(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. In 2012, 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?
CATHERINE WEINGARTEN: I believe there are certain experiences that women bring into their work and also certain things men bring into their work. The problem is that so many times when women write about their experience being female; their work is boxed and packaged as “feminist”(a term that is awesome but has a damaged reputation in our culture) and the play suddenly becomes more niche; rather than universal. While men will write a small domestic play and it will be labeled as universal, timeless story. But as a side note, I don’t believe there is a female or male dramaturgy universally; we all just write about our own obsessions and questions.
I know that with my own playwriting work, being female is inherent to my work. I am obsessed with why as a culture we are so harsh on the way women look and why women are constantly bombarded with slutty, sexy advice about how to date while men can just date however they want. I can’t stop writing about the first time I got rejected from a popular girl’s slumber party in middle school or why my Jewish parents want me to get married to a fictional Jewish dream boy within like 2 years.
It is interesting though because I constantly feel like I surprise people with my work. People have all these expectations of what a female playwright writes like. People literally expect me to write small, plain 5 person earnest family dramas with sad pregnant women and lots of fights about childrearing techniques; and at this point I have no interest in that. I like to write odd, girly, sexy plays with wild fantasy sequences and big messy girl culture questions. The fact that people are always surprised about my work shows that people have a lot of stereotypes when it comes to female playwrights and the subject matters they are drawn to. And my response to that is: keep surprising people! Show them them that females playwrights don’t just write about one thing; we can be as funny, bold or crazyyyy as male playwrights.
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?
CW: I currently am based in NYC and since moving here have been excited by many other female artists who are willing to step up and discuss gender parity. But I have noticed a lot of blind spots when it comes to these issues. There is even some backlash about recent activism and people will tell me I only got an opportunity because “I’m diversity/a woman.” NYC is a dynamic, happening theater scene to be apart of and there are a lot of advocates for diversity in the theater; I just wish there were more. So many times I see female playwrights in their early 30s with dynamite work having their career stall, while their male contemporaries have doors open at a quicker pace.
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?
CW: I want women to get produced more at all kinds of theaters. I believe theaters should want to support a wide range of unique, interesting and bold voices; and some of those voices should be women.
But at this point in our theater eco-system, plays by women are getting lost; therefore gender based theaters are needed. Female playwrights are typically relegated to competing for one spot in a season lineup; and gender based theaters propose an alternative. I also find that these types of theaters can help create strong support networks for female artists and places where women can grow without having the feeling that they have to try twice as hard to be taken as seriously.
I am currently in the New Perspective’s “Women’s work” short play lab where we work on a short play throughout the year and present them in August. But the group is not only about developing a play, it is about developing our voices, our confidence and our sense of solidarity among other female artists. It has been a safe haven for me to express my fears about networking, competition and how to talk about my work.
Also, since moving to NYC I have been constantly surprised the awesome, daring work that New Georges puts on and how they prove that women should be taken seriously in the experimental theater world. I personally am obsessed with seeing as many plays by women that I can get my hands on, and these types of theaters help me in my goal!
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?
CW: Try to develop relationships with local female playwrights. Maybe even start a playwright/director mentoring program with your company to support diverse voices. I think it would be intelligent to start getting female playwrights involved with your company from an early point at their career. Being a young, early career playwright myself, I wish companies would want to mentor me and not just only be interested in my work 10 years or so down the line. Sometimes young female playwrights are not taken as seriously because of their age even when they have big, interesting things to say. How can we create a theatrical climate where young women want to stick around and be apart of it?
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?
CW: Theater is one of the magical things in the world. It teaches us to empathize, reflect on our choices and grow. I want to be apart of an industry that supports all kinds of voices and artists. For me, being a playwright was the first outlet where I could fully be myself and talk about all the terror, fun and angst that is being a young woman. I want future young female playwrights to know that there is a space for them and that their voice is unique and important.
Catherine Weingarten is a recent Bennington College graduate in Vermont and an incoming playwriting MFA candidate at Ohio University. Her short works have been done at such theaters as Ugly Rhino Productions, Fresh Ground Pepper, and Nylon Fusion Collective. Her full length plays include: Are you ready to get PAMPERED!?, Recycling Sexy, A Roller Rink Temptation and Pineapple Upside Down Cake: a virgin play. She is the Playwright in Residence for “Realize your Beauty inc” which promotes positive body image for kids by way of theater arts. She is currently a member of Abingdon Theater’s playwrights group.
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