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Julia Jordan, Rebecca Stump, Lisa Kron, and Marsha Norman at the 2015 Dramatists Guild conference. (Photo by Jerod Harris)
Julia Jordan, Rebecca Stump, Lisa Kron, and Marsha Norman at the 2015 Dramatists Guild conference. (Photo by Jerod Harris)

The Gender Parity Count Ticks Up—Slightly

A new Dramatist Guild/Lilly Awards study shows encouraging trends in new-play productions by women nationwide, and there’s nowhere to go but up.

LA JOLLA, CALIF.: Playwright Lisa Kron spoke passionately to a group of theatremakers and leaders, gathered last week for the Dramatists Guild of America 2015 conference. “It’s not anyone’s feeling that women are underrepresented,” Kron said. “It’s a fact; it’s in the numbers.”

The numbers she referred to are from “The Count”—the latest effort in tallying the gender of playwrights being produced across the country, and in doing demonstrating the need for efforts to address the disparity. Put together by the guild and the Lilly Awards, the report was released on Friday as part of the guild’s conference, “Writing the Changing World,” which took place July 16-19 at the beachside California city.

The numbers remain stark: According to the study, which sampled 2,508 productions in American theatres between the years 2011 and 2014, just 22 percent of the plays produced were written by women. This finding roughly accords with American Theatre’s unofficial count of the 2014–15 season, tallied from Theatre Communications Group member theatres; AT found that about 24 percent of the plays produced at TCG theatres were authored by women, and only 2 plays on the top 10 most-produced list for the season were female-penned.

“Once we know what’s really happening, then we also know what we want to change and get some ideas about how to change it,” Kron told American Theatre by phone before her presentation. “It also means everybody is on the same page about what’s happening—it’s indisputable. It’s not an emotional discussion anymore. It’s a discussion about facts.”

In a keynote speech at the conference, Lilly Awards cofounder Marsha Norman said, “Women have lived half of the experience of the world, but only 20 percent of it is recorded in our theatres.” Norman and Lilly cofounder Julia Jordan approached the guild with the idea of starting the study as a continuing database, which will be updated each year with information from the new season. The Lilly Awards, whose founders also include Theresa Rebeck, are an organization dedicating to recognizing and rewarding the work of women in theatre.

One of the last comprehensive studies on this issue came out in 2002 from the New York State Council on the Arts, authored by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett; it showed that 17 percent of shows in the 2001-02 season at New York theatres were written by women. While 22 percent is not that a huge jump, Jordan counted herself encouraged.

“When I started looking at this in 2008, and I was just looking at New York City and I was only looking at those same theatres—give or take one of two—I found 12.6 percent, and now NYC is at 25 percent, so that is a big difference actually and that’s a lot of people’s careers,” Jordan explained; the numbers in the new study are broken down city by city (see below). “Annie Baker started in those years, as did Amy Herzog. Sarah Ruhl got to Broadway, the Pulitzer Prize was dominated by women last year, and Lisa [Kron] and Jeanine [Tesori] just won the Tony [for Fun Home]—I mean, there has definitely been a change, for sure.”

The 2,508 productions measured by the Count included only contemporary plays, defined by the guild as written in the last 50 years, at nonprofit theatres between 2011 and 2014. Each theatre surveyed needed to produce at least three full shows in a season, and those productions needed to run for a minimum of 21 performances each.

“It’s impossible to compare Broadway to nonprofits, because the goals are completely different in choosing the work,” Jordan said of the report’s decision to exclude Broadway. “One is for profit and one is nonprofit, and ostensibly for art.”

The report was compiled by tasking guild representatives from the organization’s 30 regions, who identified the theatres to include and provided the initial count. A panel of volunteers was then brought in in to vet the numbers.

Statistics were starkly different for new plays versus revivals. New plays were defined as having been written in the past 10 years, and revivals as any play written between 10 and 50 years ago. In the former “new play” category, female playwrights comprised 29 percent of the offerings; and in the latter “revival” category, just 13 percent. (The number would presumably be still lower if plays written before 1965 were included.)

“If we compare the 2001 numbers, which NYSCA found with 17 percent, we don’t know how many of those were revivals, but we assume it was a lower number, and the two were averaged,” Jordan posited. “So maybe 13 percent isn’t that far off. What will be interesting with this count is, we’re going to continue to update it year after year so we won’t be comparing apples to oranges, and in 10 years we’ll be able to see if that percentage jumps up or not.”

Some of the things that surprised Jordan were the differences among cities. “Chicago really surprised me, honestly,” Jordan admitted of the city’s percentage: Out of 120 tallied productions, 36 percent were female-written. “I thought that New York would be ahead of everyone—I really did. You expect New York to be in the middle, because most cities produce plays that have been previously produced in New York. But Chicago is clearly producing their own group of people as well, and that group has more parity.”

Indeed, New York placed just sixth in terms of parity. After Chicago, Washington, D.C. counted 30 percent female-written out of 104 productions; Kansas City, Mo., 30 percent of 61 productions; Philadelphia, 29 percent of 84 productions; and Berkeley, 29 percent of 63 productions. New York’s tally? A quart, 25 percent, out of 234 productions.

The Count doesn’t just track gender; Jordan and her team also tabulated race and nationality. From 2011 to 2014, only 12 percent of productions were by writers of color. Factor that in with gender and nationality, and 62.6 percent of plays were by American white males, 14 percent were by American white females, 10.6 percent by foreign white males, 6 percent by American males of color, 3.4 percent by American females of color, 2.5 percent by foreign white females, .4 percent by foreign males of color, and .4 percent by foreign females of color.

The plethora of data proved to be overwhelming at first. While Jordan said that the guild/Lillys team initially wanted to track more information in the study, expanding to a range of as much five years, they settled on three years, and will gather additional data through interviews.

“Some of the things we wanted to count, we realized it was just more efficient and more accurate to speak to the writers directly,” Jordan said. “We are going to talk to the writers about their plays and about how their plays are cast, and if they specify race for characters or specify that race is not at issue, and what happens with the casting in second and third productions. Do they all just continue to cast as it was done in New York? Do they always cast white? What do they do? And is it different in different parts of the country?” Other data they’d like to track going forward: “We’ll find out about cast size and if the protagonist was male or female. And we can find out if the directors on the first, second, and third productions are the same gender, the same race as [the playwright]—all those questions that people are interested in.”

People are clearly interested. Twitter exploded after the report was released with #WriteChange and #TheCount dominating the conversation. Joy Meads, literary manager at Center Theatre Group and a member of the gender-parity advocacy group The Kilroys, pointed out that the other thread using #TheCount as a hashtag was about ultimate fighting.

“No holds barred in the #parityraid,” Meads tweeted.

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