(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 and Inclusion Blog Salon: Gender Parity in the American Theatre
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.
JACQUELINE LAWTON: 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?
DINA JANIS: I don’t really think so – at least – we are equal in our lack of understanding of what it means to be a man I suppose- so the issue for me is not important. I think that opportunity is all that is lacking- and that this tendency to frame the “woman’s voice” or critically analyze plays written by women with a focus on women’s issues- and perspectives- is a form of oppression. Why aren’t Sam Hunter or Richard Nelson or David Lindsay-Abaire or Bruce Norris being constantly referred to as “male” playwrights and why are their plays not dissected on the basis of their special unique “male” voices and etc. Why is it that writers like Theresa Rebeck or Annie Baker or Caryl Churchill or… are ALWAYS being framed by their gender? This is a form of oppression- and I think we need to simply let the women get out there on the playing field and play hard ball with the big boys in greater numbers in order to stop this altogether. If this happened more equally- the discussion would be about who is good, who is not, who has something to say- who does not. But- we are in an endless cycle of theatres producing MAYBE one woman a season- and making a big deal out of the fact that they are doing so. The critics are the absolute worst where this is concerned because we might as well be back in the old days of Hemingway and Mailer- and living under the misguided but long held belief that women can’t write important work- but must remain on the fringes in the arena of chic-lit.
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?
DJ: Well, in general Vermont is progressive where women are concerned- having had one of the first female governors- Madeliene Kunin. My local community is not the issue- but the world of theatre nationally is still a total boys club. We at Dorset Theatre Festival- where I am the Artistic Director- are known for gender blind hiring- and have produced many women playwrights, hired many women directors and designers- and approach our apprentice company in the same fashion.
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?
DJ: I don’t love gender based theatres- I appreciate them but don’t love them. I think all theatres should tell a mix of stories- there should be diverse story telling in all theatres.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?
DJ: There needs to be a concerted effort at the high school, and college level- to encourage women to go into Arts Management, Directing, Producing, and to become critics. The critics are ridiculously biased in favor of gay male or male driven product- and the rest of it is still a boys club- completely. Women writers need to be produced regularly not just as a novelty but in equal measure- period. This will only happen when women are calling the shots.
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?
DJ: Because the theatre is still in the dark ages where gender parity is concerned. Issues of childcare- a common discussion in many other fields- is something rarely addressed- theatres and producers and casting directors and etc- have no tolerance for the needs many women have of juggling families and careers. In the theatre- with crazy hours and pressures that are unique- these issues need to be looked at. All theatres should be family friendly- and women should not be looked down upon or be considered unreliable or “out of the game” simply because they become mothers. There are few fields that are as backwards as the professional theatre world.
Dina Janis has worked in collaboration with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Labyrinth Theatre Company who’s participants include Eric Bogosian, Sam Rockwell, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ellen Burstyn, Daphne Rubin Vega, John Patrick Shanley, Bob Glaudini, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Cusi Cram, Jose Rivera, Adam Rapp, among others. Dina is a lifetime member of the famed Actors Studio in NY, currently led by Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel. As a director she has worked extensively with new plays- including working with such well-known writers as Theresa Rebeck, Sherry Kramer, Stephen Adly Guirgis and George Plimpton. In 2010 she was appointed Artistic Director of the renowned Dorset Theatre Festival, where she has been engaged in a revitalization of the 39-year-old festival, establishing New Play Development programs, a newly engaged Conservatory Program and community outreach. Most recently she directed an acclaimed production of The Whipping Man by Mathew Lopez, as part of the DTF 2013 Summer Season. Dina has taught at Bennington College since 2000.
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