Attendees at the Toronto Gender Parity Summit. Back row (from left):  Sheila Sky, Peggy Chane, Valerie Weak, Jennie Webb, Rebecca Burton, Martha Richards, Christine Young. Front row (from left): Jennie Egerdie, Alice Tuan.
Attendees at the Toronto Gender Parity Summit. Back row (from left): Sheila Sky, Peggy Chane, Valerie Weak, Jennie Webb, Rebecca Burton, Martha Richards, Christine Young. Front row (from left): Jennie Egerdie, Alice Tuan.

7 Steps for Achieving Gender Parity in the Theatre

At an April conference in Toronto, we came up with a plan for change that can take root and grow into a more equitable future for female theatre artists.

Over the past six years there have been eight substantial studies on the status of women in theatre in the U.S. and elsewhere.1 The methodologies have varied, but whether the studies were done in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Princeton, Boston, Washington, D.C., or Toronto, they revealed alarming consistencies. They have found that women are underrepresented in most job categories; that women are clustered in the lower-paying jobs; and that employment growth for women in theatre has been stagnant over time in most cities. The most recent Canadian study found that there has been minimal improvement in the status of women in Canadian theatre over the past 30 years, and that similar patterns of discrimination have been documented in Great Britain, Australia and the U.S.

We have proven that gender discrimination is a persistent problem in theatre; now we need to figure out how to fix it. As we look at the field, we can see that women all over the world are trying to address this issue with various strategies. What would happen if we could find a way to coordinate these efforts and maximize their impact? Could we reach a tipping point where the barriers for women theatre artists would finally come crashing down?

To address these questions, WomenArts joined forces with New York’s Women in the Arts & Media Coalition and Equity in Theatre (a coalition of nine Canadian organizations) to convene our first international summit on gender parity in theatre. We gathered 21 gender parity activists2 in Toronto on April 28, 2015 to review the current research, share strategies and discuss ways to transform the existing efforts into a paradigm-shifting international movement.

Our meeting included the authors of gender parity studies from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Canada, as well as representatives from other organizations that have been leading advocates for women in theatre for decades, such as the League of Professional Theatre Women, the International Centre for Women Playwrights and Teatro Luna. Though many of us had been following each other’s work online for years, most of us had never met face-to-face before, and it was exhilarating to be in a room together.

As we shared information about the most effective projects we had seen, we compiled the following list of strategies that seem especially promising. Throughout the day, we asked ourselves: If we had $5 million to advance gender parity, what would we spend it on? As you look at our list, we encourage you to ask yourself this question, too—even if you don’t have that kind of money. If we can articulate the kinds of staff and projects that we need, we can start looking for ways to fund them.

    1. Build alliances with other social justice groups. The biggest challenge we face is that sexism in theatre is closely linked to sexism, racism, classism and other forms of discrimination that underpin our current socioeconomic system. The arts help us think about our social and political lives in new ways, but corporate America would rather have us focused on shopping. It is no accident that the top-selling film for 2015 is Furious 7 (ticket sales of $1.4 billion worldwide in its first 12 days), a big-budget action film with so much product placement that it often feels like a two-and-a-half-hour commercial.

      This undercurrent of consumerism pulls at us constantly. If you stand in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square, you might be able to buy tickets to Broadway shows written or directed by women—but you will be surrounded by giant billboards displaying women’s bodies to sell products. For every new play with fresh perspectives on women, there are hundreds of advertisements and product placements that reinforce discriminatory attitudes about gender, race and class.

      As gender parity advocates, we need to find ways to counteract this consumerism, and we need to join forces with women’s organizations, anti-racism groups and others who are addressing discrimination in other contexts. This is especially important, since so many women experience multiple forms of discrimination.

    2.  

    3. Work with women in other art forms. Women in other art forms are experiencing similar gender discrimination issues and are organizing their own studies and initiatives. We can show our solidarity and increase our visibility by participating in cross-disciplinary initiatives like Support Women Artists Now Day, an annual international celebration of women’s creativity in all art forms.

      We can also adapt innovative strategies being used in other art forms, such as these three recent film initiatives: Gamechanger Films is the first equity fund that focuses exclusively on financing narrative feature films directed by women; the ACLU has just demanded that federal and state agencies investigate discrimination against women film directors in Hollywood; and the Geena Davis Institute on Media partnered with UN Women and the Rockefeller Foundation to do the first-ever global study of gender stereotyping in the international film industry.

    4.  

    5. Teach plays by women. More students need to be exposed to female playwrights in school. We feel this is one of the most important areas to address, since so many attitudes about women and girls are shaped in schools. If future artistic directors and other theatrical decision-makers have never been exposed to female playwrights in school, they are much less likely to select them for productions.

      To ensure that women are included in the curriculum from elementary school through graduate school, we want to mobilize committees of educators at every grade level to develop course materials that include female playwrights and persuade their male and female colleagues that it is important to teach more plays by women.

      One sample program that has been designed to increase the teaching of historical women playwrights is History Matters/Back to the Future, in which high school teachers and college professors across the country are being invited to include the work of an historic female playwright in one class per semester. Teachers are given a 50-minute lesson plan and other teaching materials, and their students are eligible to compete for the annual $2,500 Judith Barlow Prize for the best one-act play written in the style of an historic female playwright. The teacher of the winning student receives a prize of $500. About 50 professors have joined the program so far.

       Also, the National Theatre Conference, an alliance of leaders in commercial, non-commercial, and educational theatre, has created the Women Playwrights Initiative, which asks member theatres and educational theatre programs to dedicate one full production slot (not just a reading or a workshop) each year for three years to a contemporary female American playwright. Members are encouraged to select plays that have not been produced on Broadway recently, and to invite the playwright for a residency during the production of her play.

    6.  

    7. Encourage production of plays by female playwrights. Some artistic directors claim that they would produce more plays by women but they just can’t find enough good ones. The Kilroys is a group of female artists in Los Angeles who consulted with artistic directors, literary managers, dramaturgs and others to compile a list of excellent contemporary plays by women that has been widely publicized and distributed. As a direct result of our meeting in Toronto, women in Canada are now working on a “Kilroys list” of Canadian female playwrights.

      Another initiative that could be replicated is the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which will take place in Washington, D.C., in fall 2015. More than 50 professional theatres in and around Washington, D.C., will present world-premiere productions of a work by one or more female playwrights. This festival will be the largest collaboration of theatre companies working simultaneously to produce original works by female writers in history.

      The International Centre for Women Playwrights encourages productions of plays by women through their 50/50 Applause Awards, which recognize theatre companies that produce seasons where 50 percent or more of the productions and performances are of plays by women. The program started in 2012, and they have given out more than 100 awards so far. The honored companies receive an award logo to use in their publicity, and they are invited to participate in a celebratory video. 

      Since female playwrights tend to create more female characters, and women are often selected to direct their plays, producing plays by women often results in increased employment for other women in the field.

    8.  

    9. Meet individually with artistic directors. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Shotgun Players’ 2015 season features six mainstage plays and six staged readings by female playwrights, and they have made a commitment to strive for gender parity in future seasons. Magic Theatre in San Francisco has also just announced that their 2015–16 season will include six productions by female playwrights.

      It seems that one-on-one discussions with the artistic directors and peer pressure can have a powerful impact on a theatre’s commitment to gender parity. In the case of Shotgun Players, the male artistic director revealed in a recent panel discussion that he had not been thinking about the depth of the gender disparity problem in theatre until female company members spoke up and asked for gender to be a consideration in season planning.

    10.  

    11. Work with the unions. Since unions have the power to defend their members from unfair labor practices, we need to find more ways to work with our unions to advance gender parity in theatre. We need to work with them to develop equal opportunity standards for theatres that would ensure fair hiring practices for women as well as equal pay for equal work. We also need to have deeper discussions with unions about the best ways to represent their members in a field that is so severely under-funded. We want theatre managers to treat women fairly, but we also recognize that arts funding has been steadily decreasing over the past 30 years, and that few people are making a living from their work onstage.The 2013-14 Actors Equity Theatrical Season Report indicated that only 41.3 percent of their members worked at all in 2013–14, and that the median income per working member was $7,483 for 16.7 weeks of work.  Only 9 percent of those working members (i.e., fewer than 1,600 people nationwide) made $50,000 or more from their Actors Equity employment.

      If we achieved gender parity on those totals, it would mean that only 800 women nationwide would make $50,000 or more from their Equity work. That’s just not enough! Our fair labor strategy needs to include advocacy for much more funding for the arts, and the unions could be powerful allies in this work.

    12.  

    13. Legislative approaches. In the upcoming elections, we need to make sure we educate all the candidates about the need to increase arts funding at the federal and state levels. We also need to investigate whether women artists are getting their fair share of federal and state arts funding and file petitions as needed.

    We offer the list above as a starting point for discussion. We plan to organize follow-up meetings over the coming year to get more people involved, and we want to form committees to work on various strategies. WomenArts has also compiled a list of ways that different kinds of theatre artists can advance gender parity on our Choices You Can Make page.

    If you have comments or suggestions, or if you would like to volunteer to organize a gender parity discussion in your community or serve on a committee, please write to WomenArts. We look forward to working with you to build a world where every woman will be able to express the full range of her creativity.

    SPECIAL THANKS:  Special thanks to Shellen Lubin, co-president of Women in the Arts and Media Coalition, Rebecca Burton and Laine Zisman Newman, co-chairs of the Equity in Theatre Initiative and Christine Young, WomenArts board member, for their help in organizing the Toronto gender parity summit.

    FOOTNOTES
    1- Links to the Recent Gender Parity Studies:
      Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative looked at 4,800 plays from 2002 to 2010 in Los Angeles; Chicago Storefront Summit looked a 1113 plays produced in Chicago in 2009; Emily Glass Sands, a Princeton student examined the status of women playwrights nationwide in 2009; the League of Professional Theatre Women studied 355 Off-Broadway productions between 2010 and 2014; The Counting Actors Project & WomenArts examined 500 productions in the San Francisco Bay Area from 2011 to 2014; Gwydion Suilebhan has published three annual reports on playwright and director demographics in Washington, D.C., with assistance from David Mitchell Robinson and Patricia Connelly; Equity in Theatre has just released a study of women in Canadian theatre; and the StageSource Gender Parity Task Force is about to release an analysis of productions in the Greater Boston area.

    2 – List of People Who Attended the Summit

    Boston: Julie Hennrikus, executive director, StageSource
    Chicago:  Alexandra Meda, executive director, and Abigail Vega, managing director, of Teatro Luna
    New York: Shellen Lubin, co-president Women in the Arts & Media Coalition and co-secretary, League of Professional Theatre Women; Maria Nieto, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition board member representing Writers Guild of America; Lesleh Donaldson, actor; Sophia Romma, co-chair of International Committee of the League of Professional Theatre Women and vice president of International Centre for Women Playwrights; Patrick J. O’Neill, founder, O’Neill Foundation; Peggy Chane, producer and member of International Committee of the League of Professional Theatre Women; Yvette Heyliger, actor and playwright, Dramatists Guild Women’s Initiative & Obama for America organizing fellow.
    Los Angeles: Jennie Webb, playwright and cofounder, Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative; Alice Tuan, playwright and teacher
    San Francisco: Martha Richards, executive director, WomenArts; Christine Young, theatre professor, University of San Francisco, founder, Works by Women San Francisco and board member of WomenArts; Valerie Weak, actor, teacher and founder, Counting Actors Project, and cofounder, Works by Women San Francisco Meet-up Group.  Richards, Young, and Weak are all members of the Gender Parity Committee of Theatre Bay Area.
    Toronto: Rebecca Burton, co-chair, Equity in Theatre and membership and contracts manager,  Playwrights Guild of Canada; Laine Zisman Newman, co-chair, Equity in Theatre and dramaturgical associate, Pat the Dog Theatre Creation;  Jennie Egerdie, Metcalf intern, Equity in Theatre;  Michelle MacArthur, PhD, instructor, University of Toronto, and author of Achieving Equity in Canadian Theatre; Cole Alvis, executive director of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance and artistic producer of lemonTree creations; Sheila Sky, executive director, Associated Designers of Canada.

    Martha Richards is the executive director of WomenArts

  • jeanmariesimpson

    So many of us have been doing this for eons….

  • Miryam Gordon

    I keep trying to remind people that back in the “feminist movement” days (the um ’70s?), women tried really really hard to change ONE WORD in our vocabulary. We asked that everyone use the word “woman” for a female aged 18 or over and “girl” ONLY for females under aged 18. And we lost that fight for one word change! EVERYone now uses “girl” so ubiquitously that it is as if the backlash proves that it never even happened. We must keep trying, but I think it’s useful to remember this instance. Is it possible to remount that simple fight and win?

    • jeanmariesimpson

      I think the term “actress” is equally foul.

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