Amplify the Voices

by Toya Lillard

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Amplify the Voices

(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 suck 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?

TOYA LILLARD: There has always been a “female dramaturgy” as far as Western theatre is concerned, whether or not it has been supported is debatable. There is a very specific point of view that women writers (and directors, for that matter) bring to the theater that is akin to the specificity of race, ethnicity, and sexuality. The intersection of any of the aforementioned with gender adds another layer of specificity that I think needs to be explored more in theater around the world. In order to truly advance the field, and our cultural literacy, we need to amplify the voices of those in the margins, and that of course, includes women.

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?

TL: I have been a resident of Brooklyn (all over, really!) for almost 20 years, but I am from Houston, Texas, and was raised in an arts-rich (often cash poor!) community. My aunt, Eileen Morris is the Artistic Director of The Ensemble Theatre in Houston, one of the first black professional theaters in the Southwest. I grew up at The Ensemble, as my aunt helped to raise me, and witnessed some of the finest acting, and best theater I have ever seen. My aunt also holds the distinction of being one of the only women to have directed 8 plays in the August Wilson cycle. I grew up in a community of women activists and artists (my mother was a registered nurse, community organizer, and a playwright!) that included notable names as well as local residents who had day jobs and performed at night. I was never explicitly aware of an imbalance in terms of “gender parity” because my community was steered by women. It was only when I left Houston and moved to New York City that I became more acutely aware of gender, race, and the social class in which I was raised. It’s hard to believe, but in Houston, Texas, much like New York City, there is such reverence for the arts that divisions seems to melt away when you step into creative communities. Still, my ability to practice my craft has been facilitated by living in New York City.

As an actor, writer, teacher, and arts educator, living in New York City has afforded me the opportunity to hone various crafts and perform on some of the stages that I have dreamt of since childhood.

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?

TL: I run an arts organization/theater company (viBe Theater Experience) that is dedicated to producing and performing work created by underserved teenage girls in New York City, and that experience has underscored my belief that there need to be dedicated cultural spaces for work by and for women and girls.  Particularly those already underserved. How else can girls begin to find their individual voices and “speak truth to power”? The images that young girls are force-fed by various forms of media today have been proven to be damaging to their developing self-esteem, and in many girls, these images also initiate a need for response. Girls tend to respond either by emulating the images that they see, or shutting down emotionally. To support the type of art (theatre, music, film, visual) that is truly representative of the complexities of girlhood and womanhood, is to begin to defend ourselves against an omnipresent assault waged on those who historically have not had the forum or platform to respond. To borrow from August Wilson, there needs to be a “Ground on which SHE Stands” in 2014, a call for institutional support for work by and for women artists.

In New York City, upheld as a mecca for diversity, we struggle to find work that is written, produced, and/or performed by women, and even less by women of color. Playwrights like Suzan Lori-Parks, Katori Hall, and Dominique Morrisseau are refreshing voices that have been amplified in part because their work is supported by institutions and communities alike. We must demonstrate, as a country, our commitment to gender parity by putting real dollars behind women playwrights, directors, and producers, and support cultural institutions that make producing and supporting new work by women a priority. It’s the only way. Otherwise we must be content to take our girls to the theater, to the movies, to the opera, to the finest museums, only to witness one-dimensional representations of women and girls.  By giving women and girls a platform, a sacred space in cultural institutions and places where art is made, we enrich the cultural landscape of this country, and give our youth healthier, more truthful narratives that are more reflective of the issues many of them face daily.

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

TL: We must continue to have these conversations because the dialogue can lead to a much-needed paradigm shift, and can help to facilitate the change that needs to occur in order to keep the American theater alive and vibrant. The stories that we tell and support telling must be truly reflective of the diversity (gender, race, age, and sexuality) that exists in this country. To limit the kinds of stories we tell to the “popular” or “profitable” or “familiar” is to have a kind of willful tunnel vision, and all girls deserve more.  I recently saw Dominique Morrisseau’s “Sunset Baby”, and was reminded why we need to create a specific space for voices like hers to be heard. Her plays are reflective of the “everyday works of art” that we witness in communities all over America. The characters that she creates are women that are layered, complex, and full of life. They remind us of women we know, women we love, and women we hope to know. It is critical that we acknowledge and honor the bravery that goes into creating work like that.  It is even more critical that we create supportive spaces for work like hers to emerge. I work with teenage girls, and most go to schools that lack consistent, quality, arts education programs.  Conversations around gender parity needn’t stop at theater, and for our girls, it’s the first place where they can make a creative contribution.

Toya Lillard is Executive Director of viBe Theater Experience, and arts organization dedicated to empowering teenage girls through the arts. She has more than 17 years of experience in arts education, particularly in the use of theatre to help youth address issues relevant to their personal and civic development. Toya has directed plays, developed curriculum, led advocacy efforts, and implemented innovative teaching artist training programs both in and out of our New York City schools. Toya holds a B.A. from Vassar College, and an M.A. from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. As a theater artist, Toya has worked extensively and passionately with teenage girls in New York City.

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.