Gender Parity in the American Theatre

by Rachel Bykowski

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Gender Parity in the American Theatre

(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.)

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?

RACHEL BYKOWSKI:In the 21st century, it still pains me to realize that questions like these, “Is there a specific point of view that female writers bring to theatre?…” are still asked. The answer of course, is yes; it has always been yes; an overwhelming Y.E.S. But what is even sadder is the fact that just recently people and organizations are starting to notice the non-existence of parity in the theatre community.However, with the progression of discussions like this, there are some theatres that are starting to take action. The theatres willing to join this fight cannot do it alone.  It is up to us female-identified playwrights to create art that not only portrays proactive female characters, but also plays that question the so-called “social norms” that hold us back.

It is terrifying to push boundaries because not everyone is going to agree with what you have to say… especially when you don’t say it in a “ladylike” manner. I know first hand what it’s like to be told that your opinion is completely invalid just because you are a woman. After being told time and time again by countless authority figures that my writing is too vulgar or too violent, or my absolute favorite, being told at the age of 17 by a man old enough to be my father, “A pretty girl like you shouldn’t say things like that”, I am always nervous to present my plays in front of an audience.

However, I do it because I believe that theatre is the original troublemaker. Is a woman’s independent growth more important than her marriage?Have a discussion about Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.How does our current society make it almost impossible for poverty stricken, minority women to rise above their circumstances and provide for their children? Read In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks.Can women own their sexual identities and still keep themselves safe from those in power who believe they are the masters of every woman’s body?Pick up anything by Eve Ensler. Playwrights and theatre companies, please, do not be scared if these plays come off as violent or vulgar to some.  The truth hurts, but I promise there are people who want to hear it. 

Many of my plays discuss rape culture, domestic abuse, and overall violence toward women.  And just like the subject matter, my plays aren’t pretty, but they need to be written.The discussions I have had with actors, directors, audience members, and students who have seen or read my plays far outweighs any negative criticism I have received because of my plays’ dark topic matter.I have seen men and women, young and old, talking about how violence against women effects society and them personally.I am always in shock by the passion of these audience members that I can’t speak, so I just let them talk…which is what a play is supposed to do.

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?

RB: I was born and raised in Chicago. Within the Chicago theatre community there are multiple storefronts including one that I am a member of, 20% Theatre Company, that only produce plays written by women. In addition, they choose female identified directors and designers to help produce the show. After working with these women, if you think being a female playwright or director is tough, you should try being a female designer. I cannot tell you how many stories me and my fellow stage managers, lighting, sound, and set designers have shared where people they meet are absolutely SHOCKED to find a woman knows how to run a light board, program QLab, hang and focus source four pars, paint, hammer, nail, and precisely cut 2×4’s using their Miter saw. Sharing experiences like this with other women involved in different areas of the theatre community makes us realize that we are not alone and creates a much more productive and motivated atmosphere.

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?

RB: I believe until questions like these are no longer asked, we will always need gender based theaters. There is absolutely nothing lost by creating more institutions that want to share more experiences from fellow artists. It is the same reason we also need theatres that are created to focus on art from people of a specific ethnicity, race, and individuals apart of the LGBTQ community. All of these stories need to be told by the people who live them everyday. There is this writer’s idea that you should write what you know…well, there is no way a man will ever be able to tell me that he knows exactly how it feels to leave a party early because you are afraid you’ll miss the midnight train and you happen to be wearing a short skirt and heels, so you’re scared you might not make it home safe.

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

RB: A very practical, simple step is this: it needs to be built into every theatre companies’ mission that their search for parity is one of their core values. After the individual theatres have their seasonal company meeting where the ensemble members, artistic directors, board members,  etc, choose what plays are going to produced for the next upcoming season, they should write them down on a list. After reviewing that list, if they notice there aren’t any plays written by women or less than 50%, they need to tear up the list and start their search over. Finally, once the most equal list is created, the theatres need to take one final look at their production teams and make sure the same scrutiny was used when hiring everyone from the director to the actors to designers. 

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

RB: It is important because if we do not have these conversations, no one will. Or most importantly, if we do not have these conversations, the ideas will never stick. I mean, look at how many times women still have to defend their right to use birth control…didn’t we settle that in the 70’s. Anyway, moving away from politics, we need to have these discussions not only for women, but for men too. Theatre is not exclusive; it is inclusive. It is important for men to hear these conversations in order for them to understand how important parity is and how it strengthens their theatre community. While working with an all women theatre company, I have had the opportunity to engage in conversations with men who share our ideas and dream of true gender parity in theatre. The theatre companies, ensembles, and productions that have been created based off of conversations like that, are truly some of the most dynamic pieces of art I have ever witnessed and only strengthen the community at large because everyone is working together toward the same goal.

Rachel Bykowski is a Chicago native who strives to write plays featuring strong female characters that raise awareness of issues surrounding women. Playwriting credits include: Original Recipe produced by DePaul University, The Best Three Minutes of My Life produced by Bradley University, Break-Up Court and Pay Phone produced by 20% Theatre Company, and She Sings For You produced and published by Commedia Beauregard. Staged readings include Got to Kill Bitch by Cock and Bull Theatre and Glory vs. The Wolves by 20% Theatre Company. Rachel received her BFA from the Theatre School of DePaul University and is currently attending Ohio University for her MFA in playwriting. To learn more about Rachel’s work, visit

Jacqueline Lawton_headshotJacqueline 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.