How will this gender disparity affect the future?

by Eleanor Holdridge

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for How will this gender disparity affect the future?

(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?

ELEANOR HOLDRIDGE: I don’t think so. Not today, anyway. Certainly the classical playwrights on which I’ve worked—plays of Susan Centlivre and Aphra Behn—seem to write for the bodies and voices of women as their male counterparts do not, they delve into the political balancing act of their heroines.  And, even though Shakespeare writes compelling and dynamic women, at least in the later plays, he writes for the bodies and voices of the young male actors who were playing those roles. But is there a woman’s voice in the art of today? I’m not so sure. I do sometimes think there is a male voice.  Glancing down at character descriptors embedded into plays, the word “beautiful” or “pretty” pops out as a specifically male concern, so too does a situation in which a woman character exists only to hold the mirror up to male concerns, the plays of Mamet and even Shepherd. But is there a specifically female point of view in delineation of character or the concerns of the play?  Across the board, I don’t think so.  No.

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?

EH: I think it’s an issue of the arena in which women work.  In DC, there are a lot of women running their own small theatres, more so than men. (I tend to conclude that it’s because where we are not given the chance elsewhere, we forge our own way with perseverance and strength.)  But, as the budgets go up, the numbers thin.  Of the 10 theatres that operate their own venues around town, only two  (Arena Stage and The Folger Theatre) have women as Executive Producers/Artistic Directors. Arena Stage, in the inspiring hands of Molly Smith, generally averages over 50 % of women playwrights and directors in its season.  But this is depressingly unique. The aggregate balance of those ten theatres continues at under 20% women playwrights and directors, indicating that there are those theatres in town that pay extremely little attention to women’s voices.  There are many theatres in town that, year after year, program no women’s voices (playwrights and directors) into their seasons at all.  

I personally see this impact on my women undergraduate and graduate students who plan to be directors.  They will, if the market forces them to, found their own companies, produce art on their own, and create their own opportunities to do the work that inspires them.  They are fearless.  But will they, I wonder, be given the chance to rise above this glass ceiling in existing theatres?  Will they be given the same opportunities as men to rise to the top?  Generally I wonder if there is an unacknowledged prejudice about handing a large budget over to a women director? I’m not sure.  But I want my female students to have the same chances as their male counterparts.

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?

EH: If there is an artist with a specific vision on how to craft a mission based on gender, then I support that mission.  But overall?  No.  What we need in our theatres, as in our Senate and our Congress, is more gender equity in the theatres that currently exist.

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

EH:  Hire more women.

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

EH: I do wonder if, in fact, it is important or if we are simply throwing ourselves repeatedly against a wall.  For well over fifteen years, there have been discussions, articles, studies, and even action groups such as the Guerrilla Girls.  Recently, since the blogosphere, there have been countless blogs such as this one and articles and posts that continually bring this inequity to light.  Where we get the work, we shine. Yet, the ratios remain the same.  Nothing changes. Without something like a theatrical Title Nine — where non-profit funding must be divided equally between male and female playwrights and directors, I don’t see it changing any time in the future.

Director Eleanor Holdridge has Off-Broadway productions that include Steve & Idi, (Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre), Cycling Past The Matterhorn (Clurman Theatre), The Imaginary Invalid, and Mary Stuart (Pearl Theatre Company). Regional credits include Gee’s Bend (Arden Theatre); Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Lettice And Lovage, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Taming Of The Shrew (Shakespeare & Company). The Crucible (Perseverance Theatre), Educating Rita, Noises Off and Art (Triad Stage), Julius Caesar and Macbeth (Milwaukee Shakespeare), Two Gentlemen Of Verona (Alabama Shakespeare), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare St. Louis), Henry V (Shakespeare on the Sound), Betrayal (Portland Stage), and Lion In Winter (Northern Stage). Her DC area productions include Double Indemnity (Roundhouse Theatre),The Gaming Table (Folger), Pygmalion (Everyman Theatre); Something You Did and Body Awareness (Theatre J); and Much Ado About Nothing (Taffety Punk). Eleanor has been as Artistic Director for the Red Heel Theatre Company, Resident Assistant Director at the Shakespeare Theatre and Resident Director at New Dramatists. She has worked at the Yale School of Drama, NYU and The Juilliard School and currently heads the Directing Department at Catholic University. She holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama. Eleanor’s upcoming projects this season are Zorro at Constellation Theatre, and God of Carnage at Everyman Theatre.


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.