“Don’t make an issue of my womanhood.” —Garbo in Ninotchka
It’s axiomatic that the theatre is largely a self-selecting tribe—that most folks in the field are in it because they feel driven toward it, even that they feel they have little choice in the matter. It’s also true that there will almost always be, very broadly speaking, room on a stage somewhere for anyone willing to strive and sweat for the chance to be heard.
But in theatre as in any profession, there is no shortage of barriers to entry, hierarchies, cliques, gatekeepers, tastemakers—levels and levers of selection and promotion and “success” that are quite beyond the average worker’s control. And threaded among the finite and identifiable matrix of people and institutions who make theatre in this country is a web of harder-to-pin-down but nevertheless powerful trends, tendencies, and biases that can keep its higher and even middle echelons stubbornly beyond the reach of many of even its hardest workers and deserving aspirants.
Among those biases are some stubbornly familiar ones, many bearing the telltale suffix “-ism.” And those oft-excluded outsiders, it’s not hard to notice, very often comprise the same demographics far too often shut out by our society’s and our economy’s other institutions: women, people of color, people with disabilities, the poor. In these shortcomings, theatre in the U.S. is hardly much worse but is also certainly little better than American culture at large, from publishing to the film industry, from electoral politics to academia. Comparisons to Hollywood’s or Washington’s dismal diversity records shouldn’t let the American theatre field off the hook—though they may give us a reality check on how widespread and deep-rooted the problems are.
This is a chance not to despair but to seize an opportunity. It is often lamented that the theatre at some point forfeited its once-central place in America’s national dialogue (when exactly it commanded that coveted position, it’s hard to say). Could a push for greater diversity, inclusion, and equity be one area where the theatre field might actually get out in front of dispiriting national trends and claim a leadership role? Arguably, the stage’s reach will never be able to compete with that of the screen(s), but theatre’s impact on the communities where it’s made—not just for audiences who see the work onstage, but for the civic life of streets and neighborhoods where theatre practitioners ply their trade, pay their taxes, raise their families—can strike as deep, or deeper. And yes, theatre’s resources are infamously scarce compared to other industries, but they are hardly nothing; theatre work manifestly feeds bodies as well as minds and hearts. There is no good reason, other than the usual excuses of prejudice and laziness and the purportedly immutable laws of the market, that this platform and this bounty—which is material as well as spiritual—should not be shared more fairly, especially with those too often left out in what the Chicano comedy trio Culture Clash might call the “American night.”
As part of this annual season preview issue, we’ve trained on our sights on one area of persistent disparity, which is borne out (again) by the full season listings that comprise the bulk of it, and our annual Top 10 most-produced plays list, compiled by Diep Tran: the gap between stagings of plays written by women and those written by men. Though this remains a glass that’s more than half empty—it’s roughly a 4-to-1 proposition, male over female writers—and though this is by no means the only metric by which to gauge progress on gender equity in the theatre field, we focused on it as a marker, a symbol, of where we stand. We’ve found some positive signs among theatres that are striking a better balance, programming seasons of 50 percent or more female playwrights, in an excellent report by senior editor Suzy Evans (who traveled to D.C. to help stage our cover photo recognizing that city’s currently running Women’s Voices Theater Festival, with 56 new plays by women running at 51 theatres citywide). We’ve also tried to address one common canard: that the structural prejudices of the past—which presumably kept female playwrights from getting their work staged, or even picking up a quill in the first place—mean that a gender-parity metric is meaningless when it comes to classic works. Not so fast, says scholar Susan Jonas, who has uncovered “The Other Canon,” a list of notable plays by women going back to the 10th century. (Read any Elizabeth Inchbald lately? Maybe you should.)
Fine and well, you say, but why—in a field not lacking for well-meaning liberals, even raging feminists—are there still so many more plays by men getting produced than plays by women? Are they just not as good, or not as plentiful? Joy Meads, literary manager at Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group, knows better; that’s partly why she helped found the Kilroys, the badasses who for two years now have compiled a list of worthy but underproduced plays by women and transgender artists that have crossed their desks. She chalks up the disparity in new-play production in large part to the problem of unconscious bias; and in a probing essay in this section, Meads lays out the case that even the best-intentioned among us—including the author herself!—often can’t help but propagate structural privileges ingrained in us from childhood. As Meads points out, knowing we have a problem—and recognizing that the problem is a sneaky and systemic one—is the first step toward turning it around.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to keep asking these questions and writing stories like this. Indeed, we wouldn’t be making an issue of playwrights’ gender—or race, or ability status, or economic background—at all. But as long as there is inequity and exclusion, not only in our theatre field but in the larger world, we can’t, indeed mustn’t look away. After all, if there is one place where the world as it is can meet the world as we dream it to be, in the hope that both might be transformed by the exchange, shouldn’t that place be the theatre?
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