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Category: Art and Entertainment

The Lilly Awards Honor Women in Theatre

| June 3, 2010

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Lilly awardees, May 24, 2010. Photo by Aaron Epstein.

Preempting the male bastion that dominates the Tony Awards, supporters of women playwrights took matters into their own hands, as Women and Hollywood blogger Melissa Silverstein explains.

On June 13, the Broadway community will celebrate a $1.02 billion dollar season with its annual Tony Awards.  Amid all the pageantry it won’t take long to notice one glaring fact—very few female playwrights make it to the great white way.  For the season that just ended, of the 11 new plays eligible for the Tony for best play, three were written by women (and one of those was a one woman show).  And of those three, only one, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) by Sarah Ruhl, was nominated.

No one knows exactly why women aren’t produced, but the default explanation is always money, a long-standing urban myth that plays by women don’t make much of it.  But a recent study may have finally put a nail in that coffin. Emily Glassberg Sands of Princeton University did an analysis of potential gender bias in theatre entitled “Opening the Curtain of Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theatre.”  She found that over the last decade only 11 percent of the plays produced on Broadway were by women, yet those plays had 18 percent higher revenues.

While Broadway remains unwelcoming, the irony is that this past season was actually incredibly successful for female playwrights throughout the rest of the New York City theatre world.  An informal statistical look at the plays produced has the number of women written plays at about 40 percent.  That’s up from 15 percent a year ago.

There’s a second hurdle for women who manage to get their plays produced: they have a hard time getting recognized at awards time. While we may wish awards didn't matter, they do. Look at all the hoopla over Kathryn Bigelow winning the best director Oscar—a cultural discussion that has changed the dynamic of the conversation about women film directors.  Of all the theatre awards, only the off-Broadway Obies included any substantive presence of women playwrights, with its best play award going to 29-year-old Annie Baker for her breakthrough year, which included Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens.

This year, a group of theatre professionals calling themselves "The Committee for Recognizing Women in Theatre" stepped into the breach and created the "Lilly Awards," named after one of the few female playwrights read regularly in theatre classes, Lillian Hellman.  These women and men—including Tina Howe, Julia Jordan, Gary Garrison, Marsha Norman, Theresa Rebeck, John Eisner, Susan Rose, Julie Crosby, and Tim Sanford—felt it was important to celebrate and recognize the work done by female artists, even if the more established awards refused to.  Theresa Rebeck, whose play The Understudy ran off-Broadway this season, explained why she was a part of this effort. "It is disorienting every year to witness the way women artists are drastically underrepresented in the many different theater awards,” she said. This year, instead of asking why it happened, “we all asked ourselves the question, ‘what are we going to do about it?’  And the answer to that was simple and muscular:  Give out some awards to these amazing women theater artists.  Let the awards be inclusive, instead of divisive.  No nominations, just awards. Let it be a true celebration."

So that's what they did, serving a community that was more than ready:  a packed house of 200 people showed up May 24 with just two weeks notice.  Tim Sanford, the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons who hosted the event, was thrilled at the attendance.

Women's Media Center co-founder Gloria Steinem kicked off the evening by likening the women storytellers seated on the stage to the storytellers of the past who would pass down stories from generation to generation around the campfire.   An intergenerational connection between past playwrights and female theatre pioneers illuminated a line of succession that may never been previously pieced together. The awards evoked the names of such foremothers as Zona Gale, the first woman to win a Pulitzer as a playwright; Margo Jones, the founder of the regional theatre movement; Aphra Behn, the first woman paid for writing plays; and Mary Chase, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Harvey.

The talent on the stage inspired both the awardees and the audience. The women honored valued the acknowledgment of peers, because while the theatre is a business it is also a community. Playwright Yong Jean Lee, who was honored for her play Lear—controversial because of her "weirdo take on Shakespeare”—is not usually a fan of awards, but, she said “the fact that this particular award was established in the first place gives me a lot of joy and hope." A lifetime achievement award honored Mary Rodgers, the daughter of composer Richard Rodgers and the mother of Tony award winning composer Adam Guettel (who was described by Marsha Norman "as the filling in the Oreo cookie of the American musical theatre").  A veteran playwright, Mary Rodgers wrote Once Upon a Mattress, which launched the career of Carol Burnett, as well as Freaky Friday.  Having been to many a Tony Award celebration, Rodgers declared the Lillys so much better, and, she hoped, "the beginning of a big noise we are going to make."

This big noise was barely a flutter a year and a half ago when playwright Julia Jordan’s quest to understand why women weren't getting produced led to the Princeton study.  Recalling an early discussion, she remarked on the change in consciousness in just 18 months. "Back at the first town hall meeting the room was filled with women, and very, very few men. And there was anger of course, and lots of frustration.  Last night, the room was filled with men and women and there was joy and a lot of laughter.”  There is still much more work to do, but after 18 months this issue has morphed into a powerful movement towards equity for women in theatre.  Who knows what the next 18 months will bring?

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