In Response to Lynn Nottage’s NYT Opinion Post: Women are Missing from Tonys and Broadway

by Jason Aaron Goldberg

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. *This post has been edited slightly since its original posting.* 

Read the Lynn Nottage New York Times opinion piece that prompted this essay.)

Diversity & Inclusion blog salonGender Parity in the American Theatre 

As a player in the theatre game and a future member of the old white guy society, I am appalled at this trend. But it isn’t because of feminism or wanting gender parity, though those are fine reasons. I’m not married and have no children, so it isn’t because I am speaking up for my wife or daughter in their struggle.  It is because in my opinion, after 15 years as a professional theatre whatever, the best plays around right now are by women.

Of the plays I want to direct, I’d say 90% of them are by women.  (I am not going to single them out here.  But if you are a theatre and you want to know, I am not hard to find.)

I’ve worked with theatre companies and spoken of this often. One company in particular launched their 10th Anniversary season, which consisted entirely of white male playwrights, all directed by men, until at the last minute they got a female to direct the last show as a replacement.  Before they announced, I told them their season was all dudes and that wasn’t cool. I was a donor to that theatre. They had a female playwright in residence, which they didn’t produce. No one in that city, no one in the press, no female theatre artists, made a peep about it.  You know what their response to me was?  “But there are great roles for women in these plays.”  The season went on as planned and the community praised them as geniuses.

Furthermore, when I pitch shows that I want to do, new plays by prolific and incredibly talented female playwrights, it is usually met with indifference, or I am completely ignored. And these aren’t just some untested plays. These are plays that have been around and developed at prestigious places: Center Theatre Group, The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Great Plains Theatre Conference, etc.

I don’t think this problem is just a lack of fairness anymore. I think this problem is a lack of knowledge and understanding of what is out there, what is quality, and what we can do in the American Theatre. I think Artistic Directors and Literary Managers are playing it safe. Far too many that only read what they see going up at other theatres are also playing it safe.  This wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t have this glaring problem I’m talking about.  But we do, so we have this Ouroboros happening.  We need to chop the tail off this beast.

Across the country I’ve spoken with smaller theatre Artistic Directors, Board Presidents, Literary Managers, and I give them a quick test. “Do you know Annie Baker’s work?” A heavy number of them say; “No, who is that?” How is this possible?  This must be willful ignorance.  I feel like you have to try to not know who Annie Baker is today. I use her in this test, not because she is my fave or anything; she is but one of many amazing playwrights out there who just happen to be female.  It is because of her status now. She is the toast of playwriting.  Circle Mirror Transformation hit NYC and many regional stages long before her Pulitzer Prize. So how can they not know her work?

 *Sidebar – The fact that Circle Mirror Transformation did have its moment in the sun in the 2010-11 season shows that there are some in the game making an effort.  That year it was the second most produced play in America from TCG theatres, garnering 15 productions.  That is 15 productions out of 511 theatres!  And you know what?  It hasn’t been in the top ten most produced plays since.

Certainly my little test has a small sample size, I get that.  But what if that small sample size is an even more telling answer?  This is, after all, a response to Lynn’s article about the Tonys and Broadway, so I’m going to use that as our focal point.  Here we have Annie Baker, who has had plays produced all across the nation, won a Pulitzer (just as Lynn Nottage has), OBIES, and yet still has never been produced on Broadway (again like Lynn Nottage).  (Though I understand now Scott Rudin is going to remount The Flick on Broadway.  But it takes her winning a Pulitzer to get that?  Come on. **Correction – The Flick is not going to Broadway.  It is going to Barrow Street Theatre, Off Broadway.  I misremembered the article about this.  Read it here.**  )  What can we learn here?  Big theatre makers will remount works of dead white men, Of Mice and Men or The Glass Menagerie with movie stars, but not a very much alive contemporary female playwright who has already proven her talent and her ability to sell tickets from sea to shining sea?  Then we have smaller theatre makers who can’t wait to hunker down and watch the Tonys to see what’s “hot and important” but don’t even know who Annie Baker is, because while she is a Signature Residency Five playwright they have no idea what’s happening over on 42nd and 10th.  This is ass-backwards land.  I could make this argument for Ms. Nottage as well.  In ’05-06 she was the most produced playwright in America with a whopping 16 productions of Intimate Apparel.

Maybe the American theatre needs another refresher in economics.  Females are the majority population.  Females bring fellas to the theatre.  And female playwrights gross almost 50% more at the box office than males.  So if this is about making cold hard cash, we should be seeing more seasons consisting entirely of female playwrights.  Need to see the stats?  Here are some great links:  Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative: The Study, The Broadway League Demographics.

Perhaps what this argument needs is someone like me, a future old white guy society member to speak at these conferences and events for the amazing females not getting produced.  Speak up for them for no other reason than their plays are super good and audiences want to see really good plays.  Does that happen much? Would it make a difference?

Finally, I say all of this as a playwright myself who struggles to find any kind of opportunity for my stories. I think I am a pretty good playwright, and I guess this could take opportunity away from me.  But when I read these incredible female playwrights, I want to see their work more than my own. They blow my mind with their imagination, voice, style, structure, and overall badass talent. So what’s the deal America?

Jason Aaron Goldberg is a theatre and film artist and president of Original Works Publishing, the home for bold, original and innovative new plays.  Since the creation of OWP he has published over 250 plays and secured over 350 productions for those playwrights.  OWP was also the first play publishing and licensing company to make their titles available as eBooks.  His own plays have been successfully produced in Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Minnesota, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas.  His play The Confessions of Deacon Jim: a true western tale for the stage has been developed at the New York Theatre Workshop, Pasadena Playhouse, Wordsmyth Theatre, and Theatricum Botanicum.  His new play The Three Es has received readings at the New York Theatre Workshop, Theatricum Botanicum, and Furious Theatre.  A collection of Jason’s ten minute plays and monologues titled Pessimistic Optimism is available from Original Works.  In September 2012 Jason directed the inaugural production at the new Art Square Theatre in downtown Las Vegas, Johnna Adams’ NURTURE, which went on to be named “Best of the Year” by the Las Vegas Weekly.

  • Rachel Grossman

    Allies are essential. “Would it make a difference?” Yes. Encourage others. Get a microphone and, eventually, an amp. Thank you for the piece. Based on the headline, it’s not what I was expecting. And I was glad to be wrong.

  • Ava

    I must admit as a female playwright and a woman of color, I’ve become quite disenchanted and discouraged by the environment in theater overall and talking to many of my colleagues I’m not alone. I still try to write on a daily basis but when I talk to many of my fellow female playwrights, who are also of color, most are barely writing and some admit to being on the cusp of ‘giving up the ghost’ of writing altogether. We are no fly-by-night collective of dilettantes– we have all committed many years (into decades) to honing our craft, even graduating with M.F.A.s from prestigious arts institutions, hoping that a degree just might demonstrate our commitment and perhaps provide a clearer pathway finding opportunities for production of our work.
    For me, it has been mostly staged readings, short lists, 10 Minute Play one-off festivals in coffee houses and even furniture stores and nicely worded (it’s not you, it’s me) rejection, rejection, rejection letters– and I am one of the fortunate ones in my group.
    I must admit, I read articles and op-ed pieces and vexation turns to a feeling bordering on ennui.
    I am glad that those on the inside who see the problem, even those on the margins with a platform (having once been on the margins myself, before being completely pushed back) continue to bring this issue into focus. Thank you from a weary, barely hangin’ in there female playwright of color.