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March 8 is International Women’s Day, and the Australian arts scene took the opportunity to announce some exciting new initiatives aimed at balancing the gender inequality in the music and theatre industries.
Composer and professor Matthew Hindson AM is the mind behind a trailblazing new initiative: the National Women Composers’ Development Program, hosted by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Currently women only make up 26 per cent of all the composers registered with the Australian Music Centre, but Hindson is determined to resolve this. Four young emerging and award-winning composers – Clare Johnston, Natalie Nicolas, Elizabeth Younana and Ella Macens – have been chosen to participate in the two-year programme, which will include tutelage from leading female Australian composers including Professor Anne Boyd AM and Dr Maria Grenfell.
“In recent years we have been pleased to see an increasing number of female students enrolling in composition,” Hindson said in an interview hosted by the Sydney Conservatorium. “They now make up around 44% of our current composition undergraduates. However our interests are to see these women advance to compose at the top of their music profession. By creating a ‘hot house’ for emerging composers, they will cultivate their technical skills in working with leading artists and music ensembles. It also creates a networking opportunity for these women to be seen and heard by the leading arts organisations in this country.” The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the Goldner String Quartet, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and percussionist Claire Edwardes are also on board for the new project, giving the four emerging composers opportunities to hear their works performed professionally. At the end of the course, each student will be commissioned for a new work by one of the ensembles.
Composer Samantha Wolf chose to simultaneously promote Australian women composers and raise funds for the Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre by curating a concert titled This Will Be our Reply: International Women’s Day. The concert included new premieres of works by Lisa Cheney, Alice Humphries, May Lyon and Jessica Wells. Wolf’s own new piece, The More I Think, The Bigger It Gets, is the Melbourne-based composer’s response to “years of being told that women should modify their behaviour to avoid sexual assault.”
“The More I Think, The Bigger It Gets is an example of art reflecting life; this is the daily reality for millions of women worldwide,” said Wolf in an editorial for the Australian Music Centre. “Every woman I know has a story about being threatened, objectified or attacked. Perhaps worse, most of them have a story about being blamed for it. I can just about guarantee that every woman you know has a similar story. That's why I've adapted this work for live performance. I want the listener to be bombarded with the threatening messages that surround women every day. I want the listener to be shocked and appalled, because violence against women is shocking and appalling. Most importantly, I want the listener to be moved enough to want to help, because that's what me and my team are doing.” Another of Wolf’s works is featured on a playlist curated by new music website Making Waves, who compiled a playlist of all the female Australian composers they’ve interviewed since launching the website in January 2015. The likes of Lisa Cheney, Cat Hope, Maria Grenfell and others are featured.
Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) announced a new online initiative and two-day festival to be held in October. The aptly named Festival Fatale will celebrate theatre, comedy, writing and feminism, hosted by the Darlinghurst Theatre Company.
“[We] want to demonstrate that by not providing women with equal opportunity, Sydney audiences have been missing out experiencing women tackle the human condition in the theatre in a complex, challenging and significant way,” explained Festival Director and co-founder Lizzie Schebesta. “We hope that Festival Fatale will excite and encourage other theatre companies to follow our lead in programing significant female content for their audiences.”
WITS is also in the process of launching a new online section of AustralianPlays.org that will exclusively showcase the work of Australian female composers, currently expected to feature more than 500 scripts. The Australian Writers Guild statistics show that 39 per cent of plays produced by major theatre companies in 2016 are written by women, which is a surprising decrease from the 43 per cent in 2015. Festival Fatale and the new online database hope to encourage experimentation and alternative viewpoints outside the mainstream avenues. WITS spokesperson Matilda Ridgway hopes the new initiatives will promote female playwrights and stories that have significant and complex female experiences at their heart. “We hope it leads to a richer and more diverse theatre ecology, and to true parity for Australian women writers for performance,” she said.
You can find details for Festival Fatale here.