(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?
KELLY MCBURNETTE-ANDRONICOS: With a 17% production rate for female playwrights, how can we know if there is a female dramaturgy? We’ve not seen enough plays written by women to know what it looks like – or even if there is one. We only know what a white male dramaturgy looks like, and I am reluctant to define a female dramaturgy in relative or opposing terms. Because then, we have positioned ourselves to be defined by them, handing over all agency for it. When women playwrights reach parity, are provided space to shape the “female dramaturgy”, rewarded for writing like women and not men, and released from the expectation to adapt to the status quo in order to be successful, we might see what the female dramaturgy looks like. And this will require all of us – men and women – to check our assumptions about, and broaden our tolerance for, what we’ve been trained to recognize as a “good play.”
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?
KMA: Currently, I live in Lafayette, Indiana, where I’m connected to our local non-profit community theatre. The Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette conducts a staged reading competition for new plays each year. The submissions are blind. Of the nine new plays they’ve rewarded with staged readings, five were written by women. They’re doing something very simple and very right. It’s worth noting submissions are limited to a 14 county area in rural central Indiana, making this theatre’s success with women playwrights all the more impressive. I won the competition in 2014, and the direct impact on me was that I was given the opportunity to workshop the play and include the staged reading as a credit on my resume. It’s a little bit of traction. And came at very little cost or risk to the theatre itself.
I’m also part of the federally funded, higher education research community at Purdue University. Corporate America was the first large entity to figure out diversity in an organization improves the bottom line. Universities soon followed but only because their funding agencies (National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, etc.) began tying research dollars to diversity initiatives. For the most part, researchers are now charged with not only proving their science is sound but that they’re also taking real steps to diversify the workforce – particularly in STEM fields where women’s representation is just as low as in theatre. Federal and private arts funding organizations that haven’t already adopted this strategy should be encouraged to do so as well.
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?
KMA: Yes, of course, because obviously the numbers of plays produced that are written by women would be even lower otherwise. And we hope by forging ahead at these gender based venues we will eventually gain enough ground at non-gender based theatres that these “female only” venues will no longer be necessary, or at least necessary in the sense that they are the theatres charged with doing “women’s theatre.” It’s nowhere near a perfect solution. Manipulating parity in this way benefits the community but comes at a cost to the individual. Put in the worst possible terms, being perceived as having been given an unfair advantage undermines legitimacy and puts the female playwright in a position to have to continually prove her worth. Making the conscious effort to produce more plays by women necessarily means producing fewer plays by men, and that’s going to feel like a loss to some in the community whose support is needed. Also, gender based theatre may give many the erroneous impression that they address only women’s stories and women’s issues, while missing the point these same stories are representative of all humanity.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?
KMA: First, blind submissions for the obvious reason – to mediate unconscious bias. Second, eliminate barriers to participation. For example, eliminate – or at least adjust – the requirement for agent submissions and letters of recommendation for underrepresented playwrights. We’ve created a “chicken and egg” problem. Women playwrights can’t get an agent without first getting a production. Women playwrights can’t get a production without first getting an agent. The top tier theatres are often very restrictive in their submission policies and some gender based theatres are surprisingly restrictive as well, weeding out large numbers of underrepresented playwrights at their front doors because they lack representation. I understand the need for a limited submission process. But if theatres are suffering from a lack of submissions from underrepresented playwrights, they must keep the submission door open longer and wider for this population. Some theatres prop the door open for local writers. Why not do the same for underrepresented playwrights?
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?
KMA: I’m new to this. I only started writing plays four years ago. So, I’ve asked myself if I’m coming to this at just the right time. The conversations about parity have been ongoing for a decade or more with no significant changes. But are we at the tipping point? If we are, it’s because of social media where I’ve connected with women up and down the “hierarchy” – from high profile, successful playwrights and artistic directors to new playwrights. And it’s the women at the top – the artistic directors and playwrights that ARE producing and getting produced – that are showing leadership on this issue nationally. The conversations are happening faster, more efficiently, and across ranks like never before because of social media. Obviously, individually, it would be impossible to change an entire culture. But because we’re connected via social media, and women are stepping into leadership positions leading the charge, there’s momentum for change. It’s more important than ever to keep pressing this conversation because we have, I think, reached the tipping point.
Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos: Raised in Alabama, New Mexico and West Texas, Kelly’s aesthetic view is a fusion of Southern Appalachian and Southwest US cultures. Her second play, the Southern Gothic To Tread Among Serpents, is the winner of the 2014 Southern Playwrights Competition. Other plays include the American Gothic The Resurrection of the Publick Universal Friend, and 10 minute El Loro, El Gato Y El Espíritu Santo. Common themes in her writing include death, errant religion, ambiguity, and race/class/gender. Of the 20 characters she has developed, 16 are women, one is transgendered, and 10 are either Latina, African American or Native American.
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