Women Keep Theatre Happening

by Lauren Gunderson

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Women Keep Theatre Happening

(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?

LAUREN GUNDERSON: Men’s and women’s brains are almost identical in function and ability. We come form the same evolution and the same seeds of civilization. The aesthetic differences between genders are largely socialized (girls are taught to do this or that, boys are expected to do this or that). Of course men and women’s experiences are different  (birthing comes to mind), but our humanity is the same.

Therefore, we don’t need two dramaturgies if we’re one civilization. What we need is an inclusive dramaturgy that offers room for all kinds of protagonists and struggles. What, instead, does a female perspective open up for artists and audiences? What does it add to our dramaturgy as a whole? How does it make theatre better, bigger, deeper, and more meaningful? That aim doesn’t demand an entire new species of dramaturgy, but rather a wide dramaturgy that accepts the widest possible human experience.

I think it’s dangerous to segregate male- and female-created stories into categories. Feminism is grounded in humanism. Human stories define us. Women’s stories aren’t just for women, they’re for all of us. Are we asking if there’s a Male Dramaturgy? Do we ask if the play is Masculinist? What would that be? A lot of male protagonists? A lot of useless female characters used as props, trophies, or meat for men to fight over or kill? Some might say: that sounds like lots of plays I know. But I think that would downgrade a great work like HAMLET to a lesser sphere of Literature. And that downgrade-via-extraneous-categorization is what I’m afraid we might do if we talk about female-written work as Female Work. Chick Flicks and Chick Lit are used as diminutives for films and novels. Let’s not let that happen to theatre. We already know that there can be a pre-judgment of a play’s merit if the author’s name sounds female (see the Sands study). Being general is a sign of bad dramatic writing, so let’s not over-generalize the writers.

The truth is that there is diversity in the female perspective. (Again, do we ask what similarity all male writers have that defines their sex? No.) Some female writers write plays with all male characters. Some write all–female casts. Some write about love and making babies, and some write about war and (if you’re Sarah Kane) eating babies. Some women don’t write about being women, some do. The well-worn feminist saying works here too: feminism is the radical notion that women are people too… and all people deserve great stories.

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?

LG: San Francisco is a city of great theatre and great women leaders. I think we’re kicking some serious butt in Theatrical feminism. We have lots of theaters led by women and almost none of them are Theaters For Women. They’re theaters doing killer work. End of story. The young-but-superlative Symmetry Theatre, which was built to support work that provides equal or more parts for women, is thriving and making excellent and challenging work.

There are very active women in our community who take note of the shows being chosen and produced. They count the actors in the shows to keep us honest about who is getting the opportunity to act and who isn’t (spoiler: more male roles almost every time).

There are also shining examples of finally having the conversation about gender and doing something about it. Theatre Bay Area has just started its Gender Parity Council, and the Yeah, I Said Feminist Theatre Salon is running strong and organizing theatre outings to support feminist work. Major theaters in The Bay (like TheatreWorks and Marin Theatre) have chosen seasons that offer more roles to women this year than men. Shotgun Players has committed at an all-female-written season in 2015, which is pretty great way to walk the walk.

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?

LG: We need good theaters that make good theatre, and who represent their communities and the world. For many companies this means taking an honest look at how many roles are offered to women, who gets the equity contracts, how many directors and writers are women over a season. If mainstream theaters aren’t doing the job, then hell yes we need specialized theaters. Whoever produces the work that matters is who we need.

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

LG: Count. If you’re an AD, look at your seasons, the artists you invite to work with you, the stories you put forth as worthy of your community’s attention. If you’re a writer or audience member or designer, try counting these same things. If the numbers are lopsided toward a gender or a race then try to equalize it, mention it, call it out. The numbers needn’t be exactly even for every show or even every season, but if you start counting you’ll see your trends.

Create. If you can’t find plays by or about women, commission them (like the University of Iowa is doing starting next year: http://now.uiowa.edu/2013/12/writing-new-roles-righting-old-wrongs) . If you are a Shakespeare company, re-imagine gender roles. If you see plays with women characters that are stuck on the sex/sister seesaw (the females roles are either in the play as just a sex object or are related to the male characters and have no agency or motivation without men) create a new play that does a better job.

Support. Support the plays and companies that do it right. Tell your friends about it. Buy tickets, tweet and blog about why you liked, email the producers and tell them you liked it and why. It’s a very simple activism. Feminism can be fun.

Reviews. We need more female reviewers. Full stop. White men are writing about theatre more than anyone else even though women are attending more than anyone else. And though I like white men a lot, I think it’s nothing but healthy to have a diverse response to the work as well as diverse theatre makers. With most published opinions on theatre (which do impact the life of productions even if we all agree not to read them) coming from men, this is another way that we can work toward parity. For example, the NY Drama Critics Circle contain 27 members; 1 one whom is African-American, 6 of whom are women.

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

LG: Because it hasn’t changed enough. Half is enough.  Half the writers, half the roles, half the leadership positions, half the critics. That’s the way our world is made up (actually slightly more than half women if we’re being very accurate), that’s the way theatre should.

The biggest bugaboo in all this is that we’re not in a slow-poke institution like the government,  we’re in the goddamn arts! We should be the first to change. We should be the first to show the world how it can do better, which starts with saying that the underrepresented stories of the world will be represented on our stages. We should be the first to say “Stories Matter! Changing Women’s Reality Matters! We’re doing our part by changing our stories!” If theatre continues to fail at representing us then it will fail to matter.

What’s the director’s adage for actors? Make a choice. So let’s make a choice!

Yes there are a lot of classic plays about a lot of dudes. Yes Shakespeare’s roles were all played by men. Yes, women are still catching up to the numbers of prominent male writers (who have been allowed to speak for all of humanity for quite a long time). But. Women buy the tickets to plays. Women show up and bring their friends and family. Women keep theatre happening.

We’re better than this. So we must make a better choice. We write a better ending. We do it right now, because waiting is boring and boredom is a theatrical sin.


An award-winning playwright living in San Francisco, Lauren Gunderson will have had 6 productions (including world premieres) in the Bay Area during 2013/14 including Silent Sky at TheatreWorks, By And By at Shotgun Players, The Taming at Crowded Fire, I And You at Marin Theatre (NNPN Rolling World Premiere heading to 4 other cities), Bauer at San Francisco Playhouse, and Fire Work at TheatreFirst. Emilie: La Maruise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight is published by Sam French, and Exit, Pursued By A Bear and Toil And Trouble are published by Playscripts. She is a finalist for the 36th annual Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for her play I And You. Her work has also been produced and developed at companies across the US, including Berkeley Rep, the Kennedy Center, South Coast Rep, the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage, Actors Express, Impact Theatre, Second Stage Theatre and Lark Play Development Center. She is a Playwright in Residence at The Playwrights Foundation. LaurenGunderson.com and @LalaTellsAStory


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

  • Mary Carroll

    This discussion is so overdue, and as a former woman of the theatre, now a woman of academia, such as it is, I say bravo to you all for bringing this cause to the front of the line. Though I admire many of our young male playwrights, especially the Irish; e.g. Conor MacPherson, they are not writing plays with women as the central characters. This is the century of the woman, not just the 3rd world women, though they are in mighty need of attention and care, but all the women who work in the arts, especially. Let’s bring more of them forward and get their plays done in places like the Public Theatre and the Atlantic Theatre and Signature Theatre and all around the country. We seem to get one woman playwright a decade. Surely we can do better than that. It will take the will of the producers at these theaters to bring it on. So … bring it on already.

  • Gael Schaefer

    Count. Create. Support. Review. Counting is the very thing Valerie Weak did in her letter to the editor in AT’s April 2014 issue when
    she wrote that Asolo Rep’s season brochures for ’12-13 and ’13-14 show that men outnumber women at a ratio of 4 to 1 in its American Character project. Counting is a really great, and really simple, way to start.