On Gender Parity
The issue of gender parity in the theater, and celebrating more female writers, has been on my mind for a while now.
Part of that is just out of a sense of fairness. Part of that is wanting to create more opportunities for artists of color; the women’s rights and civil rights movements have had a long intertwined history, it’s just that – appallingly – women have always had to wait longer. Look at the 15th Amendment, passed fifty years before the 19th Amendment. Look at Obama edging out Hillary for president.
Parity for Two
Another reason gender parity matters to me is that I’m married to a fellow playwright. Rehana and I work as a unit, each of our plays has the other’s fingerprints all over every page, and the only way either of us will come out of this life feeling successful is if both of us have a career as artists.
But our partnership isn’t equal. Whenever we co-write or co-produce something, I tend to get all the credit. When she talks about my play to someone, they ask me to send them the script. When I talk about her play to someone, they don’t often express the same interest. It’s as though they’ve dismissed her before even knowing her credentials or work.
Yes, we each have our advocates. Yes, taste is subjective and personalities are different and each play is its own separate being, and all that. Invariably our careers will grow at a differential pace. But there’s also a pervading bias against artist couples, like if one is successful then the other must suck. To which I’d respond, then: why would we marry someone that sucks? It’s precisely because of our shared passion for playwriting that we were drawn to each other in the first place. Our relationship started because we fell for each other’s voices as writers, and at this point her plays are my plays just as much as my plays are hers.
But when our plays go out into the world, it’s a statistical fact that her plays will not be considered as closely as mine. Maybe she’s a good writer or maybe she sucks, but the opportunities just aren’t there for her, or for any woman playwright, so long as theaters continue producing fewer women than men.
Parity in the Industry
We recently attended the Lilly Awards, which are such a wonderful and joyous and necessary thing, given the lopsidedness of this industry when it comes to recognizing female talent. (The Pulitzer Prize in Drama has been awarded to a female playwright only 6 times in the past 25 years.) One of the Lillys was geared toward outside industries, and it went to Denise Scott Brown, who was passed over for the Pritzker Architecture Prize when her partner Robert Venturi won it in 1991, even though the two had done all their work collaboratively and even though Venturi himself protested the Pritzker committee’s decision not to co-award the prize.
You can see the same pattern played out in science. In 1952 Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase proved that DNA is our genetic material, using an elegant experimental design that they co-conceived. Hershey won the 1969 Nobel Prize for their experiment, but Chase was dismissed as merely an assistant and her work went unrecognized. In 1951 Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray crystallography defined the three-dimensional structure of DNA. Her co-worker Maurice Wilkins showed this work to Watson and Crick, without Franklin’s permission, and Watson and Crick went on to win the 1962 Nobel Prize… which they shared with Wilkins. Rosalind Franklin was snubbed.
As theater artists we like to think that we’re past that sort of thing, that we’re an inclusive and collaborative bunch, that we’re open-minded, good liberals. We say that it’s “getting better.” But make no mistake that the theater is subject to the same gender bias that pervades other fields.
In 2006, Rinne Groff and Neena Beber won “Emerging Playwright” Obies in the same year that Rolin Jones and Adam Rapp won regular Obies, even though all four were arguably at the same career phase, with the women honestly probably further along in terms of experience. What is it about our industry that we’re willing to celebrate male newcomers as equals, while female veterans are labeled “emerging?”
At the Lilly Awards, Julia Jordan announced that plays by women comprised just 30% of major off-Broadway productions this year, up from about 20% when she first released her study in 2009. What is it about producing theaters that we keep dragging our feet when it comes to gender parity? As Denise Scott Brown said at the Lillys (and I’m paraphrasing here), “It’s not that the Pritzker committee overlooked me for the award. It’s that they considered it, and decided against it.” We in the theater already know that we’re not meting out opportunities equally; we’ve considered it and decided against it.
Our training programs are largely equitable. We take in a relatively diverse, gender-balanced crop of artists for each MFA program. Our dedicated development houses – places like New Dramatists or the Lark – are largely equitable as well. So what is it about the producing theaters that opportunities for women and for artists of color narrow so starkly? Why is it that these writers are produced so infrequently, and that when they’re produced at all it tends to be on the smaller second stage, in the basement? These writers go through all the steps of development like they’re supposed to, but all those MFA classes and workshops mean nothing if they’re denied the most important step of them all: production.
The Best Plays
No artistic director wants his or her hands tied by quotas. No artistic director wants to be told what to program. Often you’ll hear a producer say, “I don’t want to produce plays by women; I want to produce the best plays.” Forgoing the infuriating nature of that construction, what does “the best play” even mean, when aesthetics are variant and taste is subjective? In my mind the “best plays” of the year were Tanya Barfield’s The Call and Andrea Thome’s Pinkolandia, but neither of those are the splashiest award-winning plays of the season.
The “best plays” system allows you to choose based on gut decisions, without any metrics for measuring success, without any accountability for the larger effects that your decisions have on the ecosystem of theater. I have written previously about vastly expanding production volume so as to seek out new audiences, which would help counteract the inequities. I’ve also written about having the humility to hire a diversity officer. But honestly we’d be going a long way in the theater if we could just recognize that taste is subjective, and get this “best play” notion out of our lexicon.
If the “best plays” system were truly a meritocratic process, you would expect to see aberrations in the trends from season to season: a season where nearly all the plays are by women, a season where there are multiple writers of color produced in a single year. But that season rarely happens. One of the great initiatives that followed Julia Jordan’s study was “50/50 in 2020,” a grassroots effort to establish gender parity in the theater by the year 2020. Which sounds like a good idea initially, but then I’m like, “F*ck that. 50/50 NOW.” No feasibility studies, no development labs, no special foundation for the advancement of women. The work is out there. Produce the work.
Most ethnic minorities (or women) have heard the old adage, “You have to work twice as hard as other people just to get by.” I used to relish that – relish that challenge. But now I wonder: what happens to a vast swath of talented people when their work is under-celebrated and under-sung for reasons that just might be other than merit? What happens to their creativity, their sense of innovation and adventure, when their work gets passed up again and again, or relegated to the small space in the basement?
Does going through all that adversity make you tougher, make your work sharper, make your voice that much harder to ignore? Maybe. If the people who were at the Lilly Awards are any indication, then yes, the crucible of working twice as hard seems to have birthed some astounding artists. But then again, after doing all of that X-ray work, Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 37. Martha Chanse fell into dementia and died in obscurity. Denise Scott Brown still doesn’t have a Pritzker. I see history repeating itself, and I am powerless to do anything about it.
In fact, the pattern of bias in our industry just might be worse than in other industries, because in fields like science the outcomes are objective whereas in our field the outcomes are judged entirely based on subjective criteria. Reviews and awards are subjective, audience attendance is but a partial measure of success, nobody wants to tie art to commerce by using revenue as a metric, and as a seasoned grant writer I’m here to tell you that any outcome can be made to look good on a grant report. The disparities are considered, and accepted. Women will just have to wait longer.
Every year they give out a “Miss Lilly” award to a man, and in that crowd of fantastic women artists, somebody joked to me, “Oh don’t worry – some year they’ll give one to you!” And I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t that be something. What if I won a Lilly Award before my wife?”
How to Cast Actors of Color: a Helpful Guide
This is a two-part guide to casting actors of color, or any underrepresented group, really. Part One is a snarky yet sanguine list of guidelines for how to find actors of color when race is integral to the role. Part Two is an impassioned plea for why casting actors of color in non-ethnic-specific roles will save the theater.
Now get out there and cast that play!
*If a role calls for a character of a particular ethnicity, you should cast an actor of that ethnicity. Stop doing stuff like this. If the play is set in a place where all logic dictates that the characters would be of a particular ethnicity, you should cast actors of that ethnicity. Stop doing stuff like this. Quit hiding behind some vague artistic vision. No lame excuses of “we couldn’t find any.” No re-appropriations of the term “color-blind.” Find an actor of that ethnicity. If you can’t find one, look harder.
* A too-small pool of auditioners is no excuse for changing a character’s ethnicity. Allot more time for casting hard-to-cast roles. Bring in far, far more people than you think you will need. Don’t put yourself in the bind of seeing too few people, then being discontented with your options. If that does happen, gather enough people to do another round of auditions.
*If you need to rely on the expertise of an ethnic-specific theater company, let’s bear in mind here that casting directors get paid good money to do this kind of work. Offer to compensate the theater for their time. Short of that, don’t just go in there all panicked and demand immediate casting suggestions. Casting your play is not their job, the theater is not operating on your timeline or in any way beholden to your agenda, and honestly given how under-staffed they are you’d be lucky if they even respond to your emails. If the theater does end up helping you, thank them profusely, put their name in the special thanks of the program, mail them a copy of the program, and since it looks like your interests align so well why not advertise their next show on your eblast. Most importantly, remember the suggestions they gave you for next time. Don’t just storm in there two years later with the exact same breakdown.
*See more plays by companies that produce ethnic-specific work, and more plays that feature artists of color. I’m shocked that more casting directors don’t do this religiously, just as a cover-your-ass thing. Do your homework. Don’t put yourself in a bind where you’re at the mercy of a couple of friends’ random suggestions. The best way of building your rolodex of actors is seeing more plays.
*If you want help from me specifically (or a minority artist friend), let’s bear in mind here that I was not put on this planet to help you with your math homework. Even though I’m really good at math! As much as I love giving a shot to undersung actors, I’ve got my own problems. As a show of good faith, list for me all the people you’ve already contacted so that I know you’ve undergone best efforts. Respect the value of my opinion and time.
Whenever I go to talkbacks and artist chats for my plays, I’ll frequently hear at least one or two audience members expressing pleasant surprise about the ethnic diversity of my casts. But the makeup of my plays is not happenstance: there is racial diversity built into the DNA of most of my scripts, even as most of my scripts are not specifically tackling race. We live in a complex, pluralistic society and I believe that the worlds I create onstage should reflect that – not just in terms of race but in terms of age, sexual orientation, political views, backgrounds, perspectives, and all that.
But beyond the diverse backgrounds of my characters, I get inspired by a diverse group of actors. I get drawn to specific actors because of their peculiar talents, and sometimes my plays are inspired by wanting to see particular actors in combination, and oftentimes that chemistry is non-race-specific. I write a lot of comedies, and it turns out that the funniest people come from all backgrounds (and genders!). I imagine that the same holds true for dramas; pathos is non-race-specific.
Yet right now the majority of the theater I see in New York fails to reflect the prismatic nature of my city, or the US, or the world. If theater is meant to be a window on society, then based on the demographics I’m seeing onstage it would appear that the New York of the stage is a lot more racially homogenous (and wealthy!) than the New York I see in front of my face. We keep saying “I want a theater that looks like the subway car” but the only way to do that is to present a world that is relevant to a subway audience – more integrated along class and race lines, more accessible to the people.
Casting directors: EVERY TIME a role is non-race-specific, I urge you to throw a diverse mix of artists into the casting pool and just see what happens. I know that there are so so many actors vying for your attention and that categorization is necessary, but too often I hear of talented minority actors who’d be perfect for a role but they can’t even get seen for the part. I don’t mean to in any way single you out, but the reason I focus attention on casting directors specifically is because casting is – as you know – a numbers game. The fewer artists of color the director and playwright even see in the first place, the fewer that will make it to the stage. So as a policy I urge you to just think a little wider when you’re thinking of who'd be perfect for a role. When an actor loses a plum role to somebody else, that’s hard. But when they never even had a shot to begin with, that’s devastating.
Directors and playwrights: EVERY TIME a role is non-race-specific, I urge you to actively agitate to see actors of color in the role. It’ll expand the perspectives being aired in the room, which is good for the art. Don’t hide behind excuses like, “If I cast a minority in this role it will change the meaning of the role itself,” or “This is a historical drama and there were no ethnic minorities in existence at that time.” Strive to create a world onstage that reflects the nuances and vitality of the world we live in today.
I promise you, this will be good for our audiences. As an industry we cater to the narrowest possible demographics in terms of our audience, and that audience is drying up. I keep hearing “we need to get more people of color into the theater” but you can’t do that by programming “the ethnic slot” play. It’s too fragmented and half-hearted an effort, plus it’s condescending to even think that ethnic audiences will solely choose art based on race. I couldn’t bring in an all-Asian audience if I tried.
But if we create art that is relevant to more people, more people will see it. Which means that we have to stop thinking of race as a checkbox on a headshot, or a slot for one play a season, or a niche audience to target with niche art.
More Americans will come to see theater if the America depicted onstage looks more like the America we actually live in.