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A Change of Merit

Artistic Directors Lisa Spirling and Marie McCarthy are bringing equal opportunities and quality drama to our local theatres, finds Ruth Wyatt.

Visitors to our neck of the woods often remark on how fabulous it is to have theatreland on your doorstep, thanks to myriad transport links into town. Being 20 minutes or less away from the National and half an hour from the West End is wonderful, but our (very) local theatre scene is studded with gems of many hues. There’s the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham, Battersea Arts Centre, Theatre503 near Battersea Park, the Stockwell Playhouse and the Tara Theatre in Earlsfield, all just around the corner from each other.

Scratch the surface and another reason to feel proud of our manor emerges. Of the 100 or so regional theatres in the country, there are only 10 female Artistic Directors and two of them are right here: Lisa Spirling at Theatre 503 and Marie McCarthy at the Omnibus Theatre. Both are doing sterling work delivering enjoyable, thought-provoking plays to local audiences – and not so local audiences, as national newspaper theatre critics are far more frequent visitors these days and in their wake come theatre-goers from farther afield. Both are quietly, but consistently, furthering the cause of equality in theatre.

“What we are doing has evolved organically; I didn’t have a design as such,” says Marie. “I was always very aware [of the lack of women in positions of authority] as I progressed through the arts. I can remember only two female directors in quite a long career as actor. I’m always keen for women to have opportunity and there are opportunities here at the Omnibus Theatre to learn, particularly in management roles, such as Senior Producers, House Managers, Creative Learning Producers. Young women were coming to me to do internships and they were so brilliant I thought ‘I can’t lose them; as soon as I can get some money in, I’ll pay them’, and I have, and they’ve stayed.

“So, I’m ensuring that in this environment there are possibilities for this sort of thing to happen. I can make a difference because I am in a position to make a difference,” she remarks.

The more women there are in senior roles, the more possible it becomes for women starting out to aspire to those levels. What’s more, women in power right now can change things for this generation of creatives as well as for the next, as Lisa observes. “There’s a real shift going on; a whole wave of female talent coming through and making it happen.

As someone running an organisation you can think about how to make it work for a broader range of people. As a director you can plan your rehearsal schedules better to enable mothers to do their job well and see their children. There are opportunities for job sharing – okay so maybe not with the actors, but why not with the stage management, and so on?”

Lisa does concede, however, that the nature of the business is inherently difficult. “It’s about as unsociable as you can get,” she admits. “You work full days, then there’s theatre in the evening; it carves out weekends for rehearsal or seeing other work. There’s will to change and a lot of people are doing great work in helping the business to change.”

It is a question of challenging the status quo rather than railing against the patriarchy, as Marie explains: “Historically men have been in positions of power in the theatre not only as directors but also as writers.

There are so many male writers writing for predominately male parts, and, likewise, directors are working with male writers and so it goes.” It is a sentiment Lisa echoes: “If you think about the make up of management – not just in theatre or the arts in general, but across the board in business – you can see an unconscious bias of hiring in their own likeness.” There is a cultural element too, which both acknowledge and Lisa neatly sums up: “When I first arrived here as Artistic Director [almost a year and a half ago] there were loads of emails. Every woman said ‘congratulations’. The men said ‘meet me and this is why’.”

But the times they are a changing. “Now there are callouts for female playwrights. People are now understanding that there is a wealth of great female writers and creating opportunities for them. There are movements for gender equality in terms of casting. This is very recent and there’s loads more to be done, but there is a real change, greatly helped by social media. People notice when a season is populated with male writers and male directors and call it out. There’s a sense of not any more, we can change it. It’s a really exciting time,” Marie comments.

And this isn’t positive discrimination; it’s based on merit. Speaking of which, Lisa’s recent directorial gig, In Event of Moone Disaster, is a fine example of merit in action. Andrew Thompson’s highly original debut play won Theatre503’s playwriting prize against 1628 scripts from 52 countries. Theatre503 is dedicated to giving new talent a launchpad. “We put on more new writers than any other theatre in the UK,” Lisa asserts. And not just writing talent. Tom Hiddleston did his first show there. Charlie Hardwick, Will Merrick, Tom Hardy and David Harewood have all trodden the boards at this intimate 63 seat theatre.

The 110-seat Omnibus Theatre is dedicated to presenting classic works reimagined for a contemporary audience, but it too provides a platform for new work and, just as importantly, plays a vital role in stimulating creativity in the community through its work with schools and young adults. In fact, its youth theatre work has been so successful that it’s taking it to Beijing to teach Chinese students.

These distinct and distinctive theatres are thriving, as are the inspiring women who lead them. They are helping swell the ranks of female talent bringing greater equality and quality to regional theatre.;

Lisa in action at Theatre 503 © Jack SainLisa’s show - In Event of Moone Disaster © Jack SainMarie McCarthy and Tybalt at the Omnibus Theatre © Alyssa Chamberlain