Facing Down The Canons

by Julie Felise Dubiner

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Facing Down The Canons

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

Diversity & Inclusion blog salon: Gender Parity in the American Theatre

JACQUELINE LAWTON: Year after year, research shows that approximately 17% of all plays produced in the United States and the United Kingdom are written by women. We’re suck at this number and it’s hard to comprehend. Last year, Forum Theatre convened a symposium to investigate the gender imbalance in theatre and posed this question: Is there a female dramaturgy (ie. a specific point of view that female writers bring to theatre)? If so, what does it look, sound and feel like?  Who holds the agency for it?

JULIE FELISE DUBINER: I’ve struggled with this. There’s a chicken and egg thing and there’s a personal interest thing and there’s no real way to generalize any of it that I want to buy into as “women’s writing.” I do however, think there is a way we read women’s plays. That’s a generalization I’ll stand behind. There is a way we have been taught to value plays and writing and art which is based on thousands of years of men’s work – what we have deemed classic, what we have placed in “canons,” what we simply call good. Women artists are put in the position of facing that down. We must approach selection and commissioning intentionally and change up the plays we canonize if we want to see change.

JL: Where do you live? How do you feel your community has addressed the issues of gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to practice your craft?

JFD: I live in Ashland, OR and work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Compared to other theaters I’ve worked for, this place has very heartfelt leadership trying very hard to wrestle with questions of gender and gender parity on our stages. Working here has improved my outlook on the possibilities greatly. I know we are wrestling with the big questions even if we get pinned on occasion.

JL: Do we need gender based theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?

JFD: If a group of artists chooses to create a theater with that specific of a mission, as long as they have true passion for it I don’t know why that’s a problem. There are any number of general and generalist theaters, having some with sharper focus is a good thing. I’d just hope that we keep growing the theater ecology – those specific theaters should be feeding the general ones and vice versa. The larger institutional theaters can’t change quickly, so having agitation from outside and having other theaters that can introduce new work and new artists quickly and efficiently is incredibly important to the future of the field.

JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?

JFD: At OSF this year, we’ve presented the plays to the season planning committee without names on them. It’s an experiment right now. We’re trying to see if people can just respond to a play and not just the writer. Especially in comedy, I find readers are often dismissive of women writers. While I don’t understand why, I have seen it to be true. So, let’s see if we can re-rig the system. Also, OSF has a number of commissioning programs, and we are working very hard to achieve parity with those. So far, we are definitely succeeding there, which will give us a larger pool of women writers and writers of color to choose from in the future.

JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?

JFD: It’s no more important in theater than anywhere else, which is to say it is extremely important. As we live in a world and a country where women continue to be second-class at best and brutalized at worst, we all have a responsibility to face that head on and use whatever our means are to change the world for the better for everyone.

Julie Felise Dubiner is the Associate Director of American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. From 2004-2010, Julie was the Resident Dramaturg at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Prior to Louisville, she was in Philadelphia as Project Manager of The Rosenbach Company and Dramaturg at the Prince Music Theater. Before that, in Chicago she freelanced for Defiant, blue star, Steppenwolf and others. Julie holds degrees from Tufts and Columbia and has taught at University of Evansville, Walden Theatre, University of the Arts, the Philadelphia public schools and Chicago Dramatists. Julie has been a guest dramaturg at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, the New Harmony Project, the Kennedy Center/KCACTF, and elsewhere. She is a co-editor of a couple of volumes of Humana Festival anthologies and a co-author of The Process of Dramaturgy. She is a Board Member of LMDA and is the lead mentor for the Early Career Dramaturgs.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com