A HERoic Season: Female Playwrights Onstage in Iowa

by Tiffany Antone

Last year I started working at Iowa State University, and kind of can’t believe how amazing my colleagues are. The theatre department has begun focusing on citizen artistry, which has anchored our season selection planning process in a much more socially aware methodology. I was thrilled when I came on board and found out that the department was committed to gender parity moving forward, and to celebrate that fact, they were going to do a whole season of works by female playwrights.

YES.

I know.

It’s AMAZING.

What was interesting, as we set about reading and researching plays, was just how few other organizations seemed to be making the same choice. We are fast approaching 2020, after all, and according to the Dramatists Guild’s most recent Count, we’re a far cry from that 50/50 gender parity goal set so long ago. (*Do you even remember where you were when the 50/50 in 2020 initiative was launched way back in 2010?)

Since we’re a university, we knew we had to serve our students first and foremost, but it also felt imperative that we begin to “Walk the Walk” of the citizen artist. Addressing gender parity for playwrights turned into just the start of our ambitious sea-change. We also decided to hire female guest artists as designers and directors, and to create a year-long symposium on gender parity.

The outreach to other departments on campus yielded a number of exciting partnerships – we aren’t the only field with a parity gap! – and this collaboration led to a very busy and thrilling season of work across many mediums and fields of study.

The result is our (very busy and very awesome) HERoic season! All it took to make it happen was a desire and willingness to DO THE WORK.

Now, we’re still in the middle of our first semester – two shows into our season, and four more productions to go—but the thrill of the work is contagious!

Something I’ve found very interesting during our process is that although gender parity onstage is a very important issue for us as artists and theatremakers, audiences aren’t nearly as concerned or aware of this gap. And why would they be? How many audiences are really that tuned in to the world of theatre to begin with? Aren’t most just kind of renting space with us for an evening or matinee and then going back to their normal routines?

So what we considered a very proactive and exciting selling point to our season—all works by female playwrights—has seemingly been less important to our audiences than we thought it would be.

Again and again, in discussions around gender parity and our season, we’ve heard audiences claim they don’t give a hoot who wrote the play. All they’re looking for is a “Good” story. Now, these are discussions have been held with theatre majors, minors, and non-theatre students alike – but I’d wager that the same holds true for most non-student audience members too. What people are looking for is TITLE recognition. Is the show a big enough deal to have pierced the non-theatre-maker’s bubble? Have they heard good things about the title from friends who “saw it on Broadway”? And have our theatremakers heard good things from reviews/fellow theatremakers who were involved a production of the show somewhere else?

In general, playwright names and gender identity haven’t been anywhere on their radar. Now, I don’t know about you, but as a playwright, I felt a little more than bummed that we’re so unimportant to audiences, lol. But again and again, this discussion point has led us to mine a number of follow-up questions with our students about who the Gatekeepers are who get to decide which plays make it “Big” and how do we decide what a “Good” story is.

And that’s a great discussion to have with students and non-students alike.

We’re going to keep the conversation going with audiences and students, and I’m sure we have a ton more to learn from this ambitious year, but I know one thing for sure: Nothing changes without first taking a leap. ISU Theatre is taking some big leaps, and it’s a very exciting place to work and create. I hope other universities and theatre companies take up the 50/50 challenge because it is totally doable, it does make a difference, and it’s important if we want to get more stories heard.

“If you’re only telling one story, it’s not a story, it’s propaganda.” – Michael Goeble, Assistant Teaching Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies, ISU

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