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Playwright Sarah Gubbins makes a toast at the Kilroys launch party for the List in 2014. (Photo by Aaron Epstein)
Playwright Sarah Gubbins makes a toast at the Kilroys launch party for the List in 2014. (Photo by Aaron Epstein)

Women Push for Equality On and Off Stage

Suzy Evans on efforts to close theatre’s gender gap.

When it comes to gender parity in the American theatre, the issues that have advocates up in arms could be illustrated á la the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Really?!?”—that “Weekend Update” bit in which Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler would call out a contentious current event for its obvious ridiculousness. If someone were scripting a segment on parity in the theatre, that script might look a little something like this:

Really, producers? Really? The Pulitzer Prize and all finalist nods go to women in 2014 and 68 percent of the Broadway audience is female, but you don’t have a single new play by a woman on Broadway in the 2013–14 season? Really?

Really, theatres? Really? Fifty-one percent of the population is female, and yet only about 24 percent of all plays produced across the country in the coming season are written by a woman, living or dead? Really?

And really—out of those 24 percent, only two female playwrights (Amy Herzog for 4000 Miles and Nina Raine for Tribes) can land their plays on the Top 10 Most-Produced Plays list for the coming season? Really?

The list of “reallys” could go on, but instead of continually lamenting these statistics, artists are taking action around the country. The most recent “mountaintop” moment was a February panel of Washington, D.C.–based artistic directors, aptly titled the Summit, wherein some remarks from the stage instigated outrage that sparked a veritable social-media wildfire across the country.

Elissa Goetschius, freelance theatre director and former artistic director of the Strand Theater Company in Baltimore, attended the event and distributed information via Twitter, including remarks from Round House Theatre’s Ryan Rilette—about there being no female playwrights in the production pipeline, and about the limited reviveability of “feminist” plays from the 1970s and ’80s—which led to a frisson of anger.

“There was a lot of fear over much of what was said at the Summit,” Goetschius notes, adding that some women don’t speak out because they’re afraid of being blacklisted by people in positions of power. “And there were a lot of conversations afterward about the usefulness of outrage.”

Indeed, while fury for fury’s sake is not useful, advocacy did spring out of the event, with playwright Elaine Romero posting a call to action on her Facebook page soliciting the names of female and trans playwrights and compiling them into an open-source spreadsheet, called the WE EXIST list. In June, a cohort of Los Angeles–based writers and producers, self-titled the Kilroys, solicited names of plays by female-identified authors from 250 literary managers, producers, dramaturgs, professors and artistic directors (those who saw or read more than 40 new works in the last 12 months), and received responses from 127. From those 127 sources, the Kilroys accumulated a list of more than 300 nominees, and from that created the List—46 of the “most nominated” plays.

Kilroy members Joy Meads, Kelly Miller and Bekah Brunstetter say the List broke bigger than they thought, and many artistic directors and agents made it their summer reading.

Brunstetter also saw a renewed interest in her play The Oregon Trail, which is on the List. “Right after the O’Neill, my agent tried to get the play out there in the world—people read it, but nobody was interested in producing it,” she explains. “It’s exciting to see this idea working, and I’m not even saying just for me and for my career—I don’t need Playwrights Horizons to do my play. I just want plays to have lives.”

Some writers expressed dismay that the List felt “exclusive,” but Meads insists that it is merely a response to artistic directors who still use such outdated excuses as “there are no plays by women in the pipeline,” or “we just produce the best plays, regardless of gender.”

“The thing that drives me crazy about the quality dodge is the unspoken analog: that the best plays are written by men,” says Meads, who is a literary associate of L.A.’s Center Theater Group. The gender disparity, she says, springs not from meritocracy but instead from historical prejudice and subconscious bias. She recalls an anecdote from the final stages of compiling the List which helps illustrate the problem.

During a late-night copy editing session, Meads and her fellow Kilroy, playwright Meg Miroshnik, were checking the spelling of the names and titles. Miroshnik previously worked as a fact-checker and taught Meads that when confirming accuracy, it’s important to draw a line through each correct word. “That’s because the eye sees what it expects to see, and it takes conscious attention and effort to train it to see what’s actually there,” Meads explains. “This is part of what we’re doing with the List. We have been trained to see men as speakers and actors and people of consequence, and throughout history we have produced accordingly. But that does not mean that women haven’t been speaking or telling stories. They have been. We believe we have been assuming that the canon is more male than what actually exists.”

Jeanine-tesori_Lilly-awards
Jeanine Tesori, left, and Lisa Kron accept a Lilly Award for “Fun Home.”

 

To confirm that’s actually the case, you need statistics, and many organizations are taking it upon themselves to create updated information on the number of women on and off stage in theatres across America. Individuals in different cities have been sporadically counting for years. For instance, D.C.–based playwright Gwydion Suilebhan found 26 percent of works by women in the 2013–14 D.C. season; the Los Angeles Female Playwright Initiative found that 20 percent of productions in L.A. from 2002 to 2010 were authored or co-authored by women; the Chicago Gender Equity Report found that 19 percent of productions in 2009 were solely authored by a woman.

Looking at the past two seasons at TCG member theatres, an unofficial counting shows that female playwrights accounted for 22 percent of productions in 2013–14 and 24 percent (including adaptations and co-authorship) in the upcoming 2014–15 season.

The League of Professional Theatre Women is the latest to jump on board, and will release a study this fall, “Women Hired Off-Broadway 2010–14,” that will look at women hired in offstage roles at 22 Off-Broadway theatres over four seasons. For 2013–14, 28 percent of productions were female-authored, according to the study. However, LPTW board member and study co-author Judith Binus doesn’t want to spew statistics for statistics’ sake.

“If it’s not going to change anything, then you can use statistics forever—you’ve still got the same problem,” reasons Binus, who wants to bring her findings directly to the theatres and have conversations with decision-makers. “I actually went to one theatre, and the person I spoke with—a man—was lovely, and he said, ‘I think we do pretty well.’ And I said, ‘Here are your stats.’ He took one look and went, ‘Oh my God.’”

All of these counting efforts are admittedly disparate and sporadic, so in an effort to coalesce them, the Lilly Awards and the Dramatists Guild are partnering to create an ongoing count of productions across the country, charting gender, race, cast size, directors, artistic directors and more. The database will begin with information from the 2013–14 season and continue annually, with about 20 regional representatives assisting with the counting.

Playwright Julia Jordan, co-founder of the Lillys and a Guild council member, says statistics often spur short-term action. Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett’s 2002 study for the New York State Council on the Arts, which showed that 17 percent of plays in the 2001–02 season were written by women, is one of the most noted, and Jordan recalls that the number of plays by women produced did go up after that study was released.

After a series of town halls at New Dramatists in NYC, which Jordan organized with Sarah Schulman in 2008, Princeton undergrad Emily Sands released her study, “Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater,” in 2009, and the numbers jumped again. But the numbers slip backwards as the years move on, and Jordan believes a continuing database like the one the Guild is assembling will help combat this trend.

“Bias in the arts is bad. We should simply know that,” says Jordan. “The arts are literally our voices. Once you stifle a voice, you can do a lot of other stuff to the population.”

Watson-intelligence_Playwrights-horizons
Amanda Quaid and John Ellison Conlee in Madeleine George’s “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence” at Playwrights Horizons. George’s play is a Pulitzer finalist and on the Kilroys’ List (photo by Joan Marcus)

 

The goal of Jonas and Bennetts’ study was to achieve equal representation on American stages by 2020, and it spawned 50/50 in 2020, a grassroots movement with a goal to reach gender parity on American stages by the anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020. However, while the numbers have been inching forward, a system of gender quotas can lead to its own set of problems.

“I don’t want artistic directors to just blindly program a play by a woman just because it’s a play by a woman,” Brunstetter proffers. “Theatres don’t owe playwrights anything. You’re an artist, but also you’re responsible for the advancement of your own career. You can’t sit around waiting for opportunities to come to you. It’s really easy to blame the institution. It’s easy to blame the readers. It’s easy to get mad at the theatre community, but ultimately you have to do the work.”

Artistic directors also don’t relish being bound by specific strictures, though Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls, for one, is always conscious of the balance in his season. “I’m not trying to force it on paper and do a mathematical formula,” says Falls. Still, he notes that 47 percent of the plays in the theatre’s past five seasons have been written by women, and he feels a responsibility as the leader of a major institution to help lead the parity push. “That answer that ‘I just put together the best season I can’ is ludicrous. I’m conscious as an artistic director, and have been for my entire life, that you’re always working on balance,” he adds.

For the theatre’s 2013–14 season, Falls harnessed audience members as advocates by calling the programming “The Great Woman at Play” as part of a subscription package. While this was a decision by the marketing department after the season had been programmed, the initiative led to a positive response from subscribers.

“It turned out to be a wildly successful campaign,” Falls reports. “With women being the ones who buy tickets, it is really absurd not to be putting women’s stories front and center.”

Still, most of the parity talk is inside baseball; the wider consumer audience doesn’t always pay attention or care, for that matter. Binus explains that one tactic of LPTW is to talk to people in line at the TKTS booth in Manhattan and ask them what they are planning to see and if they know which plays are authored by women. “A lot of them didn’t care,” she says.

“I don’t think this question is at the forefront of the mind of the theatregoing public,” adds Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks, who moderated the Summit panel. “The mere fact that the numbers don’t change is a reflection of that. The reaction I often get is: ‘I just want to see good theatre, I don’t care who wrote it.’” On the other hand, he says, “The more you expose people to the possibilities, the more minds you change.”

Marks cites festivals as a way of getting the audience involved, and points to the upcoming D.C. Women’s Voices Theater Festival in fall 2015, in which 44 area theatres will program a world premiere production of a play by a woman.

Goetschius has some misgivings about the festival, even though she has the highest hopes that it will begin to close the parity gap. Her fear is that it will be more of “a PR thing” that will help theatres land grant money. “I don’t expect a monumental shift of the programming of even the participating theatres beyond that one– or two–month time frame. I would happily jettison the festival for a quarter of those companies just to commit themselves to 50/50 programming and putting more female artists in their seasons.”

Marks goes on to point out that in his post as a theatre critic, focusing on the gender of the writer can be tricky territory. “What you don’t want to do as a critic is start portraying plays by men and plays by women,” he explains. “I tend to engage with what I see on the stage much more than I do with the person or people who conceived or wrote it. I see that the way that I could be a stronger advocate is to profile more women in the theatre.”

That’s the strategy the Interval is taking. The website, founded by Victoria Myers and Michelle Tse, centers on raising the media profile of women in theatre. At press time, the site, which launched in August, had profiled actress Celia Keenan-Bolger, composer/lyricist Georgia Stitt, director Gaye Taylor Upchurch and a few more. “We wanted to make your average theatregoer aware that things aren’t equal,” says Myers. “When you don’t talk about it in a mainstream, accessible way, it looks like, first, that there isn’t a problem, and second, that if there’s a problem it might be the fault of the women—that they’re not there.”

Another issue at hand is that for all the world premieres by women that may get produced, many struggle to get second and third productions around the country. Jordan notes that this is one of the reasons the Lilly Awards came about. When Melissa James Gibson’s play This—which the New York Times called “the best new play to open Off Broadway this fall” and was Playwrights Horizons’s biggest seller since Grey Gardens—received zero awards nominations in 2010, Jordan, Marsha Norman and Theresa Rebeck banded together to create the Lillys and give Gibson an award.

“Awards are important because the plays that win awards are usually the ones that get a lot of productions regionally, and that really affects the livelihood of women,” Jordan asserts. For example, Dominique Morisseau received a Lilly this year and has six planned productions of her plays across the country in 2014–15.

Jordan points out that money is also often a barrier to entry, particularly for musical-theatre writers who rely on grant money and awards to pay for demos and workshops, which are much more costly than non-musical plays. Female composers might be the worst off as far as parity goes, as LPTW’s Off-Broadway study shows that just 14 percent of composers, 9 percent of lyricists and 7 percent of music directors and conductors were women in the 2013–14 Off-Broadway season.

“My observation is that there’s Jeanine Tesori and who else?” Jordan says. “I feel like we’re in the Jackie Robinson baseball era of composers. The problem with that is some people develop. Some people don’t hit it out of the park the first time. The female composers are not being developed.”

Jordan points to Cecilia Rouse and Claudia Goldin’s 2000 study “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians” as a good study of how discrimination works in the arts. The study found that blind auditions for symphonies increased a woman’s likelihood of making it past the preliminary round by 12 percent.

“The appearance of bias makes women quit,” asserts Jordan. “It doesn’t make sense to go forward if you’re not going to get the job anyway.” Jordan points to a vicious circle of perception feeding underrepresentation: Many theatres weren’t receiving an equal number of scripts by women writers because female playwrights and their agents weren’t submitting to theatres where they didn’t see works by women represented on the stage.

 

The bias doesn’t just exist for playwrights. When Hollywood star Melissa McCarthy released the film Tammy, a project she cowrote, produced and starred in, earlier this year, the New York Times referred to the film as a “vanity project.” Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris responded on Twitter: “The NYTimes calls Tammy a ‘vanity project.’ When George Clooney or Channing Tatum develop their own material, it’s called ‘producing.’”

Carey Perloff recalls a similar situation when she began her post as American Conservatory Theater artistic director 22 years ago. The local press and critics referred to her programming as having a “feminist agenda,” discounting its merit based on her gender. Perloff counts herself lucky to be in a female-led organization, alongside her executive director Ellen Richard, but she recognizes that other women seeking a position in executive leadership might not be as fortunate. Goetschius can relate.

“Why is this the field I’m going into? If no one will hire me when I graduate, why am I looking to get a degree?” Goetschius remembers wondering as she debated the merits of attending graduate school and pursuing a career in theatre. “With these kind of odds, am I completely insane to be going into this field?”

ACT partnered with Wellesley Centers for Women to launch the Women’s Leadership Project, designed to study such questions as: Why are there so few women in leadership positions at resident theatres, and what can be done to address it?

“Being a decisive leader and being strong and being clear are things that are seen as assets in a male leader, but seen as being bitchy and domineering in a female leader,” contends Goetschius, citing criticism Hillary Clinton has faced and Jill Abramson’s swift firing at the Times as examples. “It goes back to that cultural baggage of how our society has viewed women not just in the arts but in every aspect of society.”

Another issue both Perloff and Jordan bring up is that of child care, and how for women with young children, it’s more difficult to travel for work or to participate in incubational programs such as Sundance Theater Lab or the O’Neill. “When I started having kids, I just stopped applying, because it’s just an impossibility. It affects men as well,” Jordan suggests. “It’s more than bias—it’s the culture that bias has created.”

Each of these initiatives—from the Lillys to the Women’s Leadership Project to the Kilroys to the Interval to the efforts of LPTW—aim to shift the status quo. When Cate Blanchett accepted the 2014 Oscar for Blue Jasmine, she said something that might be a rallying cry for the movement toward equality in the theatre and beyond.

“For those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences—they are not,” Blanchett declared. “Audiences want to see them, and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”

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