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Lingering Inequity in the Arts—A Comedic Take

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In a new play in San Francisco, Theresa Rebeck explores workplace reality where a woman's good work may reward no one.

Theresa Rebeck’s new play, “What We’re Up Against,” at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, opens with two men talking about a new hire in the architecture firm where they work—a young, ambitious, talented woman.

“What do we want another woman for?” Ben asks Stu, the firm’s manager. “We already have one.”

Far from being excited about their new colleague Eliza’s talent, her co-workers are outraged by her ambition. Eliza knows she’s better at her job than most of the people there, and she doesn’t stay quiet about it. She doesn’t accept being stuck in the worst office and not given anything to do.

“I want to work,” she says repeatedly, unimpressed by everyone telling her that no one really gets to do anything for the first ten years. Rebeck, a playwright and novelist, who also writes for TV and the movies, wanted to look at men and women and what happens in the workplace.

“We aren’t a country that cares about excellence anymore,” she said. “We care about internal politics.”

That first scene with Ben and Stu was part of a eight-minute piece that Rebeck wrote 18 years ago. For a long time, she’d wanted to turn it into a full-length play. Sadly, things haven’t changed much for women in the workplace, she says.

“It’s a combination of gender politics and Machiavellian politics that means that women’s excellence isn’t recognized,” she said. “In law firms and Wall Street and government, the perception is you have to climb over people, and for a lot of guys that means climbing over women.”

Loretta Greco, the artistic director of the Magic, who directs “What We’re Up Against,” sees the same thing.

“Theater is the most inclusive art form, and there’s still no sense of gender equality,” she said. “I feel like, come on, it’s 2011, let’s get on with it.”

Rebeck set the play in an architectural firm because she wanted a workplace where they were making something tangible. The program for the play includes the statistic that the median income for men in architecture is $70,330 while for women it’s $55,805. Rebeck says this kind of inequality also appears in her field—writing—where women’s voices are undervalued.

“There’s something about the power structure in publishing that elevates the male voice,” she said. “In book publishing, women buy more books and publish more books, so you’d think half of the book reviewers would be women and half of the books reviewed would be by women, but that turns out not to be true.”

Only 17 percent of the plays produced in the United States are by women, Rebeck says, and for movies the numbers look even worse.

“Nine percent of produced screenplays in Hollywood are by women,” she said. “That means that 91 percent of screenplays are by men, and you can see it in how sexist and degrading most movies that come out of Hollywood are.” Having such a lack of women’s voices in the arts amounts to cultural distortion, Rebeck says, and she believes ignoring women’s talent has some very severe consequences.

“I do think that men and women approach problems in a different way,” she said. “It’s a myth that women are emotional and men have a cool head. I think women are trained to be nurturers and mediators and that energy is essential to the planet. Without it the planet will spin into more unnecessary wars and more environmental destruction.”

Rebeck says she finds herself more and more frustrated by men wanting to keep women down.

“America needs to be asking itself what the problem is that it’s still so threatening that excellence can be expressed by women,” she said. “This is ridiculous. I don’t understand what the resistance is at this point in my life. I just think people are proud of their ignorance. I don’t understand why we haven’t gotten further. It’s like there’s something in the water that men are told if they’re not superior to women then they’re weak.”

Giving women credit is about truth and equality, Rebeck says.

“I was working on a TV show once and I was the only woman in a room full of 15 guys,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Come on, I think we should hire another woman. And one woman applied who was so far superior to any of the men, but all these guys kept arguing for their friends. And one of them looked at me and said, ‘I just want to hire the best person.’ I mean 15 guys, and I’m the one with the agenda? We’re only asking for what’s fair.”

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