Justice and Equality for Women in Theatre

2020 Festival of Women’s Plays | Women Playwrights International Philippines Forum 6-8 March 2020 | Cultural Center of the Philippines

Brief Introduction: Day 3 Panel — Katarungan at Pagkapantay-pantay ng Kababaihan, Katarungan at Pagkapantay-pantay sa Dulaan

‘The theatre, it is universally recognised, is always among the most conservative of institutions.’ This is from a 1911 article by Marjorie Strachey, ‘Women and the Modern Drama,’ which appeared in The Englishwoman May 1911 – quoted in a 2008 journal article by Maria DiCenzo, writing on feminism, theatre criticism, and the modern drama.

I mention this as a way into our topic in this forum: katarungan at pagkapantay-pantay – justice and equality for women in theatre. If the theatre is a conservative institution, is there space in it for women to thrive? What does being conservative mean? Does it equate to a lack of justice and equality for women?

In 2012, The Guardian had an article titled ‘Women in theatre: why do so few make it to the top?’ talking about results of surveys in the UK on how many women work in theatre, how many women directors or playwrights or actors or designers, how many female roles vs male roles, whether female writers write more female roles than males, whether male directors use plays written by women playwrights, and so on. The results were not good and the verdict was that English theatre is dominated by males in all aspects, including in governance boards of the theatres. And the view is that this is very much a cultural phenomenon that goes all the way back to Shakespeare and remains strong to this day. One thing to problematize though is the survey numbers on the audience: there were more women than men.

In the Philippines, I don’t know if there has been a similar research conducted. I am very curious if the same can be said of theatre in the Philippines in the contemporary time. It is surely not that simple, because we have to be clear first of all what is or are designated by the term ‘theatre’ and who then are included in the count. Certainly we have to think of our own context, which is very different from that of the UK. For instance, do we count the Arakyo players in Nueva Ecija alongside the actors of Repertory Philippines or PETA? And focusing on the women in theatre question, if we go back in history – at the time Shakespeare was writing his dramas and his female roles were being played by male actors in an all-male company, our ‘theatres’ if we may call them that, were dominated by females, the babaylans who officiated the major rituals in the form of chanting and dance and trance-like theatricals. We read this in Pigafetta’s account of the Spanish arrival in the Visayas and in the accounts of the friars. Of course, later, things changed, and if we flash forward to the time of the drama simboliko, the ‘seditious’ plays of 1901-1907, we find only male figures in the historical accounts: Aurelio Tolentino, Severino Reyes, Juan Matapang Cruz, and others, even if the female ‘Inang Bayan’ or a similar female figure is the single most arresting character in the major plays of the period.

In the Philippines, theatre has always had a revolutionary function in questioning conservatism and breaking it apart. I will venture to say it has never been conservative in its intent, if we think of the long history of radical and protest theatre for instance. But the question of justice and equality for women in theatre must still be asked. And as I suggested earlier, this is more than just about numbers.

Today we are very fortunate to have two key female figures in contemporary Philippine theatre who will share their thoughts on the topic: Dr. Glecy Atienza and Ms. Liza Magtoto.


DiCenzo, Maria. ‘Feminism, Theatre Criticism, and the Modern Drama’, South Central Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Staging Modernism (Spring, 2008), pp. 36-55.

Higgins, Charlotte. ‘Women in theatre: why do so few make it to the top?’, The Guardian, 10 December 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/10/women-in-theatre-glass-ceiling, accessed 5 March 2020.

Published by Jazmin Llana

Hello, I am Jazmin Llana. I work in higher education in the Philippines with arts and humanities as my subject area. Here you can find links to my published essays and current projects.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: