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Lauren Taylor, Flys and Automation:Mechanical Engineering ©2019 ROH. Photograph by Sim Canetty-Clarke
Lauren Taylor, Flys and Automation:Mechanical Engineering ©2019 ROH. Photograph by Sim Canetty-Clarke

Women in Technical Theatre, Let’s Change Our Future

Royal Opera House Deputy Director of Technical and Production, Emma Wilson, goes behind the scenes of the industry’s technical workforce highlighting areas of positive change in attitudes and approach, while signalling how much more there is to do.

By Emma Wilson (Deputy Director of Technical and Production)
Monday 8 March 2021, 9am

If we are to truly reflect society today and promote equal opportunity in all spheres of technical theatre, then we must, as a sector, implement changes to enforce diverse leadership and redefine our creative approach to addressing the deeply embedded challenges that we face.

While there are positive initiatives and proactive moves by organisations to seek technical workforce changes (often with the support of industry bodies and unions) we still have much work to do if the industry is to consistently offer welcoming pathways, career longevity and a conducive environment in which a truly diverse technical and production workforce can flourish.

To research this article, I looked back over 25 years in the technical theatre industry and considered how far we have truly come and how much more we must collectively do to achieve meaningful diversity and representation.

Discrimination in the backstage environment can be broad. Often discussed is the language used behind the scenes, which can be pejorative. It is often reduced as ‘just banter’ but, as we know, can be seriously damaging and alienating to many. As important as it is to stamp out this language, our challenge is much, much wider. There are also institutional barriers: the gender pay gap, the difficulties of developing a meaningful career with parenting and caring responsibilities, and the challenges of encouraging an inclusive and diverse next generation into the industry for the long term. Let us not forget that this is a profession that can bring huge personal and collective achievement, lasting friendships, creative success and great joy. We want the doors to be open to everyone and everyone should feel welcome.

Looking back, I thought about the heavy impact on my career of the macro and micro aggressions I have personally experienced. Through discussions with colleagues industry-wide, I know I am not alone in experiencing the exclusion placed upon us by the practice of silent treatment, our voices being ignored, being blanked both alone and in front of colleagues, and being spoken over in meetings. These negative actions are I hope on the way out.

I hope the days are gone when it took three years of tours for a visiting company technical manager to finally use my name. But then, I suppose if you are the only woman backstage then ‘she’, ‘her’ and ‘that woman’ (alongside some choice expletives) do make the eradication of your name so much easier. I hope when on tour that we are safer; that the challenges for women when travelling, working overnight, and staying in remote hotels are recognised by our employers and colleagues and are shared and acknowledged as unacceptable.

I look at friends and colleagues – talented and highly-skilled women – and hope the questioning of their competence and arguing for equal pay alongside other creatives is something they will no longer have to endure when they start a new project, or tour to a new venue. I read reports about female technicians who, even today, are afraid to talk about starting a family and whether that would be supported, patronised or ignored, fearing their career will be over as soon as they raise the subject.

As we pass through history, while it is lived, progression can feel glacially slow. I have looked back and taken time to acknowledge the incredible role models I’ve had the privilege to work with; artists, directors, designers and technicians, those who have inspired me and who have brought new voices and new talent forward. We should not be complacent in our achievements, nor despair at the work still to do, but instead look upon the challenges ahead as the next step in a continuum. Be angry, be determined, be impatient, but keep moving forward and keep vocalising the challenges.

Covid has thrown the issue of parenting and caring responsibilities into sharp focus and the pandemic has impacted upon women’s careers in particular. The recent Backstage Workforce Report from PiPA (Parents and Carers in Performing Arts) supported by the union Bectu, found that parents and carers working backstage in theatre face significant challenges. While accepting that this is an industry with unsociable hours, women still reported being disproportionally affected by their working conditions. Six out of ten women change jobs due to caring responsibilities compared with two out of ten male workers. This will be a challenge we have to face with new urgency as we emerge from the pandemic.

This isn’t confined to the UK – Lighting and Sound America published an article in 2019 reporting a survey of female-identifying theatre design and production practitioners. The report said that they had experienced negative workplace environments, gender-based harassment and pay gaps. The survey further found that there were fewer women working in the industry as the age brackets increase, and those leaving the industry quoted negative workplace environments and the lack of support for parenting and caring responsibilities.

The PiPA report recognised that backstage work will always have unsociable hours and intense production periods, however, the onus is on us to insist on more creative solutions, to embrace positive role modelling (male as well as female) backstage, and to celebrate work-life balance.

And regardless of parenting or caring responsibilities, work-life balance has been in the spotlight with Covid and lockdowns. The relentless nature of long days and production periods that segue one into another has given many pause for thought, with some willingly leaving the industry having had a significant break for the first time in years. The endless working hours and lack of meaningful life outside of work has been used to stifle diversity and has led to an unhealthy work culture. Greater diversity in the workforce will allow us to look more creatively at how we structure our work to benefit the health and wellbeing of all. SiPA (Sustainability in Production Alliance) notes the desire to ‘create a culture which recognises that burnout is no longer a badge of honour, and rejects the norm of funerals in our fifties’.

What we earn and how we are valued should focus on the workplace alone. The gender pay gap backstage recently addressed at the Royal Opera House is being addressed elsewhere in our industry. It is reflected in the disparity of fees offered for the same role, not forgetting creative and freelance engagements that are often not scrutinised by unions or HR departments. The momentum of these changes, with the support of unions and greater staff engagement, will be another building block towards greater equality.

The perception that roles backstage are in some way gendered is not confined to stage roles. I recently took part in a school engagement programme with a group of sixteen-year-old girls who said that props was a ‘boys’ job’ and they hadn’t ever considered it. We must engage more proactively with education at primary and secondary stages to demonstrate a diverse, welcoming, engaged workforce where young people can flourish in the huge range of creative skills and talents we embrace. We must remember that we are all influencers, whether we are aware of it or not. We need to be mindful of the power of that influence, even when nuanced, at every level of our careers. With very few women working at senior levels in technical theatre it is all too easy to be singled out, even by colleagues we know to be allies.

Encouragement to address routes into the industry, diversity in all its forms, and the important challenges set by our staff, industry colleagues, unions and campaigning bodies should be embraced with the humility of knowing we can do better. We have much to do at the Royal Opera House and across the industry, and we know that the difference we make with our work onstage must be reflected in the quality of life and range of opportunity backstage.

Emma Wilson is Deputy Director of Technical and Production at the Royal Opera House. She has particular interests in sustainability, workforce inclusion and diversity, as well as health, safety and welfare in the theatre. Before joining the ROH in February 2020, Emma worked at Sadler’s Wells for 20 years, spending the last 11 years as their Director of Technical and Production. Emma's academic background is in environmental studies, and she has a PhD in Cultural Theory and Environmental Politics. She has championed sustainability and safety throughout her career.