(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?
ADRIENNE MACKEY: I think that any artist can’t help but create out of the materials of their own experience. Being a woman in the world means dealing with assumptions about how women are and can be.
I work in the devising community so my plays don’t come fully formed and ready for rehearsal. The space between the story/material at the work’s center and those tasked with representing it is a much smaller one and therefore less tricky to navigate. What is the makeup – it’s look, sound and feel – of the female dramaturgy in these works? Its the mixture of the women taking part in the process. And the agency for it is held by the particular women creating that particular piece at that particular moment.
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?
AM:I live in Philadelphia where it feels the artistic community exists in two spheres – the half that works in the traditional regional theater mode of season programing and the half that works in a generative and original collaboration style without a set amount of content to be produced. Though the two halves are very fluid (many performers traverse between these two worlds often) I make this distinction because I see gender parity playing out very differently depending on which of these two worlds you’re operating in. Most of the women here in Philly, myself included, who feel a high degree of ownership over their artistic output and less at the mercy of others’ biases towards women artists are making their own stuff. They are self-generators and self-producers and they aren’t stuck waiting for roles or slots in a company’s season.
Last year on my blog I surveyed 12 different season-based theaters over the past six years in Philly for numbers on women directors, playwrights, performers and designers. (http://swimponypa.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/true-story/) The results were mostly skewed towards men in all categories (generally with 2 men for every woman) and were most pronounced in this regard the larger the budget size of the company. I see how the weight of that imbalance can simply corrode a person’s soul after a while. So I feel lucky that I am mostly in control of the work I make and my ability to create and program plays that are representative of a world where female narratives are an important part of the conversation. The only real barrier to feeling total equal is my sense that funding organizations may also be mirroring the trends we see in the theaters. My next project probably ought to be the number breakdown on funding sources and whether their support is equally gendered across their grantees…
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?
AM: I don’t know if I think we need gender based theaters per se. I think it’s an impulse to equalize the numbers and while I have nothing against it, it doesn’t help integrate the female perspective into the spaces that need it most. We need women in all theaters so that the next time a work has potentially misogynistic imagery or themes, there are women interested in talking through and discussing them. I personally want to give our male allies the eyes with which we see these works rather than simply secreting away. I believe this will pave the way to true equity faster.
Better, I’d propose, to create financial incentives for companies that consistently display a parity of representation in its performers, writers and directors. Reward the outcomes not just the intentions. Try and tell me that a $25,000 grant at the end of three seasons of equitable gender distribution wouldn’t motivate AD’s to find themselves plays with more women writing, directing or performing in them.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?
AM: Assume the best intentions of all creators, that no one wants inequity. So when you have these conversations, work hard on both sides to remember not to pull into defensive postures or aggression towards the folks that might want to change but just don’t know how yet.
Find measures that are quantifiable that you want to meet and share them with others.
And while I don’t necessarily advocate for only doing all-women works, I do most definitely advocate for creating an all-female spaces to discuss and strategize how to tackle these issues. It is nothing against one’s male colleagues to say there are certain struggles they just can’t really understand. There are times you need to talk to people who have dealt with the same issues and one of the unfortunate outcomes of an unequal field is that if you don’t seek it out, it’s rare to find that many female creators gathered in one space.
Most recently in Philadelphia, my company Swim Pony launched the Awesome Lady Squad – a forum to meet and use the collective brain power of women to systematically tackle the inequities we see here in our community. In two short meetings I created a longer list of actionable steps to start working on this issue than I have felt able to do on my own in the past several years. (http://swimponypa.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/dispatches-from-the-awesome-lady-squad-4-on-the-topic-what-wed-like-to-see-instead/)
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?
AM: Because the problem still exists.
When it’s done – when I see an equal distribution of female artists across the theaters of Philadelphia – I’ll stop talking about it.
Adrienne Mackey is the founder of Swim Pony, dedicated to works that are loud, strange and never seen before on earth! She has directed SURVIVE! – a 22,000 square ft installation exploring the universe and LADY M – an all-female take on Macbeth. Most recently, Adrienne directed THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL at Eastern State Penitentiary boasting a completely sold out run and a profile on NPR’s Radio Times. She has received two Knight Arts Challenges, an Independence Fellowship, a Live Arts LAB fellowship and New Edge Residency. Adrienne also sings backup vocals as “The Truth” for Johnny Showcase and the Mystic Ticket.
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