Three extraordinary women on Bell Shakespeare and Embracing Equity



March 8 is International Women's Day and in this Supporter Spotlight, we caught up with three inspiring women to talk about their invaluable support of the company, and what the 2023 theme of IWD, #EmbraceEquity, means to them.

Miriam Corowa is a member of Bell Shakespeare’s Board and has been engaging in our performances for the last 15 years. Miriam co-hosts ABC News 24's Weekend Breakfast program and is a broadcaster, reporter, presenter and producer.

Tell us a little about how you first became familiar with Bell Shakespeare.

It's extraordinary to think that Bell Shakespeare started in 1990, and in a circus tent, and yet for me it feels as though the company has always been a part of my Australian cultural landscape. I was 15 the year that John Bell founded Bell Shakespeare and just beginning to turn the pages on some of Shakespeare's great and timeless works. In high school I studied The Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth. It was quite something to be transported from sub-tropical northern New South Wales to the misty realm of 11th century Scotland or the shimmering banks of Egypt's Nile. I saw the Bell Shakespeare production of Macbeth in Canberra in the mid-1990's and was struck by the power of the performances and the intensity of experience as an audience member. Some thirty years later, I'm again immersed in a newly-realised production of Macbeth where passion, power and perversity once again collide cataclysmically.. in a world that shows Shakespeare's tales uncover truths about the human condition that are as relevant as ever.

Last year you hosted Bell Shakespeare’s panel discussion, Unsex Me Here: Power, Gender and Shakespeare. What do you think Shakespeare can teach us about gender equality, over 400 years after his plays were written?

Shakespeare's works are so layered and varied, they offer untold possibilities for interpretation and adaptation. 400 years have passed and we continue to grapple with fundamental questions on the very essence of what it is to be human, how we relate to one another, how we choose one path over another, how decisions can have unimagined consequences and what is it that we hold dear? In the context of gender and sexuality, the threads of Elizabethan England remain intertwined with many issues and debates being had today. The inference that power is inherently masculine is explored from many angles in Shakespearean works and shown in ways that provoke and surprise. We can see acted out before us terrible injustices such as those of Measure for Measure and Othello where women are constrained and coerced. These are realities that are felt today when we see the rise of a movement like #MeToo and in the heartbreaking losses inflicted on families experiencing domestic violence. There is much in Shakespeare that is reflected in our time and gives us pause to ask ourselves deep questions as individuals and as a society.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is Embrace Equity. What does this mean to you? What is equity in the Arts to you?

Embrace equity is a theme that is so open and inclusive it invites us to think about the myriad ways we can assert equity in our lives. Equity of expression and opportunity are values that I hold dear and relate to my experience as both a woman and as a First Nations Australian (of the Bundjalung people of northern New South Wales). I hope to see a greater shift at a global level underpinning all aspects of our daily lives which allows people to be treated with respect and dignity. We all have a responsibility to do what we can to make a life filled with meaning both individually and as a society. Enriching the world for all, enriches the world for each and every person and equity lays at the heart of that possibility.

Katie Page was a significant supporter as Production Patron on Bell Shakespeare’s 2022 production of The Lovers. Katie grew up in regional Queensland and is the CEO of retail giant Harvey Norman.

Tell us a little about how you first came to support Bell Shakespeare.

How did I become involved in Bell Shakespeare? It is actually a case of who is responsible for my involvement. The answer to that is Philip Crutchfield KC (Chair of Bell Shakespeare’s Board), Laura Murphy and Shakespeare. A pretty compelling trifecta.

In early 2021 Philip Crutchfield invited me to meet the Bell Shakespeare team. It was mid COVID and here were a group of people, working together to keep the theatre alive and keep these brilliant young actors in work. Philip took me to a pre-production staging of The Lovers by Laura Murphy and that was it for me. Laura had spent over ten years writing the musical The Lovers, basing it on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There was a review at the time that was headlined, “Shakespeare gets the Gaga treatment.” Here was a theatre company that understands all the powers of Shakespeare in both a traditional and contemporary sense. This same theatre company takes their productions to Australian school children – nationwide, ensuring Shakespeare is truly accessible. Equity in education is everything.

How did growing up in regional Australia influence the learning opportunities to which you had access, or your experience with live theatre? And what does the theme for International Women’s Day this year, Embrace Equity, mean to you?

For me, equity is about all Australians having an equal access to the same opportunities – regardless of gender, age or location. Equity regardless of location is very important. Australia is vast. I am originally from St George and am the proud product of the Queensland public school system – Brisbane State High – it is a fabulous, selective school. I wouldn’t be here supporting Bell Shakespeare if I hadn’t been given such an extraordinary education. At school we studied Hamlet – my favourite – it is where my passion for Shakespeare began. My son shares my love of literature, when he graduated we went to London together. Our visit to the replica of the Globe Theatre took our breath away – imagining 3000 people in the audience passionate about Shakespeare, savouring the first staging of Hamlet. In October last year, over 400 years later The Lovers debuted at Sydney Opera House. Great works performed in national landmarks irrespective of the passage of time. The theatre and the arts are dimensions that bring depth and a vibrancy to a society. Inexplicably, the arts and music are often overlooked for broad financial support, yet we all rise with the tide of a strong Australian artistic culture. I am so grateful Bell Shakespeare exists.

Through the WeirAnderson Foundation, Deanne has been a huge supporter of Bell Shakespeare’s Women In Shakespeare program, delivered in schools. Deanne is a former media lawyer and executive turned producer, investor and company director.

Tell us a little about how you first came to support Bell Shakespeare.

In 2002 I started working at Austar, a pay-tv company that was sponsoring Bell, and my husband Jules and I quickly became familiar with Bell's wonderful work. We love the performances and the passion to continually re-interpret and re-contextualise Shakespeare's work, but what we particularly love is that fact that Bell is Australia's only national touring theatre company: it is a company for all Australians. I grew up in regional Victoria, and my life was changed when I first saw a touring production of Antony and Cleopatra from MTC. The fact that a group of actors, standing on scaffolding in the middle of a school gym, could transport me instantly to another time and place was magical and I became hooked on live theatre and Shakespeare. Bell's commitment to ensuring that its performances reach people all around the country is something that we wanted to support, so when I left Austar and we set up the WeirAnderson Foundation, Bell was one of the first organisations that we committed to with multi-year funding.

Through the WeirAnderson Foundation you have been a huge supporter of Bell Shakespeare’s Women In Shakespeare program. Why is this program of particular importance to you?

Our stories are a lens through which we think about who we are and who we can be, so it is important that young people are able to critically assess the way in which women are represented in culture. Like most artists, Shakespeare was a creature of his time, so on the surface, most of the women he writes about can be seen as wives, mothers or the objects of male desire. Unfortunately this has continued to be the case across a lot of western theatre, film and television until quite recently, and it has had a big impact on driving unconscious bias and what we consider to be 'appropriate' gendered behaviour. But when you actually unpack many of Shakespeare's women, there is so much more going on. Given how enduring his plays have been, putting the spotlight on his female characters is a great way to make his plays and the concept of theatre more accessible to young audiences; when you ask young students to consider why female characters act in certain ways, what it was that their societies were expecting of them, you open up some fascinating conversations. In visiting these programs, I have seen Bell's education team open the door to conversations that some of these students may not have otherwise had and for many of them, like I found all those years ago, it can be life-changing.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is Embrace Equity. What does this mean to you? What is gender equity in the Arts to you?

We cannot have a more fair and equitable society if we continue to deny 51% of the population the opportunity to fully participate, but changing this takes work. We have to make an active choice for equity, because so many of the barriers that hold women and girls back are systemic and sometimes unconscious. And these barriers also work against boys and men, because forcing people to act in a certain way based only on their gender can deny them the ability to make choices as to what works best for them as a person. This begins in the way we treat young children, setting different expectations based on gender rather than waiting to see who those children want to be, and continues to impact us all with assumptions we make about people in the workplace or our community. Achieving gender equity in the arts is critical because decisions about who gets to tell their story, which stories are told, and how we get to tell them, can have a big impact on gender equity across society. We need more women in decision making roles across across arts organisations, we need more women writers, directors, choreographers, conductors, we need more women in production design, props, lighting, you name it. A woman's place is in the House, and by that I mean the opera house, the theatre, the live music venue, the cinema, at the board table of the funders, the home of commissioners, indeed at all points of the chain. We are doing our bit via our investment company Storyd Group that invests in feature films from Australian female creatives, we want to see more women on and behind the screen, and the same in theatre.