Ladies of the Stave: Building gender equality in Musical Theatre | The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Building gender equality in Musical Theatre

Image of Wendy Gadian for Ladies of The Stave


How Central’s Musical Theatre programme is working to create more opportunities for women as musical directors and pit players

In January 2018, a Musicians’ Union (MU) survey reported that barely 10% of players in West End orchestra pits were women – this despite the fact that the Union’s membership was more than one third female, or that top-flight female musicians are hardly an anomaly in the UK.

If this revelation elicited a gasp in the music industry press, from female musicians there was a collective sigh of familiarity. There’s no doubt that the #MeToo movement has opened up crucial dialogue about how women are treated in the entertainment industry, propelling long-overdue action towards parity in pay, treatment and representation. But musical theatre lags behind, and nowhere more so than in the pit and on the podium.

The Musical Theatre programme at Central is tackling this issue head on through efforts led by Wendy Gadian, Course Leader and Principal Lecturer for the BA Acting Musical Theatre. As one of the few women who has worked consistently as a musical director in the theatre industry, Gadian has been the driving force behind an exciting initiative that has already caused waves in the sector around the issue of gender diversity among musical directors and pit players.

A musical director (MD) is typically part of a show’s senior creative team and helps to shape the overall creative direction of the production. The MD will teach musical numbers to the cast and often will have a role in auditioning and choosing cast members. The MD also selects and rehearses show musicians, often writes arrangements or orchestrations, and conducts the band or orchestra in performance.

Becoming a musical director is not a straightforward process; there is little consensus either on a job specification or career path. In the UK, musical directors are often hired via small, male-dominated networks, with predictable results: as of this writing, no West End production had a female musical director.

Challenges described by female pit musicians are even starker. Changing rooms are sometimes described as being for the ‘gentlemen of the orchestra’; too often, there are no separate changing facilities. Sexual and misogynistic banter among male musicians is still all too common, even when female musicians are present. Most pit musicians are sourced via industry ‘fixers’, most of whom are male and tend to hire the same musicians – again, mostly male – time and again.

Gadian’s own experience as a musicial and musical director, which began in the 1990s and has encompassed national tours, TV and film, bears this disparity out all too clearly. ‘Very regularly I used to get tapped on the shoulder in the pits, and it’d be, ‘Oh god, it’s a girl!’

Leading by example

Under Gadian’s direction, the Musical Theatre programme at Central has taken an industry-leading role in widening participation and diversity, including improving opportunities and access for women. Gadian has commissioned new writing, both musicals and plays, from women and has taken Central musical theatre productions across the UK.

Disadvantaged areas – where young people may have little experience with the business of musical theatre – are a particular outreach priority, as evidenced by the East Midlands Touring Project, which has been running for six years and brings Central’s autumn term musical theatre course productions to Derby and Leicester. Supported by Central’s Outreach Department, the touring project involves not only performance but also Q&As and workshops with student cast members. ‘It changes lives for kids who are 15 or 16 years old to speak to kids like themselves further down the line,’ Gadian observed. ‘It really brings the ‘Could that be me?’ question to light.’

Programme outreach is also increasingly global. In 2017, the Matilda Italian Academy in Livorno brought 50 students to Central; in 2016, the La Colmena Academy for Performing Arts in Costa Rica – founded by a Central Musical Theatre alumna – hosted Gadian to work with its students, as did the Misi Escuela De Teatro Musical in Columbia.

Beyond outreach, Central’s Musical Theatre programme has been a pioneer in efforts to address career path challenges  for musical directors. In 2013, the programme awarded its first Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Associate Musical Director post, the only award of its kind specifically supporting emerging musical directors, who apply at the graduate level. Successful candidates are funded to work part-time for a year as associate MD on Central productions, enabling them to enhance their skills while having access to Central’s facilities and its breadth of professional and industry contacts.

Widening a narrow pipeline

For Gadian, the issue of progression for female musical directors came to a boil in late 2017 when the ALWF award opened for its fifth round of applications. While this award has always been intensely competitive – and to date has only been awarded to men – Gadian said there have always been strong female candidates in the finalist pool. Last year, however, all 28 applicants were male. ‘That stopped me in my tracks,’ she said.

After publication of the Musicians’ Union survey, Gadian worked with the Music Theatre Network (MTN) Executive to help convene a roundtable on musical director progression routes and gender imbalance within the industry. Gadian co-chaired the event in September 2017. The roundtable has evolved into a working group called Ladies of the Stave that has tasked itself with identifying and tackling barriers to greater female representation in the pit and on the podium.

At present, the group is focusing its efforts on the following themes:

•          Mentoring: Successful female musicians and MDs, by being active role models, can help the younger generation of women to gain confidence in their ability to chart a fulfilling career path in the field. Gadian and others feel that women in teaching positions should invite young female MDs and musicians to gain experience alongside them and also encourage them into programmes like the ALWF Associate MD scheme.
•          Networking: Because work for pit musicians and musical directors is rarely advertised, those in the ‘inner circle’ – whether female or male – need to do better at sharing opportunities with young female musicians and emerging MDs. Gadian said that the very existence of Ladies of the Stave, and the industry buzz behind it, has already had an effect: in recent months, she’s been approached by both regional and national theatres for guidance on hiring more female musical directors and players.
•          Education: Instructors and students in Central’s Musical Theatre programme are connecting more frequently with music colleges to engage girls and young women who might be interested in a musical directing career path. This is happening through talks, workshops and course tasters, with a key selling point being the sheer diversity of the MD role, which includes teaching, composing, arranging and performing, in a wide range of musical styles.
•          Leadership: A key Ladies of the Stave focus is to help create the circumstances whereby women can truly take the reins in terms of running and directing projects and courses, without male supervision. This culture shift requires advocacy, skill, networking and above all else individual confidence. Gadian said that female musicians themselves have to demand and ‘own’ this space. ‘It’s about a belief that if you get to this stage, you’re enough,’ she said.

The ultimate aim of Central’s Musical Theatre programme and Ladies of the Stave is to change what’s considered normal in the pit and on the podium. Both male and female colleagues need to be engaged with the effort, not least to share stories about more gender-balanced shows that were particularly successful. Gadian and others firmly believe it will also take a whole industry effort to call out unfair or unacceptable treatment of women, perhaps even establishing a new industry ‘code of conduct’ that charts a clear path for effectively dealing with issues of favouritism, sexism and outright abusive behavior.

Some challenges don’t lend themselves to immediately obvious solutions. Unlike other top-level theatre professions – director, writer, performer – there is no significant award for musical direction. This has the effect of keeping the profession at a lower public profile and making it more difficult for debates about diversity to reach a wider audience.

Gadian said that a particularly thorny challenge for women is how to square maternity leave with an industry that can be notoriously unsympathetic to the demands of parenthood. This is an issue facing the industry more broadly. A 2016 survey by UK Music, tracking industry diversity, revealed that while more women than men enter into the music business, far more men end up either as Senior Executives or Senior Management. One significant factor cited was progression lost due to maternity leave.

But even here Gadian believes there are solutions, even if they’re not yet obvious. What does seem clear is that more women having creative control in major musical productions can only be a net positive.

‘Women share ideas and connect them to their own experience in a unique way,’ Gadian said. ‘We need that now more than ever. There’s a huge amount of work to do to get there.’