Gender Parity in the American Theatre

by Martha De Silva

in Diversity & Inclusion

(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?

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?

MARTHA KING DE SILVA: I live in Washington, DC, a community that has theatres of all shapes and sizes, for all senses and sensibilities.  I would imagine that if I counted all the plays produced in a year in the Washington metropolitan area, the ones written by men would outnumber the ones written by women.  That fact alone does not really bother me.  Remember, you’ve got Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen, Beckett, Shaw, O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Albee who might potentially be skewing that number.  I think the more meaningful question is: Of all the new plays that get produced annually what percentage of them are written by women?

Washington, DC, is launching a Women’s Theatre Festival this year.  40 theatres across DC will produce works by women in an 8-week period.  I think that’s an awesome step to putting the spotlight on local and national women playwrights and it also makes me a bit glum I wish we did not feel compelled (however well-intentioned) to contrive events promoting plays by women.   Why can’t it just…happen?

In my own experience, the biggest barrier to getting produced is having the chutzpah and fearless self-advocacy to shop my plays/ideas for plays around to people who might be interested.  How do I write a great letter of introduction to the literary manager of a theatre I might like to work with?  How can I parlay my current relationships and successes into future relationships and hopefully future successes?  How can I hold a brave conversation with a local artistic director about doing a workshop for a new play of mine?  My inner voice tells me, “How tacky! Could you be more self-aggrandizing?  Get over yourself!”  In my work as a leadership coach (the full-time, nicely salaried job I hold and for which I am grateful on a daily basis!), a frequent theme among women is building up sufficient confidence to toot one’s horn.  I think this factor plays a huge part in one’s success.

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?

MKD: There are pros and cons to gender based theatres.  I suppose it could be wonderful to know that there are theatres that might be more pre-disposed to works by and about women and yet…are we just throwing up our hands and saying we have to go outside the mainstream to have our plays produced?

Some of the best plays I’ve seen over the last fifteen years are written by people whose orientation, gender, race, and nationality are completely different from my own.  As a theatre-goer, I don’t go to plays because they’re written by a particular demographic of the population; I go to see plays that are great – interesting, funny, moving, provocative stories – plays that I cannot stop talking about years after seeing them onstage.

As a writer, I would never, ever want people to go to a play of mine because I’m a woman.  I want people to see my plays because they are great (or have the potential to be great).

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

MKD: I would love to see an initiative where artistic directors or literary managers reach out to the playwrights with whom they have relationships and ask them:   “Who among your playwright friends should I be getting to know?”  I would hope that some great women playwrights might be surfaced through this question.  (And I’m completely happy to have my talented male colleagues, also struggling to get attention in theatres, tossed in this mix.)

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

MKD: Theatre is a very tricky, subjective, and somewhat insular business.  If we are in earnest about putting on plays of the best merit, it is important to understand and be aware of our own biases with respect to all dimensions of diversity – race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc., when we read the plays that cross our desks, e.g., “Do I have a particular point of view about this gender/race/age-group that may potentially get in the way of my reading and judging this play fairly?  What might I be missing because of my (very human) biases and filters?”

I do not know that continued conversation on the matter will create a more equitable playing field in theatre, but it’s a step in the right direction.


marty headshot 2012 071webMartha King De Silva

Martha King De Silva’s plays for adults and young audiences have been produced at a variety of venues including,  Charter Theatre (Washington, DC); 2 Co’s Cabaret (Columbus, OH); the Industrial Arts Theatre (Denver, CO); the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival (New York, NY); Theatre at Lime Kiln in (Lexington, VA), the National Portrait Gallery, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, (Charlotte, NC) and most recently, Imagination Stage (Bethesda, Maryland).

In 2002, her one-woman play, “Stretch Marks” (Charter Theatre) was nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award (Helen Hayes) for Outstanding New Play.  In 2010, “Heidi” a musical that she co-wrote with composer and lyricist, Joan Cushing, received a Helen Hayes nomination for Outstanding Production, Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA).

Ms. De Silva has received grants from the DC Humanities Commission and the DC Historical Society.  Her monologues have appeared in the Best Women’s Stage Monologues of 1996 and the Best Men’s Stage Monologues of 1998.

She lives and works in Washington, DC.


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. jacquelinelawton.com

  • brendanmccallnorway

    Thank you for this interview. At the beginning, Lawton says, “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.” I´ve heard this number of 17% frequently in articles, interviews, and debates which reference the lack of plays produced by women playwrights.

    However, I have yet to find out where this number originated from. Who conducted this research, and when? Is this number just based in the US and the UK? In America, is this nationwide, or just an extrapolation from a particular region?

    I would be curious to know how this information is being gathered, collected, and calculated–and who is doing the research–as this number of 17% seems to anchor so much of the debate between the US and UK.