What the film industry could learn about women from Chimerica’s success

Chimerica was the biggest winner at this year’s Olivier Awards. Johan Persson

In 1951, screen star turned director Ida Lupino wrote:

Women, according to these stalwart defenders of male superiority, may not be film musical directors, cameramen, set designers, composers, assistant directors, directors, or production managers. In short, the only sort of job encouragement which women get in Hollywood is the portrayal of women on the screen. Sometimes I suspect we are resented for even this intrusion.

Despite the 60 years that have passed, in 2013 only 16% of behind the scenes roles in the top 250 grossing American films were held by women.

Only four women have ever been nominated for the Best Director category in the Oscars (Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1994, Sofia Coppola in 2003 and Kathryn Bigelow in 2010). Out of these, only Bigelow won, for The Hurt Locker.

Contrast this with theatre, where a record three women were nominated for Best Director at the Olivier Awards this year: Susan Stoman for The Scottsboro Boys, Maria Friedman for Merrily We Roll Along, and Lyndsey Turner for Chimerica. With last night’s triumphant win of five Olivier Awards for Chimerica, including Best Director, Time Magazine’s headline, Theater is Much Less Sexist than Film, could be seen as justified.

Indeed, while Turner is only the fourth female director to win an Olivier, it does seem to be a marker of change, as it follows Marianne Elliott’s win last year for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, and from the 2013 Tonys, which awarded Best Director to women for both the play and musical categories.

But why have these greater possibilities for female directors arrived in mainstream theatre? And what could commercial film, in both America and Britain, learn from these possibilities? Chimerica offers a few answers.

Creative crews

In her Oscar acceptance speech, Cate Blanchett poured ridicule on the idea that “female films with women at the centre are niche experiences”. While Blanchett was talking about female acting roles, increasing the number of women and expanding the kind of roles they play off stage or behind the camera would do much to challenge the positioning of female-led work as niche.

In contrast to the 16% of women working behind the scenes in US film in 2013, a Guardian study of women in the top ten subsidised theatres in Britain recorded 23% of women working within “creative crews” in the financial year of 2011-12. A poor number, but still superior, and more overtly progressive in its presence of 24% of female British theatre directors to the 9% of female commercial US film directors in the same year. The consequences of this progression can be seen in that four of Chimerica’s Olivier awards went to its female creative crew members.

One of those awards went to Es Devlin for her phenomenal cubic set design. The striking images constructed through and within it underscored the political questions of the narrative in Lucy Kirkwood’s epic play, caught between America and China, Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and today.

Jenna Russell, nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for Merrily We Roll Along, talks about how in watching Chimerica, “I felt proud, as a woman, to see that most of the creative team were women, doing something really bold and strong.” This sense of a strong female creative team recalls the mutually supportive ethos of the 1970s feminist theatre collectives, and, indeed, Turner’s second collaboration with Es Devlin went into production at the end of last year.

Revived for the first time in New York since its original production, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal is a 1928 expressionist play tracing the journey of a woman’s act of murder and subsequent execution. Such collaboration continues Turner’s exciting connection with the work of female playwrights, challenging texts and fully fleshed female roles, so highlighting the dynamic possibilities of similar collaborations for other directorial projects across film and theatre.

But, of course, whilst plays like Chimerica and Machinal and the awards they win are cause for celebration, it would be even greater if the presence and nomination of female directors was the norm, rather than the exception, or only potentially on the increase.