(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?
JENNY SPLITTER: Absolutely. There’s also a male dramaturgy. We just see so many more plays written by men. What does it look, sound and feel like? Like motherhood. Like the writer who gets your rape joke but doesn’t think it’s that funny. Like the person who looks in the mirror and struggles with what she sees. Like the citizen whose body is the subject of legislation, and the person who knows what it’s like to turn forty (because that, apparently, is a uniquely female phenomenon).
Producers have the responsibility to put together a season of diverse theater, but we all hold the agency for demanding it. I would love to see people challenge their perception of what makes a story significant. I recently read a review of a DC-based production of Full Bloom, a play by Suzanne Bradbeer about a young adolescent that also features the story lines of two women struggling with getting older. The reviewer was essentially bored by the scenes with the older women, and after seeing the play myself I wondered whether her reaction was in some degree influenced by the way we dismiss the experiences of women after “a certain age” unless they’re delivered via demographically appropriate channels like OWN or Bravo.
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?
JS: I live in Washington, DC where we seem to have a pretty active community of playwrights. Gwydion Suilebahn has been collecting and analyzing playwright demographic data for the DC area, and as I recall, it looks like for this upcoming season that the number of plays written by women is slightly better than the national average. But that’s just initial data and it’s only one season. Still, I’m thrilled by the rich and varied independent theater scene in DC, and I’m constantly inspired by the amazing women I meet.
As a relative newcomer to theater, the issue of gender parity (or lack thereof) just motivates me to produce more theater. We have a strong and well-attended fringe festival in DC — Capital Fringe — that gives many playwrights (as well as other performing artists) the opportunity to produce their own work. I was able to get my feet wet with my first play H Street Housewives at the Capital Fringe Festival last summer. I learned so much, and I was inspired by the sheer volume of women artists and producers.
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?
JS: We need it all, but I think what will ultimately be more successful are companies that have a clearly defined aesthetic and not just a commitment to works by women. It’s the difference between a theater called The Women’s Theatre and Pinky Swear: one name encapsulates a story and I automatically want to know more.
I think what’s gained is that artists tend to bring more of the stories of their community to the stage, and I don’t think anything is lost. Within that community there is still plenty of diversity.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?
JS: I’m on the Board of Directors for SpeakeasyDC, a storytelling organization, and our artistic director, Amy Saidman recently described her perspective on diversity very clearly: a show is not a success unless you have diversity. Because we don’t want to hear one type of story over and over again. It’s mind-blowing to me that it’s even an issue but producers and artistic directors need to begin with the perspective that a season is not a success without diversity. I think if you begin from that point of view the rest will fall into place.
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?
JS: If we want to see more plays written by women, we need to be talking about it and figuring out how to make it happen.
Jenny Splitter is a storyteller and playwright living in Washington, DC. Her play, H Street Housewives, was part of Capital Fringe’s 2013 summer and fall fringe festivals. She has told stories with the Risk! podcast, SpeakeasyDC and Story League, and she blogs at mamaliciousinthecity.com.
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