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Women's Voices Missing from the Theatre—Does Anyone Care?

February 7, 2007

In recent weeks, if you scanned the Broadway theatre listings in New York you would see the names of some of the most prominent actresses of our time, such stars as Angela Lansbury, Vanessa Redgrave, Julianne Moore, Marian Seldes and Christine Ebersole. Moving to Off-Broadway the names include Zoe Caldwell, Christine Baranski, Blair Brown, Jill Clayburgh and Patricia Heaton.

You would also see listings for musicals—The Color Purple, Grey Gardens and Wicked—all successes and all telling stories of women.  Wicked is playing to over 100% capacity, and The Color Purple paid back its $11 million investment in a year.

So you might think women in theatre are doing great these days.

Hardly.

Scratch the surface in the theatre business, and you’ll see women struggling for parity with their male colleagues. Stars who can sell tickets get roles, but where are the women playwrights, directors and critics? Women are clearly interested in Broadway shows: according to the League of Broadway Theatres annual study of audiences, women make up 62% of theatregoers. Yet last year, aside from several solo efforts, there was only one play by a woman produced on Broadway.

Perhaps more discouraging, women’s prospects look nearly as glum in the traditional pipeline to Broadway—the non-profit regional theatres.  Five years ago, the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) released an unprecedented, detailed study, Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement? Around the country, the dire numbers shocked people: only 17% of the plays produced across America were by women—and much of that is accounted for by multiple productions of very popular plays like Wit and Art. Women directed only 16% of plays.

Things then seemed to improve temporarily, but since then, complacency and downright indifference have taken over. The best data in 2007 is the same used for the 2002 report—and that reflected the reality some years before because it took that long to compile the numbers.

After the initial report, the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), a membership organization that represents most theatres across the country, made a commitment to ask members to report yearly on women and minority participation. That effort failed when members balked, according to Susan Jonas, who had spent years gathering data as one of the authors of the study. She is frustrated because nailing down the numbers contributes directly to progress for women. “After the report came out there was a groundswell. All of the theatres, like the New Georges, that are women-run could use the report to get funding because they could now justify the necessity of promoting work, which had been seen to some extent as frivolous. Secondly, everyone who knew there was a problem understood that the depth of it was much greater than they imagined. That made a big difference.” NYSCA dropped its plans for a follow-up when funding was pulled after publication of a nasty little Wall Street Journal piece that ridiculed the report's premise—that women and their voices should be represented in numbers equal to men.

Why don’t theatres across the country jump at the chance to use female playwrights and interpreters to tempt a theatre-going audience dominated by women? Sarah Ruhl recently had her play The Clean House staged at Lincoln Center, an operation known for producing Wendy Wasserstein and few other women playwrights. Ruhl has had quite a year for a young woman of 32—she was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius” prize). Yet she knows the reality for women playwrights: “There’s a good deal of unconscious misogyny in the world of theatre criticism, totally unacknowledged.”

It’s not as if there’s any shortage of women theatre artists. Mirroring a trend at most higher education institutions across the country, women make up at least half if not the majority of students in theatrical training institutions, and, notes Linda Winer of Newsday, women submit their plays in equal numbers to theatres across the country. But their plays are not picked, or those chosen are relegated to readings and smaller stage productions.  In interviews with artistic directors for the NYSCA report, Susan Jonas noted that a common theme was, “Plays by women have limited interest and we'll lose money on them.”

But how can the theatre, a medium whose job is to question the culture and the status quo, function effectively without the active and equal participation of women?

One hindrance to women’s success is the overwhelming reliance on good reviews, which convey the imprimatur of success. Most reviewers are men, which in itself should not be a problem. But Linda Winer, a 20-year veteran and the only first-string female theatre critic —though USA Today just hired a woman to cover theatre and music—believes that not having more women critics has hurt women playwrights. “I can’t tell you how many plays I’ve been to that have been fascinating, and my colleagues will say, ‘It wasn't about anything; they were just talking.’”

Theresa Rebeck, a seasoned playwright who writes complicated roles for both women and men, runs into the sexist reviewer juggernaut on a continuing basis. Her most recent play The Scene, after great reviews, seemed on track to transfer to Broadway, as was her play Bad Dates, starring Julie White, several years ago. That time, according to White, a New York Times reviewer squelched its chances. “He gave her this review that was essentially a rave but also somewhat dismissive,” said White, “the kind of review you can't move a play with.”

No one seems willing to say it, but theatre women are still fighting the same old assumptions about competence—that women playwrights are just not as good as male playwrights. And the corollary argument: what women write about is not important enough. Writer and performer Lisa Kron, quoted in the NYSCA report, put it best: “Men are universal; women are specific.”

Can we really still be having this tired conversation in 2007—and within the seemingly progressive theatre community? “I would think theatre would be an even friendlier place for women, given our long tradition, going back to Aphra Behn,” noted Sarah Ruhl. “Many of the most interesting playwrights out there right now are women. Maybe the real question is: why are the most interesting new playwrights not being produced?”

Melissa Silverstein is a writer who edits the morning news briefing for the Women's Media Center.

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