The theatre scene around the world is grappling with gender inequality, with few opportunities for women playwrights and actors to shine on stage. However, directors and writers in the UAE are trying to readdress that imbalance with novel productions that give women more meatier roles.
How women in theatre are addressing gender inequality in the UAE
When theatre director Liz Hadaway decided to adapt Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for an immersive community production in Dubai this year, one of her concerns was how best to address the gender imbalance in roles that are common in scripts by male playwrights.
As a result, in her adaptation of the Bard’s work, the characters of Friar Laurence and Mercutio, originally written for men, were played by women.
“The problem of women being underrepresented in theatre is a worldwide issue,” says Hadaway, the artistic director of theatre events company Constellation Dubai.
“And if you look at theatre throughout history, it essentially has been written by and for men. So now we have to readdress that gender imbalance.”
While it is a debate that stretches beyond the stage and into every creative outlet, women in theatre is an issue that is still largely overlooked.
Extensive research conducted by The Guardian with Elizabeth Freestone of Pentabus Theatre between 2012 and 2013 found a steady 2:1 male-to-female representation in British theatre productions, yet women continue to form the majority of the audience.
Not much has changed since then, and theatre enthusiasts say it boils down to fewer opportunities for women writers. “One of the biggest setbacks in theatre has been the lack of female playwrights,” says Hadaway. “And that’s why we see more substantial roles for men.
“There isn’t a dearth of great women writers, but they aren’t getting the same exposure and recognition as men. You’d think that in the 21st century that wouldn’t be the case, but it still is.”
Take Shakespeare’s work, for example, which he wrote for all-male acting companies and is revived time and again on stages all around the world. An analysis by Freestone calculated that only 16 per cent of the 981 characters Shakespeare created are female. Even his most female-centric play, As You Like It, has only 40 per cent of the lines written for women.
Emirati director Faisal Salah, who heads the Resuscitation Theatre in Abu Dhabi, says they often have more women than men answer casting calls for plays but don’t always have enough roles to go around.
“We slowly began to realise that there was more enthusiasm among women to be a part of theatre and started picking plays that would give them better and equal roles,” he says.
As a result, when adapting Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, most of the parts, even those written for men, were played by women.
A recent study by the British Theatre Consortium and the Society of London Theatre underscores the fact that “despite a few high-profile successes, the progress of women playwrights on our stages is at a standstill”.
The report paints a bleak picture of women in theatre, stating that plays written by females make up just 31 per cent of new productions, with even fewer revivals or adaptations. In addition, their productions are staged in smaller theatres, for shorter runs and with lower ticket prices than their male peers.
Shereen Saif, an actor in Dubai who has had several lead roles in community theatre in the UAE, has found that there are always more “meatier roles” for men.
“The world’s main theatre cities in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia have hundreds of years of theatre history, and women have had to overcome cultural and social barriers to earn their place in theatre,” says Saif.
“There is a dearth of good writing for women, coupled with the issue that plays written for women are not being picked up and produced as readily.
“Male playwrights naturally veer towards telling male-centric stories, with women given supporting roles.
“So for women to have the same opportunities, we need to see more women turning to writing and telling stories that expose a woman’s perspective on life and things that matter to them.”
She says it is a good sign locally that there has been an increase in women’s participation in the expat theatre community in the UAE.
“Whether it is acting, writing, directing or producing, in the last three years alone I have seen positive change,” she says.
The Short+Sweet Theatre Festival in UAE is a glowing example of equal participation by women. Since its inception, the festival has not only provided a platform for female writers and actors, it has also helped guide them and hone their skills.
Noteworthy productions at the festival, which was held in Abu Dhabi and Dubai this year, included Platform Tales, a comic monologue about characters in a New York subway station by Abu Dhabi writer and director Baindu Kalokoh, and Dubai playwright Rosine Saad’s Ya Welcome, Ya Welcome, a satire on bureaucracy for which she won the Best Script Award at the festival.
Saif, was also part of this year’s Short+Sweet, taking the lead role in the 10-minute play Tragic Queen, which was written by resident playwright Sanjeev Dixit of Third Half Theatre. Saif played a princess who is forced to assume power through violence. “The festival has encouraged a lot of local writing, and has allowed directors to experiment with women’s themes,” says Saif.
“But having said that, women are still not on equal footing with men when it comes to opportunities but this is growing.
Dixit agrees that there is a clear imbalance, not just in the number of roles but in quality and range.
“I feel a bit fortunate that the very first play I wrote, Garcon, had a very strong female lead and the next play, I Am, was a play on social issues with a focus on women,” he says.
“However, I don’t think I go about wanting to write plays with strong female characters. I essentially want, as a writer, to have a strong characters regardless of gender. But theatre mirrors society, and as women continue to defy barriers, we will see many more strong female characters in plays, as well.”
Zakaia Cvitanovich, the founder of Abu Dhabi theatre group Beyond The Veil, which adapts award-winning Emirati playwright Saleh Karama Al Ameri’s works for an English-speaking audience, says that because theatre is still in its infancy in the UAE, women have broken the “glass ceiling” that still exists in more mature theatre communities around the world.
“Several theatre groups and companies here are helmed by women or have them on the board – and that’s a positive sign,” she says.
For her university dissertation, Cvitanovich analysed the female representation in plays by Al Ameri and found he created strong female characters.
“He writes interesting female roles and I’ve never had a problem with developing the characters he has written because they have always had a universal quality to them, and very diverse too,” she says.
She has also experimented with casting women in some of the roles originally written for men, with the writer’s consent.
“In our last play, Take the Ground, the director, Angeleene Abraham, cast women in two of the roles that originally required men,” she says. “It just added a different dimension to the story.”
While the expatriate community is making big strides in gender balance in theatre, the uptake is slower among Emirati women.
Salah says a lot of that has to do with cultural barriers.
“Attracting Emiratis to theatre is difficult in general and it gets worse for women because of family reasons,” he says.
“The few times we have had Emirati women in plays, they have asked not to be on posters or promotional material to avoid their image being out there.”
Emirati actress Hanan Al Shabebi says she is discouraged by the lack of culturally appropriate roles.
“There is a lot of English theatre, and Arabic theatre is only in small pockets, in Sharjah or Fujairah,” says the 37-year-old accountant from Dubai.
“I like acting but I haven’t found roles that fit me yet,” says Shabebi, who took an eight-month acting course with Hadaway last year.
“Also, in our culture, a career in acting is frowned upon, especially for women – and it is difficult to change that mindset. Playwrights should also write stronger, more sensitive roles for women of all ages.”
Saif says she would like writers to avoid stereotyping women in plays and promote inclusivity.
“Writers need to see beyond the clichés and female stereotypes, and audiences need to be more open and accepting,” she says. “I would also like to see space in theatre for the plus-sized and older women.