Women in Australian Theatre: Lisa Campbell

In 2016, 61% of mainstage Australian theatre works was written by men. 90% of international works programmed were written by men. This means that fewer than 30% of plays produced in Australia in 2016 were written or directed by women. On top of this, women in the industry are often treated poorly simply for being women.

In a new series, Bec Caton will sit down with women in the Australian theatre scene (both onstage and in backstage and executive roles) to discuss gender disparities on and off stage, the challenges they face as women in the theatre, and how they have overcome these challenges.

Lisa Campell and the board of Hayes Theatre Co
Lisa Campell and the board of Hayes Theatre Co

For the first edition of the Australian Women in the Theatre series, she talked with Lisa Campbell. This former Lara Croft impersonator started her involvement in the theatre as an actor. She is now the deputy chair of the Hayes Theatre Co, a very well respected and successful producer (Luckiest Productions), and a mother to three children.

She’s the perfect woman to kick off this series because of her multifaceted involvement in and contribution to the Australian theatre landscape.

Women in Australian Theatre: Lisa Campbell

Lisa is no stranger to the harsh reality many women face simply to work in the field they love. “It’s one of the few professions where  you can be judged purely on your looks. You would sue people for it in any other field.”

Theatre often trades on appearances, especially when acting parts are written to specific physical criteria. But women are held to more rigorous standards than men, and Lisa has experienced that plenty of times. She says she has been turned down for castings for not being “thin enough”, and argues that these requirements based on looks and sexuality are very gender specific.

“I think the chance for a man to go into a casting call in swimwear is much lesser, or, in general it’s less likely for men to be objectified in those ways for a marketing campaign.”

Lisa Campbell
Lisa Campbell

As a producer, Lisa thinks the specific challenges for her as a woman have lessened from her experiences as an actor – although surprising acts of sexism and exclusion still occur.

Recently, a member of the theatre community called to speak to Lisa’s husband David Campbell. He then referred the caller to Lisa, who was better placed to help the caller, but rather than getting in contact with her, this person rang another male colleague.

“I just felt there was a reticence [there], that of course they will lean towards the man.” Lisa said, “and maybe it’s not that at all- maybe he thinks I’m an asshole!”

But it’s hard to be sure when many of the challenges women face in theatre are reflective of unfair treatment women experience in general.

“I think it’s fair to say in all fields there’s a concept that femininity goes hand in hand with weakness. I don’t believe that at all. I will fight to ensure that’s not true.”

Moving forward in the theatre industry, one clear way to change and make women’s voices be heard is to allow them the space to speak.

This means giving female playwrights, musicians, directors and producers the chance to make work and have it be seen by audiences. As a prominent producer and board member of the Hayes, Lisa now finds herself in position to make this happen.

Last year’s New Musicals Australia program, which develops new musicals to the point of giving the ultimate winner of the program a performance slot at the Hayes, fostered the professional debut of Ian Ferrington and Olga Solar’s The Detective’s Handbook. 

Lisa calls this a brilliant example of a piece co-written by a man and woman getting much-needed attention, and believes New Musicals Australia is instrumental in giving young writers a chance.

“I think it’s vital that women are given an opportunity and encouraged to do so,” she said.

I think we are seeing in general, and within the Hayes itself, more women producers and female involvement [in musical theatre].

“Creative [directors, producers, choreographers, writers] wise, I think we’re still lacking and I would love to see more women working at the Hayes.

“There are women directors at the Hayes but  I wish we had more, and I want to encourage them and welcome them and work out the best way to do that.”

The Hayes is a for-hire venue and can only program the shows brought to it via submission and inquiry by a creative team, so there is evidently a need to encourage and foster young female directors and writers early in the creative process.

“How do we ensure that happens?” Lisa begins.

“I guess we need to go back and back and ensure it’s cultivated [from the first entry points into the industry]. I guess it’s supporting women to be trained, and when we have those opportunities at the Hayes to welcome and build up women, we need to embrace them.”

‘We have a whole new initiative at the Hayes called Hayes Creative,” Lisa said.

Lisa Campbell
Lisa Campbell
“Hayes Creative is a series of seminars with industry professionals for people to attend, meet their peers and those who are working in the areas that interest them.  Its an opportunity to float ideas, and really get the chance to ask specific questions to those who can give specific answers.  Our full programme for these will be announced soon, but there will definitely be seminars for women in the industry.

A specific area of interest for Lisa, as a mother of three, is supporting mothers in theatre.  She has noticed – as have many – that when women have children they are often solely defined in society’s eyes by being a mother.

“Being a mother now becomes your identity. It has influenced everything and everybody’s opinion of me. It’s a peculiar thing in our world!”

Lisa strives to give mothers the chance to work, providing  flexibility and understanding for them to do so. For example, when working with mothers, an actress leaving the rehearsal room to feed their children is an accepted and necessary process in Lisa’s productions.

“There are so many actors who find it very difficult to get back into the business after having children, I adore working with mothers.

“In Sweet Charity, it was basically a mothers group! That was very important to me, to ensure those women are really supported. Because people have given me that opportunity; I was in hospital having twins when Sweet Charity opened at the Opera House!”

Ultimately in musical theatre, Lisa wants to see more homebred Australian work done well, and more women involved in all areas of that process.

“We need more female directors, female creatives and producers across the board. Ultimately, I think those are the people that are going to shape [the local musical theatre scene] going forward. And I’ll make sure that I’m as welcoming and supportive to upcoming female producers as those who have nurtured me.”

And for any women feeling disenfranchised by the business, Lisa’s biggest piece of advice is to go and make theatre – and make it at the Hayes!

“Because that is what the Hayes is there for: it’s there for you to take risks. We welcome your risks. We urge you to come to us with your ideas and if you have a good idea we will ensure you are supported. We need to encourage people to take risks and make theatre because necessity is the mother of invention.”

Bec Caton

Bec has a diploma in musical theatre and is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English. She is a freelance theatre writer in Sydney.

Bec Caton

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