Festivals, Cultural and City Events

Power, Gender and the Arts: Exploring Woke Fantasies at Edinburgh's Festivals

For the second year running, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) hosted their event Power, Gender and the Arts. Billed as ‘a morning of provocation and discussion’ in a cross-festival conversation, the two hours at The Lyceum saw Lucy Kerbel, Founder and Director of Tonic, chair a panel including Catherine Mayer, Alicia Adams, Nadine Benjamin, Ifeoma Fafunwa and Emma Gladstone to discuss the state of gender equality in the arts.

The event was opened with a brief introduction from Francesca Hegyi, the Executive Director of the EIF, who alluded to the promising fact that the EIF team consists of predominantly women for the first time in its history. Combined with the strong presence of initiatives across the Festival Fringe such as Fringe of Colour, the Bechdel Theatre test and The Feminist Fringe, there is evidence of improving attitudes to, not just equality, but encouraging attendance to a more diverse festival – or as Bechdel Theatre puts it, watching performances that break from the ‘stale/ pale/ male standard’.

The aim of the discussion was to explore what can be done to achieve gender equality in the arts and how to make meaningful and lasting change in programming and working practices. Alicia Adams, a curator from the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, spoke of the need to be ‘woke’. Woke is a political term of African American origin that refers to the need to be alert to racial injustice, but in more contemporary discussions is used to determine general levels of societal awareness to a range of issues.  Very recently, the word has been used derogatorily to poke fun at those with an activist instinct. Rachael Healy wrote of the debated over-sensitivity towards woke issues in comedy at the Festival Fringe. She lists Andrew Doyle, Leo Kearse and Konstantin Kisin, amongst others, as comedians from the political right and centre who used their 2019 shows to defend their right to offend. 

Perversely, Adams highlighted the necessity for genuine woke attitudes in the arts for improving inclusivity and equality. Respect for and belief in the value of minority identities and talent needs to become an established normality in the arts and its abuse in comedy fields put this at risk. To see Adams name ‘wokeness’ as an imperative to her own planning, given her success at promoting equality and inclusivity, is illustrative of its potential gravity across arts curation. In 2018, Adams curated Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World, which brought together 400 Cuban and Cuban American artists across two weeks of performances. This was a celebration of Cuban arts on an unprecedented scale. With Cuba bursting with talent, but lacking in support for the arts, Adams saw this as an opportunity to showcase Cuban individuals and recognise their artistry. In 2020, Adams is involved in bringing the Martha Graham Dance Company's The EVE Project to the Kennedy Centre. The EVE Project, a performance making bold statements about female power, will celebrate the centennial of the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote.

This receptive approach to programming was proffered by Adams as an open invitation to encouraging curiosity in curation. When programming any act that expanded on the male, white standard, Adams noted that there is more of a need to justify their ‘quality’ of work. Any surrounding press needs extra justification to prove to audiences that these artists deserve their platform and are worth buying a ticket to see. For Adams, creating a diverse programme is necessary to show audiences there is no such thing as a qualitative norm in performance and to encourage their curiosity in purchasing tickets.

Such issues of justifying and determining quality in the arts was picked up again later in the conversation by Nadine Benjamin. Benjamin is a British lyric soprano and founder of the mentoring scheme Everybody Can!, who struggled to establish her arts career following ten years in finance and a lack of classical training. Like Adams, she spoke of the difficulty of determining what excellence is, when the normative state of excellence is measured by looking at such an unrepresentative portion of talent. This can create tension between artistic groups, when certain performers are side-lined for not conforming to a pre-prescribed level of excellence.

Benjamin’s mantra of ‘you’ve just gotta get brave’ (sic) combined with her own charismatic encouragement of self-reflection and following your vision, presented an energetic and self-confident approach to encouraging equality in the arts. One stand out suggestion she gave was the need to push for advanced scheduling in the workplace, allowing more time for childcare organisation to benefit parenting schedules. Similarly, during the open session for questions and comments, Jude Henderson, Director of the Federation of Scottish Theatre, spoke from the audience of the need for flexible working. Henderson highlighted the benefit of job co-shares to accommodate freelance and flexible working hours and the necessity to remove the stigma from doing so.

Ifeoma Fafunwa, founder and creative director of iOpenEye, a Nigerian production company, and Emma Gladstone, in charge of Dance Umbrella, London’s international dance festival, both spoke to the narrative of power in the arts. Their discussion of sexual harassment, with Fafunwa speaking to her personal experiences, referenced the topical inequalities women face in the age of #metoo and the dominance of the male ego. Gladstone referenced an inspiring organisation in the Belgian arts world known as ENGAGEMENT, an artist-led movement tackling sexual harassment, sexism and power abuse in the field that has made real legislative change. Hearing a success story in the field of sexual harassment spoke forcibly to the room, showing examples of positive change and the possible success from collective mobilisation.

The conversation ended with Kerbel asking the panel two questions – what keeps you up at night and what gives you hope? Catherine Mayer, co-founder and President of the Women’s Equality Party, said that for her, the answer was the same for both. Despite the fact that equality rights we thought secure are being stripped away, the most effective political change has always been made at times of turbulence and this gives her hope during the current political predicaments. Mayer then provided her own list of snapshot advice from the session: showcase women and raise them up, support marketing departments in justifying less well-recognised artists, show audiences what they don’t know they need to see, caregiving issues need to be prioritised for women and, her favourite quote of the night from Fafunwa, ‘be a pain in the ass.’

A panel composed of five women is always an encouraging sight in any room in this current climate, but somewhat divergent to an event title that promised an exploration of gender in the arts. A stage of women from various cultural backgrounds provides an inspiring glance at how the Festival Fringe could operate with more women involved and the discussion was full of empowered content that promises an encouraging future. However, the audience itself was lacking – with a majority female crowd and many empty seats.

Next year’s panel should include a more diverse gender representation, with non-binary and diverse male performers represented. The event itself should encourage a larger, more diverse audience – with tickets costing nothing, there is space here to invite in a younger generation from local school classes to youth groups and encourage more performers to attend. These first two events have made space for women, but if we are to stay true to Alicia Adams’s ‘woke’ curation, then next year's panel and audience needs to promote the morals of the discussion this year's event is projecting. The one main piece of advice that can be easily adopted is Fafunwa’s plan to ‘be a pain in the ass’ and we can see where that gets us in the meantime…


Eleanor Parker, Festivals Communications Coordinator.