What are we missing?

02.24.12 | 5 Comments

CATEGORIES #2amt, #2femt, conversation starter, ideas, social profit, the future, theatrical ecosystem

What are we missing out on by not having more female voices and perspectives on our stages?

As we make our way to the culminating event in Forum Theatre’s current Female Voices Festival, I thought it appropriate to step back and give some explanation as to what led us to producing this festival and what it means to the past, present, and future of both Forum itself and the American Theatre.

It started with an embarrassing admission.

As we were discussing the 2011/2012 season and what shows we wanted to produce, someone from the company called us out for not having a very good track record when it came to diversity in our past seasons. It had been a conversation for several seasons at Forum and the challenge to produce a more diverse season (when it comes to playwrights) was one that I thought we had been making some decent progress in. I instinctually responded by citing the various plays that we had produced recently that showed more diversity–plays by hispanic writers, writers of Arab descent…hadn’t we at least improved?

“No, I mean more women. We’ve hardly produced any female writers.”

Before I opened my mouth in defense, it dawned on me–maybe smacked me in the head is a better analogy–that of the 21 plays we had produced to that point, only THREE had been written by women. And of those three, Caryl Churchill had written two of them (Naomi Wallace, who we were producing at that moment, the other).

How had I never noticed that? As ridiculous as it sounds, I can honestly say that I had never realized the fact that we were so male-writer-heavy. I don’t say that as some sort of a defense. It’s the part that maybe worries me the most.

That conversation continued as we examined the issue and i started to do some real soul-searching: Did I have some sort of mental block that led me to only think of male writers? Was there something in Forum’s aesthetic that drew us to male voices, primarily? And was that a problem?

The need to produce more women writers wasn’t engrained in my knowledge of how to curate a theatre season. If it wasn’t a part of my artistic director’s ethical core–and I consider myself to be a fairly progressive, democratic, person–then how many others were just like me?

Recent studies show that both in the US (and in the UK, thanks to the Guardian), only 17% of all plays produced in non-profit theatres are written by women. Looking at DC, a colleague just shared on Facebook that “From 9 DC area theatres with their own venues, offering 66 productions total: There are only, 10 women playwrights and 17 women directors represented.”

Going back to our season discussion, we has already decided to produce THE ILLUSION, by Tony Kushner, at that point, but by the end of our planning, we had chosen three other plays to make up the 2011/2012 series, all written by women–Julia Cho, Young Jean Lee, and another Caryl Churchill script. We wanted to see what a more female-writer focused season would feel like and to explore what we’d been missing out on, all those seasons before.

And that’s where the idea of this Female Voices Festival came from and more specifically, the idea to hold this symposium and really delve into the topic, more fully. I welcome you to join the conversations going on this weekend by following our feed @forumtheatre and the ongoing conversation under the #2femt and #2amt hashtags.

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Michael Dove

Micahel has been the Artistic Director of the Forum Theatre in the Washington DC area since 2003.

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  • Anonymous

    Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes.

  • Michael, I’m curious:  How much of your ticket buying audience are women?  And I literally mean, who buys the tickets when couples or groups come, because aren’t they critical to your success?  Because I’ve heard stats that 60-70% of ticket buyers are women.  Wouldn’t that be a practical incentive to produce more women initiated work?

  • The Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ontario is a company that operates two theatres, professional productions – and has been run by the same Artistic Director for 30 years. Just today we announced that a dynamic young female director, Ashlie Corcoran, will be the new A.D. http://www.1000islandsplayhouse.com  A bold move for a theatre not based in a big urban centre.

  • Cathaselford

    Here in DC, we have the DC SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) Day Playreading Marathon.  This year, we’ll be offering staged readings of 13 short plays by women playwrights from all over the US — and a couple from overseas — directed by DC women directors.  Michael, you should stop by the National Museum of Women in the Arts 1-5pm Saturday,  March 31.

  • Emily—
    I don’t have any hard numbers on the breakdown of who buys the tickets to our shows—but a pure, confident guess would be that there are more women attending our shows, but at least a small margin.

    And, yes, I do think that is a strong reason to look at what we produce. Now, granted, the breakdown of who wrote the play is the aspect I’m focusing on right now, but then that should also expand to the need to represent strong female characters and employ women artists in other roles such as design and direction. It’s all important and, yes, for what you are saying—our audience has parity, so I think it behooves us to explore parity in what we produce and see what that can do for our relationship and conversation with our audience. 

    What haven’t we discovered, over the years, by defaulting to male-focused storytelling and not questioning another way? Of course, we still live in a world where men (and to go further, white men) have a distinct advantage, so what is our role, as theatres, in trying to push equality AHEAD of society? Maybe it’s a bridge too far, but it’s certainly worth exploring and worth seeing what possibilities exist.

    As Julia Jordan paraphrased the astronaut Sally Ride about bias against women in the sciences,

    “If you come across a person lying on the street with an elephant sitting on their chest, you could ask if they have a heart condition or asthma, as both do cause breathing problems. But first, you should get the elephant off their chest.”