(Ed. note: The following interview series builds on Seema Sueko’s report on the Diversity: Through the Director’s Eye panel, “Jump into the Gaps.” Diversity & Inclusion online curator Jacqueline E. Lawton shared a series of questions with attendees of the panel to expand and continue the conversation.)
What to do about gender inequality in American theater? It’s time to start counting, taking names and calling people out.
Some 27 years ago, I was at the end of a photo shoot for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Pink Section; the Sunday cultural supplement was publishing a feature on the feminist theater I had founded a year earlier—Brava! for Women in the Arts. “Let’s get a serious one,” said the photographer. “After all, this stuff makes you angry doesn’t it?” he said. I had smiled throughout the studio session to avoid that portrait of an angry feminist to accompany my righteous rationale for BRAVA’s existence.
For a few years prior, as a grantwriter and aspiring playwright, I judiciously tallied the number of female playwrights and directors on American stages, from the LORTs to the mid-size, including the multi-culti’s and alternative theaters on my client list. Each Sunday, I perused that same Pink Section, counting the publicity photos of men versus women, white people versus people of color. It always seemed grossly unfair—with women of all races landing in the teen percentile, less than ten percent representation for people of color, and women of color virtually missing. I counted and seethed, and I used it as fuel to grow a theater focused on women in all of our diversity. I did this with joy in my heart and a mostly positive attitude, and artists and audiences responded well. But on that day, the Chronicle editors chose the one photo that seemed to make me the problem. Not the facts, ma’am.
Almost three decades later (in the time it would take to grow an army of new women playwrights from conception!) not much has changed. In regional theaters across the country, 16% of last seasons’ offerings were written by a woman; 16% directed by a woman. Broadway hovers at 12%. My nearest regional theater in LA—the Center Theatre Group—the largest non-profit on the West Coast, is currently presenting a season without a single female playwright on the mainstage, and with two women writers (one of color) and one female director out of twenty-three productions on three stages. Of the five male playwrights of color in the CTG season, four performed solo pieces, three in repertory, on the smallest stage. And yet, at a recent panel on diversity at the Pasadena Playhouse, Artistic Director Michael Ritchie had the audacity to call his theater one of the most diverse in the nation. So I hereby call him out. I’ve counted.
While women have achieved parity in so many male bastions, i.e., law and medicine, there remains an appalling inequality in theater and film. I maintain that cultural expression should be considered an inalienable democratic right, and just as we battle conservatives who want to limit the franchise of people of color, women, elders and youth, we can no longer accept that women of all races, ages and ethnicities are virtually shut out of American theater.
The rationales for this sexism border on the absurd. The first one is perhaps the most serious, because it implies women don’t have a clue about how to write for theater.
Women playwrights write episodically, they just don’t get Aristotelian structure. I’m inclined to agree with Holly L. Derr (who was on a recent HowlRound panel with me on the topic at Rogue Machine Theater) that our human brains are hard-wired for the rhythm of three-act storytelling; for action as the primary thrust of drama; and for the catharsis that arises when flawed characters act to confront their destiny. However, at the recent gathering of Latina/o artists in Boston, playwright Josefina Lopez blasted this big bang theory head-on, declaring she wants “a theater as a multi-orgasmic, spiraling, flowing female energy […] an art-making practice no longer conceptualized after the model of male orgasm.”
Challenges to what constitutes satisfying dramatic structure have come fast and furiously from both male and female playwrights. There are the language playwrights like Caridad Svich, Ruth Margraff, Mac Wellman, Eric Ehn; docu-theater pioneers like Emily Mann, Anna Deavere Smith and Leigh Fondakowski; up-enders of the classics including Mary Zimmerman, Sarah Ruhl, Tanya Saracho, Ellen McLaughlin, Migdalia Cruz; and the brilliant canon of Maria Irene Fornes’ as well as her many successful disciples, who were taught to hold true to an authentic moment over a pre-ordained plot point. I can point to Pulitzer Prize-winning Suzan-Lori Parks, whose dramatic innovations are celebrated by Octavio Solis: “Plot and traditional narrative are dispensed with in favor of sequence of gestures and repetitive text dynamics. Her play enters our consciousness not through the front door but through the back, where it sidesteps our received notions of history and politics and art. And still, the work crescendos toward a catharsis that catches us off guard, for in the end, her work is as rigorously emotional as it is intellectual.”
The argument, that because of some biological imperative, male playwrights can somehow build a tighter dramatic mousetrap, is bunk. To write great drama requires an unmasking of deep human foibles, the exquisite use of language, and the skill to utilize the spaces behind, between and under the words. If I were a biological determinist, I might argue that a woman’s use of language, understanding of complex emotional behavior and intuitive grasp of the synergies at work in a given family or human grouping are far superior to a man’s. A woman uses thirteen thousand more words a day than a man. We generally learn to speak earlier and more quickly than boys, with larger and more complex vocabularies and sentence types. It is a scientific fact that women read emotional clues better than men. Our neural pathways are generally denser and more connective from left to right brain, eliciting more holistic interpretation. Men’s brains, on the other hand, are more connected front to back, which provides an advantage in the repetition of a skill to perfection. It does appear that male playwrights write more (according to Emily Glassberg Sands’ Princeton study, see below) a factor that perhaps boosts their success, but might also be a simple function of hubris and more writing time—the we all need a wife syndrome.
The truth is that many female playwrights could be said to write like men, and many male playwrights (including many of the most successful: Kushner, Wilson, Williams, Alfaro, Rabe, Albee) could arguably have tapped deeply into their feminine psyches.
Next rationale: Works by women don’t attract the audiences.
In Emily Glassberg Sands’ 2009 study, she looked at plays and musicals produced on Broadway in the last 10 years and found that female-authored works proved to be 18% more profitable. Given that they were only 10% of the fare, one inference is that women have a higher quality bar to clear. Called the Jackie Robinson Effect, it seems that to get into the big leagues—or onto an American theater stage—woman’s batting average has to be stratospheric. And yet, Sands showed that while women’s work on Broadway drew higher box offices, this fact was not rewarded with longer runs. Go figure.
Another factor in the popularity game might be that both men and women write more male characters (67% of women playwrights write plays with a majority of male characters, 81% of males do), and those male characters are imbued with more agency, nuance and therefore interest. Sands study showed that plays with more male characters are produced more often across the country; plays written by women with a majority of female characters were the least produced.
Reflective of the culture, women characters are often portrayed as bitches and harpies, nags and castrators, victims not victors. Every quarter, a respected female professor at the UCLA School of Film and Television declares that good storytelling is about two things only—sex and violence. So in a world where women are usually the victims of violence and men are its perpetrators 90% of the time, who is likely to have the dramatic upper hand in this equation? Lynn Nottage’s brilliant play Ruined, which dramatized the triumph of female rape victims over their victimization and won the Pulitzer Prize, might be a once-in-a-century phenomenon, I’m afraid.
Around the same time I founded BRAVA, cartoonist Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) developed her Bechdel Test, now finally coming into its own as a valid tool. (Hollywood’s The Black List offers it as a metric to select unproduced screenplays.) She made a simple observation: that any film she would support with her cash would have to have at least two female characters, who had names, and spoke to each other about something other than a man. It is surprising to see how many films and plays fail this simple test. You would expect failure with Ocean’s Eleven, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Pulp Fiction, but would you expect it of Up, The Princess Bride and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? And can you imagine the reverse for one minute: that most plays and films would have two male characters or fewer, who were nameless and spoke of nothing other than the female characters?
Final rationale: We judge play submissions on quality alone, and no one can force us to produce plays that will bankrupt our theaters.
The Sands study created a national hulabaloo when her experiment revealed that female literary managers and artistic directors rated women playwrights lower than men for the same ten-page sample of a play. Male artistic directors rated both equally. But as Sheri Wilner and Julia Jordan note, women in the survey did not personally judge the work to be inferior; the lower marks were given on how others would receive the work and whether it would be widely produced, well-received and well-reviewed. Women in theater understand on the deepest level the bias we face in the evaluation of our work, and the closed feedback loop that can exist with the producers, critics and audiences. In the Bay Area, two white male critics wrote criticism for the major daily newspapers for three decades (and now the son of one of them does!) and in my opinion, their limited taste determined what was to be artistically and financially successful. I did not find them to be friendly to emerging female playwrights and women-centered content, and it had a direct effect on the financial viability of my theater.
So what is to be done?
Right here on this blog and at HowlRound, I found some provocative solutions to the pitiful state of women playwrights. Julie Felise Dubiner of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival tells how the season planning committee at OSF will now evaluate plays without names. Can’t we make every attempt to remove the bias from the evaluation process of plays? Can we aggressively seek out women playwrights and their work?
Jenny Splitter referenced Speak Easy’s Amy Saidman who declared that artistic directors should begin with the perspective that a show or season is not a success without diversity. I would add for emphasis: If your season is not diverse, it’s a failure before an actor’s foot touches the stage. We need fifty percent parity for women and for people of color within theatrical seasons.
And I love Rebecca Stevens’ comparison of American theater to the dying GOP and its inability to grow an audience past an aging population hostile to the changing face of America. Stevens: “We are the coalition of the ascendant. We are not your father’s America and we have stories to tell.” Open up the doors to women and people of color or like the GOP, face your theater’s demise.
I understand that women employed in American theater as playwrights, directors, dramaturgs or staff, risk their livelihoods by speaking truth to power. I’m not in that position, so I will. We must count, and make them accountable. It’s time to boycott theaters that do not adequately reflect the country and world.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. We must demand.
©Ellen Gavin 2014
Ellen Gavin is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of three produced plays and was recently a staff writer on the eighteen-episode Nicaraguan television drama Contracorriente, broadcast throughout Latin America. Her feature romantic comedy, G.P.S. I Love You, has been optioned for production. Gavin was the founder and the Artistic Director of the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco for 23 years, producing World, West Coast and No. Cal. Premieres by writers such as Cherrie Moraga, Suzan Lori-Parks, Marie Jones, Gillian Slovo, Eve Ensler, Cherylene Lee, Diana Son, Joan Holden, Anne Galjour and Kate Rigg. Gavin is a proud board member of Cornerstone Theater Company. She is passionate about achieving equity for women in theater and film, and baffled by the inequalities that persist. www.ellengavin.com