Actions Speak Louder Than Words

by Marie Sproul

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Actions Speak Louder Than Words

(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 (i.e. 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?

MARIE SPROUL: Yes, I think there is a specific point of view that female writers bring and that is a woman’s way of thinking and a more accurate portrayal of a woman’s experience.

I recently saw the play This by Melissa James Gibson at Round House Theatre in Bethesda.  What I thought the play was brilliant at was showing how women think about and deal with conflicts.  Women tend to solve conflict through conversation.  We talk about it, a lot, with a lot of different people.  This is not to say that we don’t take action.  We do.  We just talk it out first.

At the end of the play, which I won’t give away, one of the characters has a realization, an understanding, or as Oprah would say, “an ah-ha moment”.  She reaches this moment through a series of conversations with her friends. We don’t have to see her take action to solve her problem.  We know that she has solved the conflict within herself and the action she will take is understood.

As to who holds the agency for the female point of view, I’m not sure we can say that anyone holds it.  Obviously, if you are a woman, you have direct experience with how the world treats you as a woman, but it doesn’t preclude a man from being able to accurately portray a woman’s point of view on the stage. Our job as artists is to speak the truth of what we discover through our work.

JL: Where do you live?

MS: I live in the DC Metro area.

JL: How do you feel your community has addressed the issues of gender parity?

MS: Not very well.  I hear a lot of talk on the subject in articles and by other professionals in the theatre, but I have yet to see any real progress being made.  I wanted to know for myself how many women playwrights and directors there will be in this coming season in DC so I did a little research. Based on the season information from 36 theatres, only 29% of the plays are being directed by women and only 25% were written by women.  Six of these theatres do not have a single female director or playwright for the entire season.  However, I can’t say that I am surprised by these findings even a little.  Of the DC theatres I looked at, which range from LORT to professional non-AEA contracts, only nine have women as Artistic Directors.  Out of the 74 LORT theatres across the country, only 13 have women as Artistic Directors.

There has always been a bias in our theatres towards men, mainly white men – their stories, written by them and directed by them.  I’ve heard it said this is because our country has an unconscious bias towards men, but here’s the thing, if we’ve been talking about this so much, how can the bias be unconscious?  At this point, if you don’t have plays about women or written by women or directed by women, it’s a conscious decision.

JL: How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to practice your craft?

MS:  To be honest, up until now it hasn’t.  I started out in Community Theatres and small Professional non-AEA theatres, and I had steady work as a director while working in them.

It wasn’t until I decided that I wanted to take my career to the next level that I became aware of the disparity between men and women and the opportunities that exist for us.  It would seem the higher up you go in the theatre world – AEA houses, LORT and Broadway, the fewer women you find directing.

As  I start to make connections and find my way, I am all too aware that the directorial positions are limited to me simply based on the numbers.  I know that only a handful of productions in the DC area and regionally are directed by women each season.

JL: Do we need gender based theatres?

MS:  We do have gender-based theatres.  Most of our regional theatres are male-based theatres.  They are overwhelmingly run by men and the majority of the stories they tell are about men, written by men and directed by men.  They may not have it in their mission statement that they are a theatre that exists to tell the stories of men, but actions speak louder than words!

It is frustrating to think that the only way to have more work done by women artists is to start our own theatres.  However, if we want to ensure that our stories are told, that women playwrights and directors have a place to work, then yes, I think we must have female-centric theatres.  Some amazing work comes out of The Women’s Project in New York and a lot of very talented women got their start in that theatre.  We have to create these theatres where women have a chance to grow and succeed.

I think it is really unfortunate that it has to be this way.  If we have to have separate theatres for men and women and all the different races because we refuse to work together, how do we help our audiences understand the humanity of all people?

JL: What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?  What is lost?

MS: It stands to reason that stories told by the community from which they originate will most likely be more honest and accurate in the telling.  As with all artists, when I tell a story, it is colored with how I view the world.  Part of the coloring comes from the fact that I am a woman.  As a woman, I confront things on a daily basis that men will never have to deal with because they are men.  It doesn’t mean they can’t understand or empathize with me, but they will never have the first-hand experience of what it is like to be a woman.  Of course, the same is true for me.  I will never know first-hand what it is like to be a man either.

What is lost is collaboration.  If the goal truly is to be more inclusive and to have a deeper understanding of each other’s experiences, then I think it has to start from the beginning of the process and not just the finished product that we offer to the audience.  It has to start with us as artists working together to understand each other better.  Maybe in doing so, we can provide a more balanced view.

Also, when we collaborate on each other’s stories we are able to offer an outsider’s point of view and this can be helpful.  It can challenge our assumptions about ourselves and show us alternatives we may never have thought of in the first place.

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

MS: It has to start with intention.  The leaders of our theatres have to decide to be more inclusive in their season planning and seek out work that is more representative of the world we live in.  It must be a conscious decision.

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

MS:  It’s important because we are important.  Our stories, experiences, and lives MATTER.  When we tell our stories, we let all women know that their stories matter – that they are not just here on this earth to bear witness to some man and his life, but to live.  Of course, the big picture goal is that by making women’s stories as important as men’s stories, we hopefully make it harder to degrade and dehumanize women in real life.

Marie Sproul is a freelance director.   DC area credits include: Assistant Director to Jeremy Skidmore on The Beauty Queen of Leenane and to KJ Sanchez on ReEntry (Round House Theatre); Assistant Director to Aaron Posner on The Conference of the Birds (Folger Theatre) and The Last Five Years (Signature Theatre); Director, Stage Door (American Century Theatre). Other Regional theatre credits include: Assistant Director to Jeremy Cohen on Let There Be Love and to KJ Sanchez on ReEntry (Centerstage); Co-Director of The Decade Plays (Centerstage); Assistant Director to Aaron Posner on The Game’s Afoot (The Cleveland Playhouse); and Assistant Director to KJ Sanchez on ReEntry at The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts; Director, The Wrestling Season, The Why, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (ShenanArts).

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.