Could This be the West End’s First Feminist Theatre?

Following the launch of a crowdfunding campaign to buy a West End theatre and turn it into a female-led arts space, The Skinny asks whether this could be the next step for a more gender equal theatre industry?

Feature by Amy Taylor | 20 Mar 2018
  • Theatre Royal Haymarket

The news in January that the Theatre Royal Haymarket was to be put up for sale may not have come as a surprise to industry insiders but one reaction to the sale could not have been predicted even a few years ago. One of London’s oldest working theatres, the Theatre Royal Haymarket has operated in one form or another since 1720. Based in London’s prestigious West End, it is the perfect place for new investment, new faces and new perspectives. And perhaps, the first feminist theatre venue in London, if not the UK.

While the asking price for the theatre has not been made public, a crowdfunding campaign started by Accalia Arts (a group of women creatives) is aiming to raise £3 million to buy the Theatre Royal Haymarket and turn it into a female-led arts space. The plan came about in response to, as Accalia Arts founder Natalie Durkin says, “unequal representation and the lack of safe spaces for women to explore what is going on around them.”

The unequal representation of women in the theatre industry has been a problem for many years, with a now-infamous 2012 study by The Guardian in association with Elizabeth Freestone of Pentabus Theatre finding that women are still badly under represented with the male-to-female ratio being 2:1. Although, interestingly, research by Ipsos Mori in 2010 found that woman often outnumbered men in the audience.

Meanwhile, a study last year found a huge gender imbalance between male and female directors working at 33 theatres across England. Male directors outnumbered female directors at 21 theatres, while women directors outnumbered men at just seven venues; five theatres had a 50/50 split. Theatre, despite some improvements, is still not an inclusive space and that is what Accalia Arts want to change by creating a venue to nurture work by women.

The group, which was created by a group of professionals from Bossy, an online forum for women creatives that boasts over 15,000 members, is also designed to support those who identify as female or non-binary. It aims to create “an inclusive space with a varied season of old and new work. [We are] particularly keen to utilise the space as a facilitation and education space throughout the day,” explains Durkin.

Should the campaign be successful, Durkin says that the group aims to “create a corner that contributes to global women’s movements, with a focus on the inclusive nature of the arts. The arts engage us to explore, along with holding valuable transformational capacities." Durkin adds that despite the growing importance of the creative industries to the UK economy, funding for the arts is consistently being cut.

Inspired by the growth of international women’s movements and the creation of initiatives such as #TimesUp and #MeToo designed to call out harassment and abuse in the entertainment industries, this proposed theatre buyout is designed to unite. Accalia Arts want all self-identifying women to come together and create new modes of change in both their social standing and treatment.

Understandably, the group are keen to make a success of the campaign, which has raised just over £11,000 to date and has earned praise from Imelda Staunton, saying: “There’s a lot of men-only stuff, let's maybe have a bit of women only. I think why not give it a go!”

And giving it a go is what the group is doing, as they work hard and fundraise in the hope of making their female-led arts space a reality. But if it isn’t to be, they will find another way to keep the objective going. As Durkin explains: “Accalia Arts will continue support [to] female-led work and spaces if we are unsuccessful.”