‘The fighters always go first’: how women are transforming theatre

Women are finally at the helm of the theatre world, both nationally and in the ELL boroughs. What does that mean for them and for theatre? 

L to R: Filiz Ozcan, artistic director at Lewisham Youth Theatre (Pic: Robert Day), Dimity Nicholls, executive director at Fevered Sleep (Pic: David Harradine), Somebody Jones, award-winning playwright and Jo Carter, artistic director of Immediate Theatre (Pic: Devere Mahbeir). Pic composite: Aysha Imtiaz

The appointment of Sri Lankan heritage Indhu Rubasingham as the next director of the National Theatre is unprecedented, as it is the first time a woman – and a person of colour – will assume what is perhaps the most influential position in British theatre. She is preceded by five white men. 

Poised to assume her new position in the spring of 2025, Rubasingham’s ascent is exciting for the theatre world, indicative of seismic shifts and dramatic progress. But why is having women in key leadership positions especially important for theatre?  

It’s much more than mere representation. For starters, it means compassionate and authentic storytelling, deeper collaboration, and a sensitivity to marginalised voices – regardless of gender – through a richness of lived experience. 

“What’s happening at the National Theatre at the moment: having representation of a woman of colour…it’s really, really exciting,” says Filiz Ozcan, artistic director of Lewisham Youth Theatre

“The industry is shifting and changing and there’s a lot more women who are in that kind of senior leadership role,” Ozcan says.

Rubasingham’s appointment – and, indeed, the prominence of many women in leadership positions across local theatres in the ELL boroughs – signals a more nuanced understanding of the artform.

“We’ve recognised there is actually so much power in femininity and what that brings. Not only are we female, but we’re female of different experiences…that brings such a richness of lived experience,” she says, referencing how at Lewisham Youth Theatre, CEO Victoria Shaskan’s experience as a mother brings a special dimension and approach, while Ozcan is sensitive to migration, diversity and inclusion. 

“I think lived experience really plays a big part. The reason I’m hypersensitive to representation is because I’ve been brought up in an environment where I had to fight those battles myself,” she says, “I faced racism in primary school. Nobody came to me and asked, ‘What was it like to be growing up in the UK in the 90s? Let’s unpick that.’ My story was never told.”

The experience spurred a deep desire for Ozcan – and, presumably, many other women setting the creative vision and direction for local theatres – to give voice to underrepresented communities and narratives. 

“I’ve made a promise to myself that I will never take a story that isn’t gifted to me,” says Ozcan. “If I believe that piece will benefit from somebody who has the same lived experience, what they’re going to bring to that process is going to be so much more rich than what I will.” 

Ozcans’s plays highlight the power of theatre for advocacy and social change. Having worked at the award-winning Komola Collective before LYT, her play Bonbibi tells the captivating tale of a girl raised by the creatures of the Sundarbans, chosen to restore balance between man and nature as greed threatens the forest. And her adaptation of Oliver Twist – Aleya Twist on the streets of Dhaka – oozes empathy and social awareness, highlighting the struggles of child domestic workers in Bangladesh. 

These choices are a perfect microcosm of the potency of women directing storytelling, revealing their ability to confront societal injustices head-on. To Ozcan, however, great storytelling is about more than gender. 

“I’m sure men can create an environment where it’s supportive and nurturing as well. We’ve just recently recruited a male into the company, which is great because it then balances the approach,” she says. 

Nonetheless, seeing visible female mentors is important, she believes. “When I started off, I didn’t really think that senior leadership was a possibility.”

Her experience chimes with Jo Carter, artistic directir and founder of Immediate Theatre in Hackney. When Carter began her career in the late 90s, she says, “There was a real sticking point,” in breaking through the glass ceiling and being able to pursue fulfilling work. Women were, “expected to the pretty bit on the side, if you know what I mean.” People may criticise early female pioneers in various fields for having been overtly assertive, explains Carter, but, “Really, they were paving the way for the rest of us. The fighters always go first.” 

To her, a feminine approach to work is not gendered in the ways one might expect, but in the spirit of collectivism, organic collaboration and support. Of knowing your audiences. Of caring. 

During her career in the West End, she shares, there came a transformative epiphany moment one evening while she was enjoying an acclaimed play surrounded by the steady stream of global audiences. “I realised I wanted to be in more of a community environment. That’s what I felt passionate about.” 

When she began interviewing for alternative positions and was asked what sort of work she wanted to do, her response was always: “Actually, I need to understand my audience, I need to have a relationship with them. I don’t want to tell you what my agenda is; I want to find out what your audience’s agenda is. I want the people whose stories are not being heard to be the subject.” 

“It’s about presenting what they want to say rather than what we want to hear,” says Dimity Nicholls, executive director at Fevered Sleep, an arts organisation based in Tower Hamlets that works to amplify marginalised voices that, all too often, aren’t heard. 

Hers is a story of pragmatism and hard-won experience, of taking a touch-typing course straight after college to get transferrable skills and of early struggles in learning how to ‘be’ an artist. Today, her role includes ensuring that fundraising, finances and people at Fevered Sleep remain healthy and are able to thrive. Despite – or because by virtue of – being an eminent female leader in the space, she is sensitive to the needs of freelancers. 

“The pandemic was a terrible time for freelancers of all kinds,” she says, “But the creative industries always seem to take a real hit and, of course, most caring responsibility comes down to women, which is unpaid, in the main. So, our time and energies are stretched and it becomes easy to leave people out in situations like that, I think.” 

Like the marginalised voices she seeks to give agency to through Fevered Sleep’s creative work, she hopes having more women in leadership will keep their essence – and outlook – at the core of theatre’s heart. 

Goldsmiths graduate, playwright and dramaturg Somebody Jones adds to the discussion: “You don’t just want a gender balance, you want mentors.” Unlike careers in accounting, for instance, where there are clear career trajectories and pathways toward the next promotion, growth in the creative sectors requires being able to see and learn from mentors others can identify with. 

Still, the question remains: can female leaders bring tangible change to redefine the very fabric of the theatre landscape in the ELL boroughs and beyond?

In some respects, despite being an age-old question, it’s still too soon to tell. 

Jones cautions against simply seeing the appointment of women in leadership roles as the end game: “The biggest thing is, I want that woman to be able to make changes. I feel like you could have a woman in a position like an artistic director or an executive director, but if she can’t make any changes, what’s the point?” 

Read the rest of ‘The show must go on’, ELL’s three-day series on local theatre, here.

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