About the role of women in the theater world

You can still spend years at drama school and only play plays written by men. Or visit the theater for months without hearing female characters say a meaningful word. Theaterkrant and the Toneelmakerij conducted research into the position of women and the prevailing image of women in Dutch theatre. The outcome does not lie, especially concerning the writers. In the BIS companies, twice as many texts by men are being performed compared to texts written by women.

By Paulien Geerlings and Nina van Tongeren

In her fourth year of acting training at ArtEZ, Nikki Kuis wrote a letter to the management of her school. “In recent years, I have enjoyed playing scenes and plays by all-male writers in classes and projects. (…) Our entire curriculum (and our entire school) is littered with men. Great men, talented men, admirable men. But men. Where are the women?"

In her graduation thesis Herstory, Kuis examined the criteria which a good female role should meet. This article is a follow-up to the pressing questions she asks: why are there so few interesting female characters? Why are all female roles written by men? Why are the joys and sorrows of men always central to stage work? Why are female roles always reduced to stereotypes such as the witch, the shrew, the whore, and the virgin?

From our research, a picture of a theater landscape emerges in which both female writers and female characters are given less space than male ones. Also, the stories told about women are by no means sufficient.

-|-This conclusion stems from a study into the state of affairs regarding female makers and characters at the BIS (Basisinfrastructuur toneel- en jeugdtheatergezelschappen, which are subsidized theater companies). We looked at a total of 350 productions that were made in the period 2017-2020. We used the production database from the theater collection of the Allard Pierson Museum. We conducted research in two parts. In the quantitative part, we look at the composition of the 'narrative teams': the authors, editors, dramaturges, and directors. In short, the people who are primarily responsible for the stories being told. Within these teams, we counted the number of men and women.

In the qualitative part, we randomly analyzed several play texts and interpreted them for the quality of the female roles.

The resulting numbers are telling. Of all performances, 57.8 percent are directed by a man and 38.9 percent by a woman. The other 3.3 percent is made by a mixed team, such as Thibaud Delpeut and Adelheid Roosen with Thuislozen or Marjolijn van Heemstra and Sadettin Kirmiziyüz with Kruistocht. More startling is the difference between male and female writers: over 70 percent of BIS performances are written by a man. Initially, we looked for the cause of this in the canon of stage classics, which are almost entirely written by men. But of the 350, only 39 turned out to be representations of a deceased writer. If we exclude those texts, then 66 percent of the texts are still written by a man. So these are living, Dutch playwrights. To be precise: 50 female playwrights against 91 male.

Incidentally, of those 39 canon performances, only 3 are texts by women: Astrid Lindgren's work was adapted twice by Tryater and NTJong, respectively. In addition, a fragment by Marguerite Duras was used in the collage performance In Europe by Johan Simons at Theater Rotterdam.

Because making theater always involves collaboration, we look beyond the individuals. That is why we also examined the male-female ratios within the narrative teams. Together they determine the content and perspective of the performance. We found some remarkable results. Of the 350 teams, 138 were all male. Particularly in adult theater companies, the predominantly or all-male teams are in the majority (159 out of 258). In the youth groups, entirely or mostly female teams predominate (62 out of 102).

Word Count

Count seems objective and value-free, but of course it is not. We are aware of that. In order to count, we use the boxes we actually want to get rid of. Moreover, gender is not included in the production database. So we can't rule out that we misgendered some people. In addition, when counting men and women, we ignore an intersectional approach: whether or not someone is of color is not tracked, nor is sexual preference or social class. This does not alter the fact that this research does reveal something: female writers are less likely to work for BIS companies than men.

In the qualitative part of our research, we investigated the female roles themselves. We analyzed six play texts, disregarding the stagings. We chose the texts of the three best-attended performances by the youth and theater companies from the BIS in the year 2019, the last year before the pandemic. The BIS theater companies included Amadeus by the Nationale Theater, Noem het maar liefde by Toneelgroep Maastricht and Een klein leven by ITA. Among the youth theater, these were Lampje by Maas, De gebroeders Leeuwenhart by NTJong and De Toverfluit by the Toneelmakerij.

For the six pieces, we first counted the male and female roles. We then determined the word count of all male roles and the word count of all female roles. Then the word count of the main male character and the word count of the main female character. Finally, we looked at the plays for the influence that female characters have on the development of the plot and what is said about - and by female characters.

The graph above shows that female characters have much less text than male characters, especially with Amadeus, Een klein leven and De gebroeders Leeuwenhart. Most roles are also reserved for male characters. Only De Toverfluit has more female characters than male ones. In Noem het maar liefde, there is an equal number of male and female roles, but the men have almost twice as much text as the women. Three of the six plays have a female protagonist, but the count shows that she usually gets much less to say than her male counterpart. This difference is particularly large among the 'adult' groups.

As we said, numbers are not everything. But we see twice as many performances with a male writer; a majority of male-dominated “narrative teams”; and much more text for male characters. In the case studies of Amadeus and Noem het maar liefde, it was striking to see that the pieces with the most problematic image of women were made by teams that consisted only of men. Conversely, however, it is not the case that predominantly female teams always present a more versatile image of women. This is shown in the analysis of De gebroeders Leeuwenhart.

-|-The influence of the male gaze is clearly visible in the examined pieces. In Amadeus, Constanze is the main female role, but she has no influence whatsoever on the development of the plot; all her actions are set in motion by the main characters Mozart or Salieri. She only acts as a sex object for both men, until she is pregnant and is thus assigned the role of the mother. The other female character in Amadeus, Katherina Cavalieri, has no spoken lines of her own, and only stands up to sing. She is constructed solely as a projection of the men around her. They describe her as "a lavish girl" with "a tasty little mouth" that is "insatiable". In Noem het maar liefde, the female character Cat is the only one that influences the development of the plot. However, she is at the service of Mitchel to whom she tells about the past. Her goal in doing this is to satisfy him. The other women in this piece are objectified. One of the female characters is a sex robot. The women often use their sexuality as a weapon: 'Fuck #metoo! Can I suddenly no longer fuck my way up the hierarchy? That's the upside down world. As a woman, I certainly have my rights, don't I? Or don't you think so?'
In the adaptation of A Little Life, the only female character (Ana) is part of the male world. She is a ghost serving the main character Jude: she only appears when he decides he needs her.

Among the youth theater texts, the character Sofia from De gebroeders Leeuwenhart is remarkable. A significant part of her clauses begins with addressing the male characters around her, such as Jonathan and Karel. In the story, she is also seen as a kind of holy grail that must be fought for. It is unclear what she herself contributes to that struggle. Sofia is portrayed in an almost mythical light: "There is something special about Sofia, the way she looks, but what is it?" She is like a muse to the male characters who admire and idealize her; through her, they rise above themselves. She herself does not go through development and has no influence on the plot. Pamina has been made the main character in the adaptation of De Toverfluit. She has a clear influence on the development of the plot. But Pamina still needs to be rescued by Tamino. Although she devises her rescue plan herself, the mere idea that she needs rescue is a patronizing cliché. The question is to what extent can you prevent this in adaptations of classics - and whether those originally problematic stories still deserve our attention. Only in Lampje is there no gender inequality. This is because gender does not actually play a role in this story. There is a female protagonist, Lampje, and a male protagonist, Edward. They both have the goal of learning to accept themselves. Their gender makes no difference to how they approach that goal or how they are viewed by the other person. It is striking that Lampje is the only one of the six pieces analyzed to have been developed by a team of women only.

Broadening the canon

This research shows that the position of women in Dutch theater is not so good, especially that of the female playwright. It is also, once again, clear that the BIS theater companies are lagging behind the youth theater in this respect. The adult theatre, which has more money, puts on more performances, reaches a larger audience and still has more prestige, should take this seriously.

The research also confirms that we are all part of a patriarchal system that is constantly reinforced by the stories we tell each other. The Nigerian writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduced the term 'the single story' to describe this phenomenon. A single story is a one-sided story about a marginalized group that is repeated and confirmed over and over. This reduces the group in question to that one narrative. There are a handful of single stories about women in which they are repeatedly characterized as subordinate to men. Single stories are not only boring because they don't tell you anything new, but also dangerous because they have a major influence on what people think they can become. If you learn that you are dependent as a girl or woman, it becomes difficult to take on a leadership role. If you see in films, series and plays that women are constantly silenced, it is difficult for a girl or woman to use her own voice. And when girls and women are constantly being told that their sexuality is not theirs but that of the men around them, it becomes difficult to exist outside of that male gaze. In short, stories are not innocent. They directly affect our daughters, mothers, sisters, girlfriends. On ourselves.

-|-Nevertheless, we are cautiously optimistic. We see more influential female directors and writers – also in the BIS companies – who openly pursue a feminist agenda, with the caveat that improvement is mainly visible for white women. The initiatives of actress Jacqueline Blom are also inspiring: her podcast De Bitch en de Hoer shook up a large part of the sector. And with her platform Point of VieW, an equal representation of women and the female perspective in Dutch art and culture is being built. In addition, Utrecht University has started a large-scale study, called Beter is nog niet goed, into the representation of women in the Dutch film and television sector. The letter from Nikki Kuis led to the Arnhem drama school only working with texts by women for a year. The Council for Culture also published a critical report in which the Council establishes a relationship between prejudices and stereotypes – in other words: single stories – and insecurity in the workplace. For this reason, the Council makes a strong recommendation to broaden the canon, which we wholeheartedly endorse.

This research also shows how much we still don't know. Are the companies subsidized by the Performing Arts Fund doing better? What about the male-female ratio among theater students? And for all employees in the theater sector? We will certainly keep track of how the numbers develop in recent and upcoming seasons. Then it will become clear whether our optimism is justified.

More Research

Furthermore, large-scale research is needed into the (under)representation of all groups that fall under the collective term 'diversity'. This not only concerns gender and color but also issues such as social class, neurodiversity and people with disabilities. We look with great interest at research commissioned by ACT Acteursbelangen and the Dutch Academy for Film into diversity in the film and television world. The quality of the representation also requires in-depth research. What to do with the western canon? Which single stories do we tell and how do we dismantle them? How do we decolonize our language and our stories?

The latter questions in particular belong first and foremost to artistic research. But numbers provide insights that go beyond assumptions. They support or contradict assumptions and feed policy. Once again, we note that the sector lacks an authoritative institute that can draw up and implement a research agenda on these kinds of urgent topics.

But waiting for that takes too long. We therefore want to take an advance: we need radically new repertoire, more female writers and consistently diverse teams. Let's start with that now.

-|-For this study, we looked at the productions of the BIS companies in the theater and youth disciplines in the previous culture policy period (2017-2020). All productions that were made are included in the Allard Pierson Production Database, the collection of the closed Theaterinstituut Nederland. That is a total of 350 productions. Some of these are co-productions between two BIS institutions. If these are co-productions between theater and youth companies (such as the trailer performances by Oostpool and Sonnevanck), we count them in both. They count once in the totals.

The employees and their functions of all these productions are included in the database. For this research, we look at the functions 'direction', 'dramaturgy' and four functions that deal with the text: 'author', 'editing', 'to' and 'to ... from'. The latter two are used, for example, to include the writer of the book in book adaptations, such as Hanya Yanagihara in Een klein leven by ITA. These functions are not implemented very consistently. For example, in the stage adaptation of the film De Poolse bruid by NNT, the original screenplay by Kees van der Hulst is not mentioned – Jibbe Willems is listed as the author and not as the adapter in this production. The Production Database takes the company's information as a guideline.

No gender is included in the production database. We added this based on desk research. We did not find any writers, dramaturges or directors who are non-binary or intersex. Specifically for the writers, we added a note if they died and in which language they write.

This research is an initiative of Nikki Kuis and was carried out by Theaterkrant and De Toneelmakerij. The data enrichment was done by Nikki Ong and Louka Hakvoort (interns at the Toneelmakerij), data crunching by Simon van den Berg. Diana Hoilu Fradique gave advice on the methodology.