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Rainy days and glass ceilings always get me down

08.08.10 | 5 Comments


CATEGORIES #2femt, conversation starter, designers, directors, education, ideas, playwrights, rabble rousing, theatrical ecosystem

A conversation broke out during the hockey game that is Twitter last week around the topic of gender equity, or the lack thereof, in the theatre. This eventually led to an offshoot on the nature of inclusion as a whole.  There is a gnarled thicket of issues blossoming fruitfully underneath ‘gender equity’ and ‘inclusion.’ I am shelving inclusion for several other days, not because it is any less dear to me, but because one blog post will scarcely begin to untangle the subsidiary copse of gender equity.

We all know some of this, but not all of us − even in the ‘let’s bash through it’ 2am air − see the extent of the problem, so my goal here is partly to plumb the depths.  Tony Adams and Margo Gray helpfully inform me that 81% of the plays produced in Chicago last season were written either by a man or by a partnership which was predominantly male.  On Broadway, women write fewer than one in eight plays.

In a June 2009 article in the New York Times, Patricia Cohen profiled a study written by economics graduate student Emily Glassman Sands, which explores gender bias in the theatre, and finds it to be multi-focal, complex and filled with surprises.  Among the findings were that female artistic directors often hold female playwrights to a higher standard than they do male writers, and also that “Plays and musicals by women sold 16 percent more tickets a week and were 18 percent more profitable over all.” Here’s the link to the article, and to a .pdf of Sands’ study:  http://nyti.ms/cBb9jL

Theresa Rebeck has written hilariously and powerfully about gender inequity in the Guardian (http://bit.ly/bkSTse) and elsewhere, poking fun at ‘The Year of the Man’ on Broadway while wondering which year, precisely, wasn’t.

Stage-directions.com posted an article on August 6th: the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative (www.lafpi.com) has commissioned a study to collect information about productions and workshops by female playwrights in Los Angeles over a nine-year period (2000-2009).  (The cut-off date for adding one’s project to the study is August 15, 2010, by the way.) “Once the LA FPI Study is complete, we’ll be able to use the results as a tool to raise awareness and create change,” said Jennie Webb, a founder of the group.

In April, I heard Alan Rickman speak at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and almost in passing, in the middle of discussing his late arrival to directing, he mentioned that “of course is it much more difficult for women” to have careers as directors.  I had already figured this out through diligent, uh, field work, but it was a little electrical shock to hear it tumble so genteelly out of Alan Rickman’s lovely mouth.  Oskar Eustis has said, “It’s harder for women playwrights and directors, because it’s harder for professional women in the United States.” When I was a little baby director, freshly arrived in the Big City, I attended a “Women in the Theatre” conference; with trepidation, I approached a female artistic director for whom I had great admiration and asked her advice about how to proceed.  “Get yourself a mentor, and make sure it’s a man,” she said.  She told me that a woman would likely view me as a threat, ever younger, ever prettier.  I was rattled by her crisp assessment, but as I have moved through my career, I have found her advice has resonated more richly than I would have wished.

In another article in the Times, playwright Gina Gionfriddo said she had been told that her characters were unlikable. “I wonder if Neil LaBute hears this,” she said, locating a vibrantly kicking double standard. The article goes on to say that Gionfriddo “suggested that women’s plays often do not resolve as conclusively as those by men, and that they do not follow the Aristotelian model of drama, which makes directors uncomfortable.” (http://nyti.ms/cWCaZC) But one can hardly say with accuracy that most writers of either gender adhere to an Aristotelian preservation of the unities at this time.  Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Kate Moira Ryan all compose a theatrical beginning, middle and ending;  Caryll Chuchill doesn’t out-odd Harold Pinter.

So gender inequity is a problem for female playwrights, for female directors, and to be clear, for female designers (particularly if their discipline is not costumes), female carpenters, and female electricians.  (It is also a problem for the male playwrights, directors and designers, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.)  Curiously, the coin often gets flipped to some extent in the administrative offices, where women are regularly Directors of Development, Marketing, and Education. Yet the majority of Managing Directors and Artistic Directors in theatre, dance, opera, and at symphonies are men.

It is poignant to me that as I am drafting this post, Elena Kagan has been sworn in as the fourth female Justice on the Supreme Court.  Hurray!  But why, in 2010, are we still at a place where it is so important to keep count? And, by the way, that makes the gender distribution on the court a unequitably elliptical 2:1.

One might think that we in the theatre would be further along the road to gender equity because we are in the business of exploring human behavior and examining our society’s fault lines. We’re making progress, but, like the larger society in which we tell our stories, we’ve a long way to go to get to parity. Do we need to ‘raise awareness’ of this issue? (Tangentially, ‘raising awareness’ is one of those received phrases in our culture that makes my teeth itch; with respect to Jennie Webb at LA FPI and others who use it, the hazy linguistic vagueness of the phrase suggest that almost as soon as you’ve told me your issue exists, we’re done, because I now have greater awareness.) And once we raise awareness, whatever that means, then what?

What do we do?  How do we move in an authentic way towards gender equity?  Are we in the theatre, as Oskar Eustis suggest, in line with the struggle that professional women face throughout our society?  And if we are, don’t we want to be the makers of custom?  What if you have a company dedicated to the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries?  What if your company is tiny and you do two shows a year:  are you obliged to make some politically correct obeisance by picking one male playwright and one female, one male director and one female, as if you were stocking a theatrical Noah’s ark?  In discussion over dinner last night, my husband suggested that preferring the female to the male in two otherwise equal candidates is its own kind of discrimination.  He may be right.  But is it a discrimination that moves us toward a more egalitarian theatre? And would that make it okay?

One hopes that theatres are choosing the plays which best serve their missions, and are hiring the best artists to realize the plays in production.  Each theatre, like each person, has its own personality and priorities when selecting a season; it seems less than artistic to ask for a quota to be fulfilled.

We all, every last one of us on this earth, want to be heard.  We want to be seen, to be recognized, to be known.  If I am not allowed to tell my story, if I only get to listen to other people tell their stories, that can help me to become one helluva listener, but it is not the same as participating fully in the conversation.  We in the theatre want to tell stories, to entertain and to challenge our audiences to think in new ways about what is familiar, to experience emotional and intellectual epiphanies.  Don’t we want to challenge them, to challenge ourselves to embrace the richness of multivocality?

Tell me what you think.  Let’s keep talking about this, not to raise the dreaded awareness but to keep examining the situation from as many angles as we can, in the hopes that we will, wherever we stand, enrich our understanding and come up with solutions that move us towards actual parity, in the theatres, in our communities and in our larger society.

Kate Powers

Shakespeare girl, teller of good stories, fan of social justice, prison reform, mindfulness and all that is righteous on E Street

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  • As a playwright, I used to feel as if there was very little I could do to try to smash the gender inequity boulder. I have always actively tried (when the whims of my calling make it possible) to write plays that are gender-balanced, in the hope that I'll at least provide equal numbers of lead roles for women as I do for men, but that has always seemed like small potatoes. (I've also been writing for racially diverse casts, which has caused at least one possible production to be cancelled when the theater “couldn't find” any local African American actors… but that's a different story.)

    In the last few years, though, I've been trying to do more: I've been trying to cultivate relationships with female directors interested in my work. A quick/rough count: six of the last eight people who've directed my plays have been women. To the extent that I have the ability to suggest and/or influence directorial choices, I have almost always exercised that ability in favor of women: none of them BECAUSE they were women, but all of them because they were smart and talented and helped me learn more about my work and just happened to be women. This is another thing I think I can (and will) continue to do.

    As theatergoers, I think we can all make a small-but-collectively-important difference by attending more plays written/directed by women: supporting female theater-makers by putting our butts in their seats: again, not BECAUSE they are women, but because they are talented and we want to address the inequities we can address.

    Perhaps these are minor measures… but at least they're a start.

  • You could take the Mariah MacCarthy Challenge… http://is.gd/e9xM2

  • RVCBard

    I take a riff off this post on my blog. I should probably make another post about it in the near future.

  • I do not believe that it would be discriminatory to prefer a female playwright to a male playwright, all else being equal. To call it discriminatory is exactly the same as perpetuating the myth of “reverse racism.” Frankly, we OWE it to women, just like we owe it to people of color, to shut up and listen to them, to give them the floor (or the stage), because we’ve actively or passively excluded them for a very, very long time.

    When a class of people has been systematically and institutionally held back or held down for centuries, it is utterly absurd to say, “Well, we’ll stop holding anybody back. From this moment on, we all compete as equals.” That’s ludicrous. It leads to a skewed sense of greatness and an undeserved sense of confidence in our abilities among people like me, straight white men, when we continue to win again and again. What somebody once said of George W. Bush is true of many of us. We were born on third base, thinking we hit triples. To really start to decompose and understand our undue privileges, I think the “power flower” is a very useful start. Here is the worksheet: http://www.cwac.us/images/stories/File/PowerFlower.pdf And here are the instructions: http://www.cwac.us/images/stories/File/PowerFlowerNotes.pdf

  • Anonymous

    This is great, Aaron. Thank you for sharing the links. I also like your comparison to reverse racism.


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