high standards

Sara Israel, May 4, 2010

If you’ve perused this Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative site (and you should!) then you’re probably aware of Emily Glassberg Sands’ thesis, “Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater.”

Many friends got in touch with me when Emily’s work hit the news, not only because I’m a female playwright and literary manager, but also because I was a Mathematical Social Sciences major in college.  (Yes.  True.)  I believe that the “whys” in life are best explained with a special blend of the quantitative and the qualitative (and even then, plenty of mysteries remain, which is a very good thing).

There were several “hot button” findings in Emily’s study.  The most significant one amongst my circle of friends and colleagues was her conclusion that female artistic directors and literary managers are far less likely to select plays written by women.

Many, many theater professionals– especially women– could not believe this finding.  Furiously could and would not believe it.  But Emily’s math is there; her methodology is sound.  It’s the qualitative that so many people bumped up against, their personal experience, relationships, and choices that seemed very emotionally to run counter to this charge.

But even in the qualitative realm, is Emily’s finding really that much of a surprise?  A (qualitative) look at history shows that minority communities are extremely rigorous when it comes to selecting leading voices amongst themselves; each “choice” stands for so much more.  That’s macro.  Then, I think micro:  How much higher my standards are for my friends and family– because they are associated with me.

These are ugly truths, perhaps (and of course I wish my friends and family all the best and all happiness for their own sakes).  But there’s something to be extrapolated from both the macro and micro, I think.  Female artistic directors and literary managers are more vigilant with female playwrights because they see the selection and subsequent judgment of those plays as a reflection of themselves, knowing– or at least feeling– that the rest of the world will be holding the choice under a microscope.

The challenge:  Despite this, to somehow take these playwrights and their plays out of the minority.

My hope for LA FPI is that by empowering female playwrights, we end up empowering all playwrights.  As a writer, director, producer, literary manager, and theater-goer, I want our world to be full of the very best plays (pretty darn qualitative, I know!) no matter the writer’s gender, age, race, geography, politics, economic status, or life experience.  Call me Pollyanna, but if we truly say “it doesn’t matter,” then I think we get the best of it all.


  • By Nancy Beverly, May 4, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    Loving your posts — have read the first two! So glad you’re adding your intelligence and clear-thinking to our site here!

  • By Rick Steadman, May 4, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    As a middle-class white hetero male, I hesitate to even speak on these topics sometimes. That said, I totally agree with your wish for the best work to be done, regardless of the source. It’s a slow process finding greater acceptance of new voices, and I hope the FPI can help coax that process along faster.

    I think your analysis that a minority community feels a need to be so careful about who they choose to be a leader is true. I heard Chris Rock recently say something along the lines of “We’ll know that black people have achieved true equality in America when there’s a black president who’s as stupid as George W. Bush.” True though that may be, I’d still prefer our presidents, and our theatre-makers, to be the best that they can be, and still be richly diverse.

  • By Stephanie Walker, May 5, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    Fascinating post, Sara. May I just say I love your right brain/left brain analysis.

    My response to studies like these is to generally ignore them. Only because I don’t want yet more evidence to be any more discouraged than I already am. Your goal for the FPI parallels my personal goal. I don’t look at myself as a ‘female playwright’ but a writer trying to be the best playwright I can be.

    That said, I do get excited when I see calls for plays that ask for works written specifically by women and I almost always submit my work to them. No harm in narrowing the field, right?

    When I receive a rejection letter I don’t ever think that my work was rejected because I’m a woman. Never. I think, “It’s not ready yet…needs more work” or “Not what they were looking for.” Mostly I strive NOT to make it personal.

    So, if the quantitative research on this subject is sound… then what? Am I totally naive to just ignore it? Am I insulating myself when something could actually be done? If so, what might that be? My instinct is to just write better.

    Perhaps the dialogue alone is a step in the right direction. Thanks for the post, Sara. And hooray for FPI.

  • By Sara Israel, May 5, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    Here, here, Rick, and thank you Nancy! Steph, I think you’re right– you keep writing. That doesn’t mean you have to ignore the quantitative, but you don’t let it derail your immense talent and the remarkable things you have to say. . .

  • By Mia Lobel, May 5, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

    Agreed it’s pretty pointless to let these types of studies derail any kind of creative work, but it’s hard not to get frustrated by the seemingly endless gender gap. (A recent study of NPR showed that men still dominate the public radio airwaves – http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2010/04/where_are_the_women.html) But I’ll take inspiration from your post and from the work of FPI. Rock on, creative women!

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