Why so few women in theatre?

Serious gender-specific challenges exist in theatre, even if they are not so apparent, say women directors

Bali, directed by Nimmy Raphel, takes forward her love for mythology and epics.

Women directors in theatre have to cross many invisible hurdles to make a mark.

Theatre is known to explore intense stories and come out with cost-effective productions, and is often seen as an artistic alternative to commercial cinema.

However, the tentacles of sexism, so rampant in cinema, have not entirely spared theatre either.


Nimi Ravindran

“In the arts, gender discrimination is not so organised, like in the other fields,” says Nimi Ravindran, writer, theatre director and producer, co-founder of Sandbox Collective. 

The treatment meted out to women depends on the venue and the place, she explains.

“In Bengaluru, for instance, everyone knows everyone in Jagriti and Ranga Shankara and there is a bonhomie because of this. However, in places like NCPA in Mumbai, the technical staff prefer to talk to a man because they think women don’t know much about lighting and sound. Most directors call the shots when it comes to these aspects of their play, but if there is a guy standing next to me, they prefer to talk to him,” she says.

In Delhi, the men crew just look through women and are unwilling to take instructions, she has found from personal experience. Kerala is only slightly different, she says.

“In Kerala, if you talk to a man, he will talk to somebody else. For example, if you ask a question, the answer will be given to some other man standing there. It has become so normal that we have learned to laugh at it. Sometimes I keep a token man around me for them to talk to,” she says with a rueful laugh.

She feels the actual problem is that India has so few women directors.

“When you think of big names in theatre, people who inspire us, I can put down 20 names of men in an instant but I will struggle to list names of women. There are many women who are curators, producers, technicians, and head organisations, but the number of directors and playwrights is so few compared to men. That only means that entry must be difficult,” she points out.


Nimmy Raphel

Both Nimmy Raphel and Divya Karanth, directors, are not in favour with the term ‘women directors’ in the first place, “because we don’t call our male directors male directors right?”

Nimmy Raphel, whose latest production Bali is all set to be staged in Bengaluru, says she hasn’t faced any gender-specific challenges herself.

However, she is quick to add that she can’t speak for everyone. “I am sure there are inequalities but I was part of a group that was led by a woman director — Veenapani Chawla — and all the people who have played a major role in my life have been women. I have seen them stand their ground and that doesn’t come from physical force. I have brought these learnings into my profession and it has helped me.”

Nimmy goes on to add that who you are working with also influences how smoothly women directors can work. Performing arts company Adishakti is a very non-judgemental place but not everybody has that luxury. Women directors do experience power struggles. I know how to be strict with my actors but I don’t always keep a stick in my hand,” she says.


Divya Karanth

Divya Karanth, who recently staged her third directorial about Indira Gandhi— The Voices Behind Indira— says she was supported by a mostly male crew. 

“In a team of 25 members, 20 were men. My two best friends are men. My light guy, make-up guy, set designer, music composer, sound mixer, all are men. I think this generation is different and it has changed how educated, sensible men think of women,” she says.

However, exceptions exist. “I don’t face challenges regarding the script, casting or direction, since all that is completely under my control. But I have met a few actors who pass comments on how they are compromising by working with a ‘female director’. I keep them away!”

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