more of a source of discussion?
Exactly. It came from a comic strip – it’s meant to be a bit of a laugh too.
What do you think of the other tests that have come about – like The Sphinx test?
And the DuVernay test – people of colour talking to each other. I love them all! I think they’re great. I think The Sphinx test is really useful for people making work, as that goes into a lot more detail and lays out questions you might ask as a writer or deviser, a theatre-maker. How do I check that my characters are showing range and significance? So that’s great.
The reason I use the Bechdel Test is that it is the best known, all the others are spin-offs and the Bechdel Test is known amongst everyone who is interested in representation, gender, pop culture, feminism – all of those things. The Test is the starting point. It’s kind of a way of trying to talk with people who aren’t necessarily ‘theatre buffs’ about representation as well. Lots of people will go and see a film and be quite happy to say, “Oh that didn’t pass the Bechdel Test” and argue about it afterwards, have a discussion. What I want is for more of those people to get into theatres and have the same kinds of conversations, because I think there can be a bit of a fear around theatre – that everyone who talks about theatre has to know loads about it. I’m really interested in ploughing down that wall.
I agree – people shouldn’t be afraid to be part of the discussion and make a judgment. You’re entitled to one! Any aesthetic judgment is personal… It’s valid especially in terms of applying the Bechdel Test – if you feel you’re not able to engage with theatre as a medium, then you might not feel you can engage with the issues either.
I know you have so many interesting things coming up! But stepping back a second: how did Bechdel Theatre actually come to be?
So, I’m an actor. I graduated in 2014, and spent the first year going to as many workshops as possible, read and see as many plays as possible. Before I went to drama school I was always quite politically aware, I was part of BECTU and I went to feminist protests quite a lot. So that was a side of me that I felt was a bit separate to the actor side of me – the actor/activist divide felt strange to me. Especially when I was in drama school - we weren’t discouraged, but not necessarily encouraged to be opinionated. You don’t want to be seen as a trouble maker either at drama school or out in the world – you don’t want to piss off the people in charge, basically! I was worried about that, I didn’t want to be seen as the person who was political about everything. But I still feel the constant urge to do something about the state of the world.
I went along to an event organised by Devoted and Disgruntled, who organise events to talk about the arts. There was one by Amy Clare Tasker with a little group called GAP Salon, which was all about gender and the performing arts. So, she called an open space meeting about this – how do gender and performance link? What can we do to improve all the things that are not happening yet? I went to that just because a friend was going, I thought, “That sounds interesting! My two things: feminism and theatre!” I found out about all these amazing companies who are making work that represents women, people of all genders, people who are forming little pocket networks (whether they are overtly feminist or not). I thought, “Why don’t I know about all this stuff?” Because I’m really interested in representation. I’d also been to the Bechdel Test Fest – they’re like a film festival who do screenings all around London, of films that pass the Bechdel Test, and this includes post-show parties or Q&As. It’s about celebrating women on screen. I had been to film events, but my thing is theatre – I hadn’t even heard of half the companies [at GAP Salon]. I wondered, “Where is there a directory that I can look up? If I say to myself that I’m only going to see shows that are either written by a woman, directed by a woman, or pass the Bechdel test, how do I find out about them?” It’s quite a lot of work finding out what to go and see anyway, there’s always so much on.
Especially in London!
Exactly – and if you say, “I want to make my choice as an audience member political. I want to support work that’s representative, then how do I find it?” Inspired by the Bechdel Test Fest, I proposed the question to the open space: what about theatre that passes the Bechdel Test? Why not use the test to talk about theatre? Loads of people came around to me saying they had shows that passed, there were people from Sphinx talking about their test – I just thought, “Why don’t I know about this stuff?!”
I started on Twitter because it was 2015, it was the biggest way of communicating then, so I set up a page called ‘Bechdel Theatre’ and just asked people to tweet us a show that passes the Bechdel Test – and that was it. All I did was retweet recommendations of shows, shows that wanted to plug themselves, articles that talked about women in theatre. It was a feed of information. That’s all that it was…
Then I reached a thousand followers in a month or two, had an article in The Stage, all this press coverage. And they were like, “What else are you going to do?” Well! I had a launch night where we showed extracts from shows that pass the test. That was March 2015. That [launched the] post-show events, which I called Bechdel Theatre Festival whereby we’d go see a show that passed the Test, sit down in the bar or a café afterwards instead of a formal Q&A, and then talk about the show. Invite the creatives to come and hang out, give their responses. The audience can ask questions, creatives can pitch in, rather than the formal put up your hand, think of a clever question, prove you’re an intellectual, etc.! Artists and audiences can challenge each other. We did that at loads of different theatres.
Do you think the mission then became about facilitating the right sort of conversations?
Yeah, giving people a space – they wanted to talk about it at great length. While Twitter is great for facilitating some conversations, it’s not great for in-depth conversations. You get a Twitter thread that goes on and on and eventually you can’t read it. It’s much more in the spirit of theatre to have a conversation in a space. It was all free to come along, talk to us, the idea being that people can bring along somebody that wouldn’t necessarily go to a Q&A or a theatre event, who might come along to a show to have a chat with us because it’s approachable and fun rather than academic…
Yeah, and sometimes theatre can be exclusive because of the price of tickets to a show. But we did try and choose shows that are free, cheap or have special offers attached to them. We will do more of those now on special request rather than having them every month. At the end of the day I’m a creative person, as much as I love facilitating conversations, to actually make something – it’s just so exciting. It’s a proper thrill to put on theatre. We also have a Podcast to keep the conversation going.
In terms of the Bechdel Testing Life, that’s what’s coming up next at the Bunker. I was in the shower listening to the Listening Project on BBC 4. I was listening to one that was two women talking and I thought, “This would be great in a play!” I could just eavesdrop on loads of real conversations between women. There’s always this joke that when you’re talking about the Bechdel Test people will go, “Oh we’re passing the Bechdel Test right now!” Or, “Oh god, my day hasn’t passed the Bechdel Test!” It’s thinking about how often our lives pass the test versus representations of our lives passing the test. So, I asked women to record themselves passing the test. The test is self-identifying, so if you identify as a woman or are someone who identifies with the test, you can pass the test. I don’t want to be prescriptive about who can pass the test or not.
I put a call out and I got some amazing recordings. I’m still collecting them, so if people want to send them, please do! It’s an ongoing project. I got recordings of people chatting on their lunch break, then people having really significant discussions about important times in their lives, memories - I got one that was over 2 hours long and a significant amount of wine was consumed during the recording… I give those recordings to playwrights and they can reimagine them or make something up inspired by those stories – they don’t have to represent the conversation as it was or know anything about the people, the idea is that they just take some spark.
That’s really interesting as a thought – I’ve had friends who are male writers, told that they couldn’t write female characters, because they were men. I thought that was really problematic because it does mean that they might be discouraged from writing fully fledged female characters. So, the project is interesting just in terms of giving people something real to work with – they are conversations I’m sure a lot of people have…
… Whoa! Well, exactly, it’s rooted in truth. Good drama is always rooted in truth. But good conversations aren’t always dramatic, which is why I’ve given them to playwrights. When I first thought of the idea for the project, we did a scratch night. I staged a combination: some of the scenes were verbatim, then two were written. The audience liked both but I felt going forward that the dramatic pieces were the ones that would lend themselves to development.
It’s about building a network, a community and helping people who want to work together. It’s about women and non-binary individuals, but I want to work also more with male writers and directors as well, because we’ve had a few men who are really interested who have approached me. It’s not just a woman’s project.
What do you think about some of the criticisms of the test – if something passes the test, it doesn’t inherently make it a feminist production, for instance…
No, but I think it makes it worthy of a discussion – more interesting to discuss. If you’ve got something that passes the Bechdel Test but it’s really anti-feminist, then you want to have a conversation about what those women are saying and as an actor, I then look at that script and go, “Who’s going to play that part? What’s going through the mind of someone auditioning?” as opposed to having an anti-feminist play which is all about men and has an all-male cast, which is less interesting to talk about. Whereas a play that passes the test and is not feminist, is still more interesting to talk about.
At least then there’s something that could...
…be the fuel for discussion.
As opposed to being completely absent!
Yes, we’re completely ignored! That’s something to get angry about, which is still valid.
There’s obviously still work to go for equality in the industry - I sat in on your workshop given during our London Open House, and noticed a lot of the women there were talking about their actual experiences in auditions, all of which included physical criticisms. That really stuck out…
Yes, and if you respond to them you’re seen as being bitter or chippy.
Or perhaps “hard to work with”.
I think part of that is that there are so many more women in the industry and fewer jobs in the industry for women. So, we’re inherently forced to think about that more often. And part of it is the socialisation of women: we are told if we have a problem, we shouldn’t speak about it. That is then amplified because you’re in an industry where it’s made acceptable to talk about your looks. If you’re in an office you can say, “That has nothing to do with my ability” but if you’re in an audition room and they say, “We just want an actress with bigger boobs,” well, somehow, it’s still more acceptable.
What would you like to do next with the project and Bechdel Theatre?
With Bechdel Testing Life, I’m working with four writers, to create four short plays of 15 minutes each. I want to do more to build up a network of writers. I love connecting people who want to support each other. I want to do more of the shorts nights, collecting more conversations. I’d like to develop the shorts that feel like they have further life. The dream would be to have a 15-minute piece where everyone really gels, then to be able to set them on their way to creating a full production. And for me to be able to help them form companies, supporting artists to make their own work. I’m looking to facilitate that process. It’s about building a network, a community and helping people who want to work together. It’s about women and non-binary individuals, but I want to work also more with male writers and directors as well, because we’ve had a few men who are really interested who have approached me. It’s not just a woman’s project.
Lend your support to this great project, and check out Bechdel Testing Life which is on this weekend only! Beth says that if you’d like to help out and be more involved there are lots of ways you can: “They can email me ([email protected]). If they’re up at the Fringe they can tweet us about shows they see that pass the Bechdel Test, and if anyone wants to be more active I’d be happy to give them some stickers to put up on show posters that pass. We are trying to raise money for the Bechdel Testing Life show, for the podcast and Edinburgh. You don’t have to give money, you can tweet us or volunteer! And come and see the show!”