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Category: Art and Entertainment, Economy

A Theatre Season To Savor

| June 5, 2009


As Broadway celebrates with the Tony Awards Sunday night, the nominations recognize some, but hardly all, of women’s great successes in theatre during the last year. The author analyses why an industry that is bucking the economic downturn continues to shortchange productions by and about women.

On Sunday night the theatre community will come together for its annual celebration of Broadway—the Tony Awards—and will revel in the fact that in this brutal recession the theatre business seems to be one industry that is faring well. "Broadway" includes several dozen theatres within a 10-block (plus Lincoln Center) radius in New York. Almost a billion dollars ($943 million) was made from June 2008 to June 2009, up from $936 million the year before, and 12.15 million tickets were purchased. Forty-three new musicals and plays opened, up from 36.

The Broadway audience is primarily made up of tourists, with over 65 percent of tickets purchased by those who live outside the city. Other demographics (for the 2007 to 2008 season): 66 percent of the audience members were women, 75 percent were white and the median age was 41.5.

Although they predominate as audience members, women are still not represented equally in most of the industry’s creative categories. Women are missing this season from ten of the Tony categories including: best book of a musical; best revival of a play and of a musical; best orchestration; best scenic design in either play or musical categories; best lighting design in either play or musical categories; best sound design in either play or musical categories. Dolly Parton is nominated for best original score for translating the feminist anthem 9 to 5 into a musical, and Jeanine Tesori is nominated for music in Shrek The Musical.

French playwright Yasmina Reza is the only female nominated for best play—and the Broadway version of her God of Carnage is a translation by Christopher Hampton. In some other good news, women are acknowledged for their directing work with two women, Kristin Hanggi and Diane Paulus, nominated for best direction of a musical for Rock of Ages and Hairrespectively, and on the play side Phyllida Lloyd is nominated for her direction of Mary Stuart.

We can't not acknowledge that this past year was an incredibly rich one for actresses, particularly older ones. It's ironic that the women have shined on Broadway this spring because last fall the New York Times declared that "It's a Male, Male, Male, Male World" and that "men of all kinds will be dominating the theater district this season, mostly in revivals of various vintages." It's no surprise that older actresses gravitate to the stage, where there are actually meaty parts written for them—like in the great plays revived this year including Hedda GablerThe Seagull and Mary Stuart, and even in new shows like God of Carnageand 33 Variations. This season saw such diverse talent as Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda, Christine Ebersole, Mary Louise Parker, Kristin Scott Thomas, Katie Holmes, Susan Sarandon, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Joan Allen, Lauren Graham, Allison Janney, and Cynthia Nixon among many others plying their talents on the Great White Way.

The Tonys exclude shows produced by the non-profit theatres (other than a few exceptions) that operate in New York and around the country—most notably leaving out one of the biggest sensations of the year, Ruined, the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Lynn Nottage, which has had its run extended several times at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The play also won the Obie Award for Best New Play, and the NY Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, which encompasses Broadway and off-Broadway. It's quite exciting that a play about an important issue like women being brutalized and raped in the Congo made it to the stage at all, and now that Nottage has won the Pulitzer, the play will most definitely have a life outside of New York, which is where most people in the United States see their theatre.

The fact that Nottage's play is not on Broadway (and did not immediately get transferred there after her win and the play's continued box office success) reflects an uncomfortable trend throughout the American theatrical landscape—the lack of women's voices. According to a count last fall, in 2008-09, the 13 NYC non-profit theatres that featured plays by living playwrights produced nine plays by women out of a total of 50. That's 18 percent, not a lot bigger, say researchers, than in the 1908-09 Broadway season when women’s share was 13 percent. A whopping 5 percent increase in a century. In assessing the crème de la crème, the Pulitzer winning plays over the last decade, four were won by women but none of these began their lives on Broadway and only one, Suzan Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog, even got transferred to Broadway. Yet the Pulitzer winning plays by men mostly all made it to Broadway. New York Post theatre critic Elisabeth Vincentelli states: "It's kinda insane that Ruined [written and directed by two women] was off-Broadway but there it was, winning all kinds of awards and extending its run multiple times."

A prize like the Pulitzer and other award nominations are vital to raising the profile of women. Laura Collins-Hughes in ARTicles (the blog of the National Journalism Arts Program) wrote why these prizes matter: "Because women playwrights are vastly underrepresented on our stages. Because "diversity" isn't just a buzzword. The Pulitzer isn't important in itself; it matters because of its ripple effect. Quite simply, winners and finalists get noticed. They get produced. The Pulitzer changes the composition of our canon, the stories we as a culture tell ourselves. Women's voices need to be a much more significant part of that."

Like in the film business, many of the arguments about women not being produced comes back to money: That people won't buy tickets to plays about women, and extrapolating further, won't buy tickets to plays by women. Playwright Julia Jordan has taken on this issue with gusto, convening a meeting last fall with some of the most prominent theatrical decision-makers in New York. She examined the statistics and it turns out that the lack of interest in plays about women is another one of those long-held urban myths. Here's part of Jordan's introduction to the meeting last fall: "According to TCG [Theatre Communications Group, the membership organizations for most of the American theatre organizations], of the top two most successful plays of each of the past ten years, out of 24 plays (there were some ties), 14 had female protagonists, only seven had male protagonists, and the remaining three plays were true ensemble works. So, in this day and age, there’s no evidence that women buy tickets primarily to shows about the male experience to somehow appease their husbands. In fact, in the last ten years, it seems that they were more likely to buy tickets to shows about women, no matter which gender they happen to be written by."

Jordan has continued her quest working with Princeton University's Emily Sands and Cecilia Rouse, author of the famed study on how women fare in blind orchestral auditions. They will release a full report on June 22, but some interesting tidbits include: FACT. Plays written by women are more profitable than those written by men. FACT. Plays written by women and with female protagonists are the least likely to be produced. FACT. Female playwrights would have a better chance of production if they wrote under a male pseudonym.

Playwrights who make it to the pinnacle of Broadway are trained in the theatres around the country supported by taxpayer money. Your money, my money. Many have diversity programs that nurture female and minority playwrights. Yet it’s still pretty much a boy's club there at the top. And since they continue to make money on Broadway, there is little impetus for change. But acknowledging the disparity and also supporting women's theatres that produce women playwrights and other theatres that nurture women is how we can all make sure that a century from now—or two—the cannon of plays studied will reflect the diversity of voices throughout our culture, just not a privileged few white men.