BLOG 3rd February 2021

Space to Grow

This guest blog was written by Jess Williams. Jess is a theatre director and writer from the North East of England, now living in Belfast and working for Bruiser Theatre Company. Her work focuses on bold, visual storytelling, whether that is in the form of poetry, projection, or new writing theatre. This blog series is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Organisations Emergency Fund.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the opinions of the writer. Thrive is providing a platform for people who work in arts and culture to express their dreams for the sector post-Covid and to create constructive debate and discussion. Publication does not mean that thrive endorses the views expressed.

Imposter syndrome is a term that has snowballed its way into popular language. The feeling of being out of your depth, incorrectly appointed, and generally anxious of being called a fraud is familiar across all careers. First identified by psychologists in 1978, imposter syndrome is nothing new. But as a woman working in the arts, I can see the learned expectations that allow imposter syndrome to embed itself. Acknowledgment that this condition is impacted by representation and education is the first step in working to change the circumstances that allow this syndrome to thrive in the arts.

It was only last year that I began calling myself a director and writer without visibly cringing. This dissonance between myself and those terms started in school, where our learning focused on classic texts. Unfortunately, this meant almost all of the interesting, meaty characters were men, written by men. Women characters were as tightly bound by social constraints as we were by corseted costumes, and in a class of twenty girls, there could only be one Lady Macbeth. Repeated in the stories we read, in our class discussion, and in the essays I wrote, women were either maidens or whores. To be strong you had to be sexualised, to be innocent you had to be helpless. Not just problematic, these roles got boring very fast.

Then came the patriarchal idea of the director. With Drama at our rural school underfunded, we covered what were apparently the essentials. A starter pack for theatre that left me feeling too masculine for female roles, and too feminine for directing. By teaching us about male practitioners who studied male playwrights whose work was brought to life by male directors, the shadow of the patriarchal director was formed. Nothing was explicitly taught – instead, we learnt by absorption that a director is omnipotent, revered, all-knowing. They drive the play with complete command and create their vision with authority. As a softly-spoken eighteen-year-old woman, I did not identify with this idealised example. Who would? But this education was all I had, and I just did not fit the job description.

My first experience directing was by default. I wanted a story to be told onstage (specifically A Clockwork Orange), and my knowledge of the story and the special language Nadsat meant I was in a good position to tell it. So I did, co-directing with a brilliant female artist. I assumed my personality made me an inferior director. Under the shadow of the patriarchal director, what I now recognise as my greatest strengths, were my failures. Thoughtfulness and thriving on collaboration became being timid, being quiet, being uncertain. Being weak. Not being able to command a large cast to instant silence became more important than my creative ideas. I undercut myself, stating that I was directing out of necessity, therefore removing my abilities from the equation entirely. That way I could never be an imposter because I was not claiming to be anything.

Although this feeling stems from a confined introduction to theatre, I found there was not a magical world of representation awaiting me. In a study across 2018-19 theatre programmes, Jennifer Tuckett of Sphinx Theatre Company found a sharp imbalance in gender, and a lack of action to redress the balance. Highlighted were the RSC, who had zero productions by female writers between December 2018 and September 2019, and the National who had 25% female playwrights between November 2018 to April 2019. Clinging to the classics that sell means there was little increase in representation from the 2012 study – just about the time I was beginning my school drama education. The doubts I have felt are echoed in the industry, as I searched for role models who had to fight to be heard.

Lockdown has been devastating for so many parts of the arts industry, but it has also been an incredible opportunity for connection and collaboration. Through virtual events with brilliant and vibrant women artists, I have found the role models I was looking for. I am happy to say that by engaging with these women, I have had the patriarchal idea of a director effectively and (almost) completely exorcised.

Hannah Banister taught me that the best way to build trust in a rehearsal room is to say ‘I don’t know’. Suddenly, anything is OK. It opens up collaboration, experiment, play. Ideas aren’t born fresh and clean, they grow. Anna Ryder advised me that imposter syndrome might never go away, but you can practice not letting it stop you. Chinoyerem Odimba taught me that your art should push, should play, and you do not owe an apology for that.

In terms of my dreams for the arts, I hope education will continue to support and study contemporary female artists as core learning. Show young women what they can become. Challenge the stories being told on stage, and why half the population are not being equally reflected. Aim to stifle imposter syndrome at the beginning, rather than advising how to manage it throughout a career.

Ultimately, you owe yourself time. If you are dedicated and work on your skills, people will give you theirs. You can say ‘I don’t know’ – the freedom can lead you to unexpected places. While on some level I will always compare myself against the redundant mould of a patriarchal director, I am learning to not hold myself back. You deserve respect, and if people want to listen, then - they will – whether you shout or whisper.

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