(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 stuck 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?
MARY RESING: I’m such a structuralist that I attack this question from a structural point of view. Years ago, Richard Schechner mentioned in a graduate seminar at NYU that Aristotelian structure–heightening intensity offset by small reversals, leading to a climax, and then a decrease in intensity–replicates the male sexual experience. If I remember correctly, Jill Dolan, who was a TA in that class, countered that, if that were true then episodic structure–with its series of small climaxes and releases–would more closely replicate the female sexual experience.
I bought (and taught) those structural distinctions for years, i.e Aristotelian structure = male dramaturgy and episodic structure = female dramaturgy. However, one day over lunch at the University of Michigan, Brechtian scholar Peter Ferran blew that idea away. Aristotelian structure, he claimed, did not replicate sex. Instead, it replicated the act of having a satisfying bowel movement (okay, he’s a Brechtian scholar so he said this a little more bluntly). However he said it, he meant that Aristotelian structure replicates a non-gendered, universal experience.
Do women bring a specific point of view to the theatre? Absolutely. We all create work about our lives and everything–our gender, our birth order, our star sign, the death of our first pet–goes into our work. Are there some sort of universal gender markers in women’s writing? Not that I know of. ©2013 Mary Resing
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?
MR: I live in the Washington, DC, area. Here, there are many wonderful theatre companies run by women that represent a woman’s perspective (Active Cultures Theatre, Dog and Pony, The Hegira, Venus Theatre, Pinky Swear, Taffety Punk/Riot Ggrrrls, etc.)
That said, the majority of theatres are run by men. Theatres tend to produce plays that reflect the culture, socio-economic status, education, and world view of their artistic director. In practice that means that, by and large, male artistic directors tend to produce plays written by men with male central characters. They hire more male actors than female actors, largely because most of the roles in the plays that they choose are written for men. They also tend to hire male designers and directors. This bias towards male collaborators comes from a genuine (and arguably valuable) place. It is about each of us of wanting to create work that reflects who we are.
In terms of my work as a producer (and director, writer, dramaturg), the scarcity of opportunities for women has made DC a buyers’ market. Everywhere I turn there are amazing women artists—writers, directors, designers, and actors—just burning to work. As a female producer, DC is ironically a kind of paradise—a theatre environment where collaborators for the kind of work in which I am interested are endlessly available. ©2013 Mary Resing
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?
MCR: Why not? There is no one kind of theatre that holds a monopoly on art or entertainment. There is room and audience for all kinds of theatre.
But a more subtle approach can work as well. The majority of artistic directors don’t go around saying, “This is a white, male, college-educated, family money supported theatre and we create work that reflects that world view.” Female and non-white artistic directors should feel free to act on their cultural biases without announcing it to the world. ©2013 Mary Resing
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?
MCR: I think theatre companies should look at how gender functions in their organizations as a whole. What is the gender distribution in the box office? Amongst the carpenters and electricians? In the development office? On the board of directors? Do they hire more male costume designers than they do male dressers? Etc. It’s pretty meaningless to hire high profile female artists if the rest of the organization is full of gender ghettos.
But parity is not easy. I am as parity-flawed as anyone else. As a producer, I have put together a show where the director, writer, set designer and costume designer were all women only to realize men outnumbered women in the cast by five to one. It is hard to keep all your gender balls (pun intended) in the air. ©2013 Mary Resing
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?
MCR: As my Introduction to Drama teacher taught me, theatre is about conflict. And that is not just on the stage. When we get complacent about who we are and what we do, we create boring theatre. If, as an artistic director, you stock your theatre company with people who are very similar to you in culture and outlook, you probably will miss out on the creative conflict you need to push you forward as an artist. © 2013 Mary Resing
Mary Resing is a playwright, director, dramaturg & producer and the founder of Active Cultures Theatre. In 2012, the Maryland State Arts Council recognized her with an Individual Artist Award in Playwriting for her signed/spoken musical Visible Language. She has served on panels for the TCG, CIES and The Rockefeller Foundation. A proud alumna of Michigan-Ann Arbor, NYU, and Spring Hill College, Dr. Resing was a 2005-2006 US Fulbright Scholar to Armenia. In 2005, she also received an Offstage Award from the League of Washington Theatres for her body of dramaturgical work at Woolly Mammoth. With Tim McKeown, she is co-owner of the successful startup ResingMcKeown Unlimited.
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