Women playwrights and theatre: some facts

As Sphinx Theatre company revealed at their Vamps, Vixens and Feminists conference in 2009, 17% of the plays professionally produced in the UK are by women playwrights.

Let’s look at that again.

83% of all plays professionally produced in the UK are by male playwrights, although women constitute 52% of the population and 65% of the theatre-going audience.  http://17percent.co.uk

Such disparities in statistics have always bothered me, ever since I was a student and first became aware of inequality in access and opportunity across gender. There have been various surveys and studies into why this is the case and it emphatically does not come down to male playwrights being ‘better’ than female dramatists. There are a range of reasons why women playwrights are less produced than our male counterparts – from selection process to theatre structures and hierarchies, to predilections and (incorrect) presumptions by producers and directors – to attitudes and approaches by the playwrights themselves.

I recently came across playwright Marsha Norman’s essay, ‘What will it take to achieve equality for women in the theatre?’ which is well worth a read.  http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/nov09/women.cfm

She quotes New York State’s Council on the Arts three-year study of the status of women in the theatre, which concluded “Women are welcome at the front door of the theatre but not at the stage door. This goes for actresses, costume and lighting designers and directors as well as writers.” You can access the report at this link: www.womenarts.org/advocacy/WomenCountNYSCAReport.htm.

Some further statistics:

In the US in the last decade 11% of plays produced on Broadway were by women. (But these plays did 18% better at the box office – the reason being perhaps that 60% of the ticket buyers for Broadway shows are women.)


In Australia 7-ON surveyed the percentage of women writers in the seasons of four major companies in Sydney and discovered 5 of the 41 plays were by women – 12%.      http://sevenon.blogspot.com/

In recent years in Germany, major theatre company the Schaubühne had a stable of 32 playwrights, living and dead. Of these 3 (Helene Cixioux, Sarah Kane, Yael Ronan) were women.  http://www.schaubuehne.de/en_EN/ensemble/authors

These facts can be disheartening and it is clear this subject needs to be addressed.   Further research and campaigning is necessary to counter this bias in theatre and whilst this is happening, I’m also encouraged by women practitioners becoming proactive and challenging this trend directly.

Owing to this, I’m delighted to take my place alongside Timberlake Wertenbaker and Sharon Morgan as one of the patrons of Agent 160 Theatre Company.




Agent 160 is a new female writer-led theatre company that will launch in February, 2012.

We put on work in venues across the UK. We add to the amount of produced work written by women. We don’t campaign: we just write about what we want to write about, refusing to be pigeonholed by our gender, age, class, sexuality or location.

 We are fluid – reflecting the structure of our lives. We have a rolling directorship, with individual members able to steer the company for a period of time that suits them. We build help with childcare and maternity leave into our commissions, and help our writers opt in and out of projects as a part of our ethos, not as our duty.

 Agent 160 is committed to supporting its writers in developing and advancing their careers. We produce full-length and short plays. We pay our writers.

The company take their name from Aphra Behn (1640-1698), the first woman in the UK to earn her living as a playwright. She was also recruited as a political spy in Antwerp by Charles II – code name Agent 160.

Agent 160 Theatre Company will officially launch in the UK in February 2012 with a show part-funded by Creative Scotland, Arts Council England and Arts Council Wales. Agent 160 presents Agent 160 will be two nights of different short plays at the following venues:

CARDIFF: Chapter Arts Centre, February 17 and 18 at 7.30pm.

LONDON: Theatre503, February 19 and 20 at 7.45pm.

GLASGOW: The Arches, February 22 and 23 at 7.30pm.

Following the second show at each venue, there will be a question and answer session about the work and the current landscape of British theatre with regards to female writers.

Please support this initiative if you can, and for further information go to:



3 responses to “Women playwrights and theatre: some facts

  1. I’m an aspiring writer myself, I have never thought about the inequality between writers before, though all this does is make me want to try harder to get one of my scripts made.

    • I never ever thought about gender – just thought of myself as ‘a writer’- so it’s always quite sobering and shocking when the statistics speak for themselves… I applaud your attitude – absolutely right! Let’s all work hard(er) at getting our scripts on and support each others’ work. But at the heart of it, I truly believe talent and quality will out – it just takes longer when in an environment which is more receptive to other writers – not because of ability, but sadly because of gender.
      More power to you and I hope you have every success.

  2. Thanks, Kate. Looking forward to 503 on 20th.

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