The Conversation Must Continue

by Thembi Duncan

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for The Conversation Must Continue

(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?

THEMBI DUNCAN: Female playwrights have a range of viewpoints based on age, class, race, religion, and geography, among other factors. This is a known fact, yet most often, women are defined not by what they are, but by the obstacles they’re up against. “What has she overcome to have a voice in the male-dominated theatre?” “Are her female characters authentic?” “Is she able to write male characters effectively?” These metrics are liberally applied to the work of most female playwrights, however disparate in perspective the writers may be. This unfortunate commonality seems to have become the de facto female dramaturgy. These are the things that people want to know first, when examining the creative work of women.

This can be a boost or a hindrance to a female playwright. She can choose to re-shape or discard those questions, and establish her own distinct identity in the world. Or, she can be stuck addressing those questions repeatedly, without ever arriving at her own significance to the canon. The choice she makes determines who holds the agency for her point of view.

The growing conversation about women writers in American theatre is a sign that an increasing number of us are interested in what women have to say; not as a response to what men have been saying, but as genuine, organic experiences.

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?

TD: I live in the Washington, D.C. area, and we have a vibrant local theatre community here, but we have the same gender imbalance that the rest of the country suffers. However, as a result of the conversation about gender parity that has heated up in the past couple of years, the community has decided to take action. The Women’s Voice Festival, which will be held in Fall of 2015, is our way of showcasing the work of female playwrights — dozens of area theatres have promised to produce a world premiere, written by a woman. I’m proud that African Continuum will participate, but it’s unfortunate that this festival is more of a response to a deficit than an unsolicited celebration of female writers.

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?

TD: As long as we live in an inequitable society, we’ll need gender-based theatres, ethnic theatres, disability-based theatres, etc. Every artist should be able to speak in the first person. This not only gives a more authentic voice to any group, but it sets the tone for anyone else who wants to write about a community to which they do not belong.

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

TD: The Women’s Voice Festival is a great example of an achievable, sustainable approach to addressing gender parity issues. In order to continue growth in this area, women have to be groomed and given opportunities to grow as artists. They need professional platforms for their work, and high-level support for their craft.

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

TD: As long as there are gender inequities in society, the conversation must continue.

Thembi Duncan has recently become Producing Artistic Director of African Continuum Theatre Company, where she was seen on stage in Gris Gris and From the Mississippi Delta. She has performed in the D/M/V region as an actor for almost fifteen years. As a playwright, she’s penned Gridiron: Adventures from the Sidelines, and Coop in the Yard for Active Cultures Theatre, Champagne for Brave Soul Collective, and BLUEP for Rorschach Theatre’s Klexography Festival. Mon Chaton, her first full-length play, was recently featured in the Page-to-Stage Festival at the Kennedy Center. Thembi also serves as the Lead Teaching Artist at Ford’s Theatre.

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.