Women in Theatre - Interview with Louise Gough, Belvoir
Australian Major Performing Arts Group
08 March 2019
Louise Gough, Head of New Work at Belvoir, says gender and diversity are big conversations in the sector that are gaining momentum and strategic focus, and that are opening new pathways and driving positive change in the creative arena, with more to come. As a woman in a creative leadership role for one of the MPAs, Louise is in a position of influence when it comes to amplifying women’s voices.
‘As head of new work, I serve the company’s focus on the development, the commissioning, the sourcing, the relationships — domestically and internationally — around new plays, new development, new voices, from idea right through to opening night. The role is also about advocacy and connection and being a pathway into the company; whether that’s speaking strategically with sister or peer organisations, or development organisations, but also individual writers or collaborative teams.’
‘There is tremendous awareness in the sector and specifically in the Belvoir context around gender parity and also in terms of diversity. Does our work reflect what contemporary Australia looks like and engage with ideas and ways of thinking that are domestic, national and global? We have a range of staff members who work in the artistic and programming team and we all bring not only own artistic practice, but we also actively seek to engage with and ask questions about whose voice is missing; what processes need to be put in place in order for those voices to be engaged with richly and deeply; and whose hands is this work best delivered in?’
Louise believes that the notion of identity underneath the work is important to what the work is and who it speaks to, but, she says, ‘at the same time, we look for great art. It’s the combination of who and what and in what form.’
Belvoir looks across the cycle of programming when it comes to establishing gender parity. ‘It’s just getting a sense of the picture, and of course every year we try for it but sometimes the season skews a little bit some way, but we ensure that we are at parity or close to parity over a couple of years.’
Given the pressure to represent different voices, how do they avoid the temptation of putting a work too early?
‘There is a great responsibility, particularly if it is a newer voice, to ensure that the work and the creator or creative are not exposed too heavily before they are ready. That’s a negotiation, and there are multiple people in that conversation with various interests. There is that conversation inside the work, and a conversation around the shape of the season, the offering it gives to existing and potential new members of audience for the company; who else is doing what – does the shape of the season need a work that has this sort of voice or this sort of scale?’
Asked about what Belvoir is doing about bringing women’s voices into the theatre and onto the main stage, Louise feels that there is strength in both the creative and executive sides from the female point of view.
‘We have a female chair, a female executive director, female head of new work and associate director – these are key influential roles and positions in the company.
Belvoir has a male artistic director, in the person of Eamon Flack, but Louise does not see that as an obstacle to presenting the female voice. She points out that artistic directors’ work on multiple layers — in artistic terms, as artists in their own right, but also with the broader leadership remit looking at the landscape, at the conversations that are happening artistically, formally, thematically around the voices, the work and how it extends and engages with current and future audiences.
‘In Belvoir, there is a polyphonic conversation as opposed to only one view. Of course, the conversations get very vigorous sometimes about what value is seen in particular works or striking that balance. The conversation is not solely about a new play, but it’s also about who are our partners in the sector; and is there work that already exists that is a beautiful fit within the shape of the season that’s being built. We all influence and bias check each other consistently through that process.’
Belvoir’s 2019 program has a powerful female presence across five of the nine shows in the season. The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, directed by Jessica Arthur has an all-female creative team and cast; Kate Mulvaney stars in Every Brilliant Thing directed by Kate Champion; Barbara and the Camp Dogsby Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine features powerhouse duo of Ursula and Elaine Crombie, and is directed by Leticia Cáceres; and Winyanboga Yurringaby Andrea James, is a story about a gathering of six Indigenous women, and is directed by Anthea Williams. Fangirls with book, music and lyrics by Yve Blake, is directed by Paige Rattray. This represents a big change since 2010 in terms of the presence of female voices; so what went into making this season’s program?
‘I think firstly, awareness and acknowledgement. This goes right down to the commissioning and artists – whose voices are carried through what work; how they are seeded, and developed and nurtured, with the artist and the company’s relationship deepening over that process. It is an active awareness of who is working in the sector and what is being brewed independently and in other companies in terms of the relationships and conversations that occur at all layers of the company.
‘A program in process is a funnelling process; you start soft focus wide lens, and then it’s shaving and shaving in multiple combinations to see what could be the shape of the season. It’s about consistently looking for the gap, asking what is coming through; what have we missed; what conversations have we not had; just ensuring that we are serving the cultural contribution that the company makes in hopefully a sound business model that will sing to our existing and new audiences. But there is also an alchemy in it as well as the sheer number crunching of it.’
Looking ahead, Louise says Belvoir have a few things under commission and we can look forward to a strong female voice in the next season.
On the bigger stage, Louise is optimistic about the possibility of change.
‘Gender and diversity are big conversations in the sector. It’s always about capacity building and the strategies in place; who has the capacity to helm a main stage show and who will they bring along with them and behind them. It’s about kindness in the sector as well — peer kindness in addition to the structural and systemic things that are done to expand the stories and whose hands they are in.’
Louise also recognises an interconnectedness across theatre companies when it comes to taking responsibility for bringing women to the stage and for creating opportunities for them through programs such as the MTC’s Women in Theatre program that ultimately benefit the whole industry.
‘The seed that is planted in someone now and the seed that someone plants in a company now is the foundation for generational change. The capacity of that individual artist, the knowledge that the company gains about that artist and how that artist impacts on the company’s culture is a fluid growing thing — to quote from economics, a “rising tide that floats all boats”.
‘There are a number of lenses through which work, artistic practice is evaluated and considered valuable. We’re in an extraordinarily competitive sector with far more people who want seats at the table than there are seats. The space that is available should reflect the country we live in. The time that big systemic change and movement occurs can feel very slow but there are tremendous amounts of awareness and strategies in place.