Jude Kelly: 'This isn't about pointing fingers at men. It's about institutions'

 

I got a lot of signals when I was starting out that being a female theatre director wasn't going to be easy It was a constant theme in the 1970s: there were no role models, just a feeling of having to prove to critics and employers that a play would be in just as good hands with a woman as it would with a man. The conversation about equality between the sexes is one that still needs to be had vigorously and positively, and it's why I set up the Women of the World festival – to acknowledge that women are doing extraordinary things, and to look at how to release even more of that potential.

We need to solve the attitude that asks whether women can represent the world – or only other women Recently a group of teens were given a set of books, but not the authors' names. The boys and girls came up with their favourites together; the girls loved that those books were by women, but the boys admitted that were they left to their own devices, they'd never pick up a book by a woman, as it would be about "women's things". If I think I can learn from Victor Hugo, I want a boy to think he can learn from Jane Austen.

We have come a long way in improving gender equality but if you let it slow down and accept the situation as it is, you're detaching yourself from what younger women, women in the Middle East and on the African continent are trying to do.

This isn't about pointing fingers at men It's about institutions. More or less any historical play you see reiterates the story that history belongs to men, and male actors tell that history. And that tells young girls they don't have a role in history. Getting out from underneath this centuries-long sense that women don't play a central place in life is very tricky.

Can you be a feminist and vajazzle? It's a debate we'll have at the festival. I think you can decorate your body, play with your sexuality, do all sorts of things and be a feminist, as long as you don't think it is because women's only role is to be decorative and sexually attractive.

Of all the actors I directed, I most loved Ian McKellen as he is so curious about what he can investigate in a role. I also love Clare Higgins, as she is so unafraid [to explore characters]. There is a whole range of sensational older actresses: Brenda Blethyn, Harriet Walter, Janet McTeer, obviously Judi Dench, Zoë Wanamaker... They should all be doing more, in my book.

I still have great ambitions for Southbank Not many people realise its capacity – it's spread across 21 acres of land – and I'd like to hold festivals there all day, every day. The Imagine festival [which ran last month] is basically a two-week invasion by children – and there's no reason why there couldn't be a continual presence of young children, and artists from around the world.

Jude Kelly OBE, 57, is a renowned theatre director and has been artistic director of the Southbank Centre since 2005. In 2011 she set up WOW – Women of the World, a festival that returns to Southbank, London SE1 (southbankcentre.co.uk/wow), from Wednesday to 11 March

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