The Actors Centre

Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre

1 June 2017

‘The rewards can be huge’: Lucy Kerbel on the empowering benefits of being a change-maker

Theatre needs to change. Everywhere – in its boardrooms, on its stages, throughout its repertoires – it could be so much more successful at reflecting the gender balance of the world it seeks to represent. When it comes to the question of how we can achieve this, I think there’s a similar principle at play to how we put a show on stage: it will only happen, and happen in the best way possible, if a whole range of people are involved in its creation, and can bring their own particular talent, skill and interest to the mix.

Now there’s no point denying it: change is hard to achieve. It requires grit, determination, patience and sometimes courage. And yet the rewards, for those who engage in making it happen, can be huge.

Aside from the wider artistic, cultural and social benefits, some of the rewards of creating change are personal; they directly impact in a positive way on the person who is bothering to go to the effort of doing the change-making work, a bit like the fact that bothering to go for a run every morning will, over time, benefit your physical and mental well-being, despite the outlay of energy and time that is required. Back in 2011, I left behind my role as a freelance theatre director to found an organization called Tonic Theatre, which works with companies and individuals across the theatre industry to support them in achieving greater gender equality in their work and workforces. Over the years, I’ve sometimes asked myself the question ‘What’s in it for me?’ when, especially on the days it feels difficult, I’ve found myself wondering why I should persist in trying to achieve change in theatre. There are many answers to this, but among the primary ones that’s consistently towards the top of my list is that – on a personal level – I find change absolutely fascinating; even when it’s hard I hugely enjoy the process of trying to drive change. I find it an incredibly stimulating and creative thing to do.

If I were to try to analyse why this is, I’d say it’s because change is inherently dramatic. It’s what, when I was directing, I spent most days in the rehearsal room exploring with actors. Essentially, most drama is about change: characters trying to affect change, or going through a process of change, either in themselves or witnessing it in the world around them. If you get to the end of watching a play and nothing and no one on stage has changed, you can bet it wasn’t a particularly dramatic piece of work. The thing I most loved about being a director was spending time excavating the script, trying to work out what the change was that the characters wanted to affect on a moment-by-moment basis and then, with the actors, exploring the various tactics those characters could use to achieve this.

Regardless of the initial impetus, one of the biggest benefits, as far as I’m concerned, to anyone involved in making change is that it is empowering to do. And in an industry that can, inadvertently or otherwise, leave many of its members feeling without agency quite a lot of the time, finding empowerment is no small thing. The knowledge that you’ve succeeded in leaving somewhere or something just a little bit better than when you found it is never going to make a person feel anything other than good about themselves. Even if it’s something as seemingly straightforward as trying to help the culture in the rehearsal room you’re part of be respectful and welcoming to all, making things better is one of the simplest but best approaches we can all take to be happy in what we’re doing.

There’s something brilliant in not just changing something, but changing it to be a bit more like you believe it ought to be, especially if your vision is of creating something that is fairer, more interesting, and more embracing of difference.

Theatre shouldn’t be untouchable, nor should we regard its practices as hallowed; like any other industry it isn’t perfect and we have the right to question, challenge and develop it. And we don’t need to treat it with kid gloves. Theatre isn’t going to break; it’s tough – it’s survived in just about every time, culture and society, and can be bent and stretched in endless directions yet lose none of its potency or appeal. So if we don’t like it, we can change it. A healthy dose of skepticism about why we do what we do, a pinch of irreverence, and a twist of subversion are no bad things with which to equip ourselves when considering where we want to take our theatre industry next.

Remember: we all have the capacity to create change. Sometimes the first step towards doing so is simply recognising that fact.

Lucy Kerbel - Author and Director of Tonic Theatre


Join Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic Theatre, for an empowering and inspiring discussion about achieving gender equality in theatre – and how you can play your part – in a lunchtime seminar at the Tristan Bates Theatre on Friday 9 June, 1pm-2pm. Tickets are on sale now £10 / £6 for Actors Centre members – to book yours, click here.

Lucy Kerbel’s book All Change Please: A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. Get your copy at the special Actors Centre members’ price of just £7 (rrp £9.99) when you use code ACMEMBERS at