Plenty of Good Plays

by Patricia Connelly

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Plenty of Good Plays

(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?

PATRICIA CONNELLY:  I believe there is a distinctly female point of view that female writers naturally bring to theater. That point of view reflects the differences between men and women in life experiences and in the way we’re culturally conditioned from the time we’re children. Research shows that by the time we become adults, women and men think differently, communicate differently, use words differently and view the world from different perspectives. The only way I can articulate what female dramaturgy looks and sounds like is to say that when I think about the female voice in playwriting, I think generally about plays where the central characters, mostly women, negotiate the world through relationships and connections with others. Although I assume that women generally hold the agency for a female dramaturgy, I don’t think that the agency is exclusive. I can think of specific plays written by men where the action is driven by women in plays that I would consider to be female dramaturgy. I can also think of examples of plays by women that would not fit any description of a distinctly female dramaturgy.

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?

PC:  I live in Northern Virginia, part of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.  A look at current statistics for Washington area theaters shows that for the 2013-2014 season, approximately 24% of the scheduled productions have been authored by female playwrights.[1] This includes devised work, musicals and multi-authored work, as well as single-author work. The percentage is higher than the U.S. and U.K. average and higher than last year’s 21% in D.C. Overall, though, what the numbers indicate is that gender parity in production is not yet a significant concern among theater producers either nationally or locally.  Beyond the statistics, however, some of the local efforts are promising. There are D.C. area theaters, like Theater J, that have been actively presenting works by female playwrights in numbers equal to or greater than male playwrights. There are also a number of theaters and groups in D.C. – Theater J, Arena Stage, Kennedy Center, Active Cultures, The Inkwell – that have put great efforts into the development of new plays and new playwrights, both men and women. The expectation is that with these local development efforts, the numbers of productions of female authored plays in the D.C. area will continue to rise. Some years ago, in approximately early 2000, I attended a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., on women’s voices in theater. In the course of the discussion, one local artistic director attributed the general lack of productions of plays by women to the notion that there were not enough good plays written by women. At the time, I could only counter it with what I knew to be true: there were plenty of good plays written by women, but theaters were consistently not producing those plays. Thirteen years later, I can’t conceive of any artistic director in D.C. making such a remark, yet I can’t help but wonder if this is what theater producers and artistic directors secretly believe. It is otherwise difficult to understand the consistent 17% statistic.

Whether this particular issue has impacted me and my ability to practice my craft, is an interesting question. On one level, the lack of gender parity in the theater has to impact my ability to practice my craft. It’s not a coincidence that only 17% of the plays produced nationally are written by women. If it was, the statistics wouldn’t be similar year after year. As a woman, therefore, my odds of having any play produced by a theater are less than what they would be if I were a man. On a personal level, however, I cannot let it impact my writing; I have to continue to write my plays without taking into consideration the statistics and without assuming my plays will end up in a drawer. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to write. I had a friend who temporarily changed her first name to a male first name in an experiment to see if she could elicit more attention for her work. I don’t recall that she garnered a larger response to her work, but changing our names doesn’t solve the problem. Instead, it encourages and enables theaters to continue to produce what they’ve consistently produced: plays by men.

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?

PC:  If the goal is to have women’s voices heard in equal numbers in the theater, gender based theaters may offer an interim solution. Having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community makes sense. Who better to tell women’s stories than women themselves? If theaters are not producing women’s plays, then women must find other avenues for having their plays seen and heard. It would be unrealistic to believe, however, that more gender based theaters is the answer to solving the issue of gender parity within the larger theater community. Gender based theaters can only be part of the solution. If we don’t address the parity issues in other ways at the same time, nothing will change within the established theaters. We’d be letting mainstream theaters off the hook and reinforcing an “other” or “outsider” status for women playwrights. Separating groups of people within institutions based on innate characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation does not ultimately lead to integration and equality. While there are good aesthetic reasons to form theaters focused on particular genres or interests, by advocating for separate theaters for males and females we risk losing the larger perspective that diversity and inclusion naturally bring. We also risk our discussions becoming one-sided and not reflective of the culture as a whole.

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

PC: It is not a difficult problem to address if theaters want to address it. Producers don’t live under rocks. They know the gender of the playwrights whose plays they’re producing. And contrary to what the artistic director I quoted above said in 2000, there are plenty of plays written by women from which to choose. The issue is how to get artistic directors and producers to want to address the issue of gender parity. Artistic directors and producers have apparently not been made to do any soul-searching on this issue. Or if they have, there is some concern that prevents them from balancing their programming. If a theater’s funding and ticket sales depended upon presenting gender balanced seasons, we would likely see more gender parity. Practical action steps would have to include education and public discussions among not only theater professionals, but subscribers, donors, audience members, critics and anyone else who has an interest in a theater’s programming.

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

PC: If we don’t have these conversations, those theaters that are responsible for the low statistics will not change their views and we will continue to see the same statistics that we’ve been seeing for years. As part of the conversation, I would ask producers and artistic directors why they consistently choose more plays by men than by women. Are they concerned their audiences will reject female dramaturgy (assuming we conclude there is a distinctly female voice in playwriting) or is it the theater critics that are the concern?

[1]    From statistics compiled by DC-Area Playwrights Gwydion Suilebhan, David Robinson and Patricia Connelly.

Patricia Connelly is an award winning playwright and director. Her plays have been presented and produced in the Washington, D.C. area and in New Mexico. She holds an M.A. in Theater from the University of New Mexico and is a member of the Playwrights Forum in Washington, D.C. and the Dramatists Guild of America.

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.