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?”