When All Perspectives Are Illuminated

by Wendy Rosenfield

in Diversity & Inclusion

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(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?

WENDY ROSENFIELD: Of course. Our experience in the world is so different from men’s experience. Just walking down the street happens completely differently for men and women, and what happens also changes depending on where and who you are, what you’re wearing, or whomever you’re walking with. It seems ridiculous to have to say women bring a discrete perspective that’s relevant to at least 51% of the population, and that there are important and underrepresented variations within that 51%, but I guess if we’re still asking the question, someone somewhere still isn’t convinced.

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?

WR: I live near Philadelphia, where five of our major theater companies have had (white) women as founding or artistic directors, as have several smaller companies—Brat Productions, 1812 Productions and others. That doesn’t always translate into 50/50 representation or ethnic and sexual diversity, but sometimes it does. The Wilma Theater certainly seems to be putting forth a real effort lately in that regard, and maybe because of this, and because their work is always challenging in some way, it’s one of my favorites. I’m old enough to remember when there was exactly one female theater critic in Philly. Now that there are more outlets–albeit with less pay–there are more female editors and critics, which means more eyes looking at shows from a female perspective. Hopefully that response, one that often differs from that of our male (and sometimes other female) colleagues, encourages readers and audiences to use different lenses when watching shows produced in Philly and while thinking about that work.

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?

WR: So long as major companies don’t concern themselves with issues of gender parity, I say yes. Of course, life isn’t fair, so we can’t expect all companies to care about the issue, but if that means more room for small companies to form and siphon off audience and foundation dollars from the big houses who are ignoring important segments of their audience, so be it. We’re lucky to be living here at this time in history; there’s plenty of room and you won’t be burned for heresy or imprisoned for sedition or drowned for witchcraft. If you’re not seeing what you want to see onstage, move on and find it. In Philadelphia, at least, there are plenty of options, and though they’re maybe a little harder to find, they’re worth seeking out.

As for the benefit of being an insider, when Philly was a big stop on the “Chitlin Circuit,” Tyler Perry’s gospel-style musicals always sold out our biggest houses for several nights, usually without mainstream press coverage and advertising. The producers were hugely successful at attracting an audience that wasn’t showing up for, say, Fences at other venues. You can complain about comparing Perry to August Wilson, but if Tyler Perry was selling Fences, that same audience would follow. There’s just no substitute for an insider’s view; it comes with an inherent level of trust and freedom that bypasses the cultural or gender tourist. This isn’t to say men can’t write women or people of differing races can’t write or produce each other, it’s just that when the insight cuts both ways—or several ways–all perspectives are further illuminated.

What’s lost without those voices are the same things that are lost in nations where, for example, women are denied an education. In the west, we’ve gained Marjane Satrapi’s and Malala Yousefzai’s voices, but what losses for their own countries. Danai Gurira’s working on a trilogy about Zimbabwe’s colonization, and its first third, The Convert stand on its own, but is also, if I read it correctly, partly a long-overdue African-American female rebuttal to The Emperor Jones. Any one of Young Jean Lee’s freakout heroines makes a sharp counterpoint to a dutiful Miss Saigon. If we allow women’s voices, or the voices of underrepresented people to remain unheard, art suffers, history suffers and civilization suffers and stagnates.

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

WR: Of course I’m all for nurturing the present generation of female playwrights, but I don’t see nearly enough effort on the part of theaters to resurrect lost or overlooked classics written by previous generations of women.  When Whoopi Goldberg, in her documentary about Moms Mabley, mentioned a musical written by Mabley and Zora Neale Hurston I almost fell out of my chair. Maybe the show was terrible, maybe it was great, but somehow, nobody seems to know. And either way, how could such an important piece of 20th century American theater just disappear? Why, at my progressive liberal arts college, wasn’t I taught Aphra Behn and Mary Pix alongside Congreve and Whycherley? Why, in my nearly 20 years as a theater critic, haven’t I seen either of them produced? I never even crossed paths with Pix until I came across an article written by a female theater critic, the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner, that happened to mention her. If playwrights such as these are erased, future generations of playwrights and theater historians are working on a really shaky foundation.

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

WR: Again, women are 51% of the population, and according to TCG, in 2009, we bought 70% of theater tickets and made up 60% of the audience. It is within our power to nurture the next generation of female playwrights, producers and directors. We have a responsibility to foster role models, to make sure women are represented as complex, varied humans, and to make sure our history isn’t erased. I want my kids to see Paula Vogel’s Lil’ Bit standing alongside temptresses such as David Mamet’s Oleanna or Amiri Baraka’s Lula, or Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice serving as a counterweight to Ophelia. As I’ve said elsewhere, if the point of theater is to hold a mirror up to nature, we should do whatever we can to ensure that reflection isn’t distorted.

Wendy Rosenfield is a freelance writer and has been a theater critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 2006. She serves on the Executive Committee of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer’s Workshop, an NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and is a frequent guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. She contributes a monthly column on arts criticism for the Broad Street Review. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She was also publications editor for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and chauffeuring children. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

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

  • Mark Lord

    This is a very smart perspective on the situation. Alas, though: the way that English Departments have solved the problem of teaching male 18th c. playwrights and not females is…they’ve stopped teaching the men. I’m pretty sure equality through mutual obscurity wasn’t what you had in mind.

  • Guest

    Mark: while you’re more aware of what’s happening in academia than I am, a quick googling shows a few English departments teaching Behn, one teaching 18th century women writers, and that’s about it. But considering the number of centuries during which no women writers were taught, I’m okay with that, and hardly consider recognition of women writers a road to “mutual obscurity.”

  • Mark Lord

    Shoulda been clearer: I didn’t intend to say that we are teaching the women to the exclusion of the men–I meant that we are now mostly teaching neither.