Privilege and the Audience

Does it matter about the gender of bums on seats? Feminist theatre-maker Holly Robinson discusses privileging one audience over another.

As I was stood outside an Edinburgh Fringe venue last August doing the perennial “should I spend £5 on a cider when that’s basically half a ticket to a show and might make me slightly tipsy halfway through this show and I don’t want to be slightly tipsy while trying to understand a play about space travelling architects” dance, Emma, the performer and writer (to my director and co-writer) of To She Or Not to She, turned to me and said, “Are you worried not enough men are seeing the show and that it’s just young women coming?”

My short answer was, “No.” My slightly longer answer was “No. You’re wrong and even if you weren’t, I don’t think it matters.” My longer answer takes the form of this article, in which I ask, “Does it matter what gender the bums on our seats are?”

(A sidebar that shouldn’t be a sidebar: what about people who are neither male nor female? Where do non-binary people come into our supposed audience? Or can we not even imagine them sat in our theatre? When will queerness become part of this conversation and part of theatre’s collective imagination? I’ve limited this discussion myself to a binary of male bums on seats versus female bums on seats because that’s the debate I was having in Edinburgh. I need to think about who I left out in this debate and who I am leaving out of this article. A sidebar isn’t good enough – but it’s all I have right now.)

Firstly, I do believe Emma, being on stage, actually had less of a hold on what our audience looked like than I did. I often stood outside after the show and handed out little business cards with the show’s social media info on and, as I did, I looked every audience member in the face and said, “Thank you for coming! Send us your feedback!” And there were men there – often more than a third, I would say, of our audience were men.

Men in their forties who brought along their daughters. Men in their fifties there with friends and wives. Men in their twenties who brought themselves; friends, strangers, critics. There were men tweeting us and their friends about how wonderful, charming and important they found the show. We did have a strong male audience in every day, especially for a show with the tagline “A Feminist Shakespearean One Woman Comedy Solo Show”.

But I didn’t really care about the men. I’m glad they were there, I am glad they loved the show, I am glad they left it with a greater understanding of the difficulties of being a woman – on stage and off – but I don’t think that’s the ultimate aim of feminist theatre: to teach men.

tosheornottoshe copyBound up in Emma’s original question was the underlying question, “should we have made a feminist show that more men would want to come and see?” There are shows like this and companies who set out entirely to bring feminism to men. There is great value in that kind of theatre and I salute anyone who makes it but that isn’t the show we set out to make with To She or Not to She. We set out to explore “the trials and tribulations of being a woman, on stage and off” and I think subconsciously, we were writing and making for a female audience. I don’t think we ever need to be embarrassed by this.

There is nothing wrong with theatre made for women, by women whose aim is to represent and question and problematize women’s stories and lives and positions in society. A lot of our audience were women in the arts (old and young) and for them, the idea that their male counterparts get offered more interesting and varied roles while women are stuck with the eternal Dead Sex Worker #7 is not a revelation. And yet to see it highlighted and challenged on stage and to see Emma (the character) battle against that and come out fighting, while not necessarily revelatory, is cathartic and celebratory.

We had messages from a woman working in photography saying that she felt powerless in such a male-dominated profession and watching To She or Not to She made her want to find the voice to speak out. A girl stopped me in the Pleasance Courtyard to thank me for a joke about nipple hair (“I thought I was the only one!”). Women in their sixties thanked us for continuing the fight they started. We had audiences in tears listening to Emma’s final call to arms. There is value in telling women’s stories constructed for a female audience and I am glad we did not stop and worry in rehearsals, “will men laugh at this joke about vaginal sweat?”

It turns out a lot of them, once they are through the door, do. Maybe we should have done more to get more of them through the door. Flyering on the mile, though, I began to see that some men just glazed over at the phrase “one woman show”. Most men at the Edinburgh Fringe wouldn’t admit this: we’re all lefty theatre types, no sexism here! Your average Fringe-goer is not the man at the pub proclaiming women aren’t funny but he might be the man who, when you ask them which comedy shows they saw at the Fringe, won’t name a single female comic and who would probably turn off Comedy Roadshow if it had an all-female line up, but without really knowing why. Men are not taught to identify with female characters in the same way women are expected to identify with male ones.

When most TV shows, most books you’re made to read in English, and every history lesson centres on men, girls learn to identify with men and to care about their struggles. When I tried to flyer large groups of men, they claimed they wouldn’t be able to empathise with a show about being a woman. I’ve “empathised” with jokes about wanking into socks my entire life.

I do not think the problem of men’s inability to empathise with women can be solved by one 55-minute piece of theatre. Or maybe it can, but that was not the show we made. We were not in Edinburgh to cater to men, we were there (that year, with that show) to tell stories about women. If there were men happy to come on that journey with us, we welcomed them with open arms. I’ve left To She or Not to She as a director in order to finish my degree. Emma continues to develop it and is working on touring the show, which continues to be rabble-rousingly feminist, and I hope men will continue to find their own joy in it, wherever it ends up playing. We made a show about vaginal sweat and wanting to play Hamlet and how weak being a woman can make you feel and how strong it can make us too, if we allow it. We made a show that teary-eyed women and girls have thanked us for outside our venue with a quick hug, or a 140-character tweet, and going forward into my career as a self-proclaimed feminist theatre-maker, those things will always matter more to me than more male bums on seats.


Holly Robinson | @holbolrob | website

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