The Numbers Problem and Why It Matters

By Laura A. Shamas

Last month, a popular entertainment blog caused quite a stir when it flashed a hopeful headline and post that misstated women playwrights wrote “half of the plays being performed in the upcoming season across the country.” After two days, the blog post was corrected; it was unintentional, a misreading of a New York Times report about Theatre Communications Group’s Annual Top Ten Most Popular Plays of the Season list; half of this year’s list is female-authored (and there are 14 plays on this year’s list due to ties). Until the entertainment blog was corrected, many people were expecting that a 50/50 level of gender parity in production had been achieved in U.S. theaters for female and male playwrights. Not so.  But it raises the question: then what are the actual statistics for female and male playwrights in American theater seasons for 2013-14? Here’s the truth. No one knows, because national data collection on this topic is not currently funded in the United States by any single research entity or institution.

Earlier in 2013, LA FPI volunteers Stephanie Hutchinson and Jan O’Connor undertook what has become an annual measurement task performed by our Los Angeles advocacy group: tracking the League of Resident Theaters [LORT] seasons of nine theaters in Southern California, to find out how many female playwrights and directors are working on their stages. You can read our results from 2013 and 2012 here.  The numbers are down significantly this current season from last: only 16% in both categories.  These are terrible numbers, quite disheartening, miserable. Everyone at LA FPI is very grateful to Stephanie Hutchinson and Jan O’Connor for taking the time to complete the season count for this yearly total, which we use in an attempt to discern any gender parity progress (or lack thereof) in our local theater scene.

Yet, this 16% number is really not an accurate picture of the complete theater scene here, nor were any of our previous annual LORT counts. Here’s why: a SoCal LORT count does not nearly encompass all of the theaters in the area who use professional artists, including Equity actors. If SoCal is defined as the large region from Santa Barbara to San Diego, there are at least 20 “professional” companies here who use full Actors Equity [AEA] contracts –not just 99-seat waiver agreements.  Not all of these companies are members of LORT. Should we be counting the annual seasons of these theaters instead of LORT? Maybe.

Moreover, there are many other companies in this area who are not LORT members, nor using full AEA contracts, yet they could or would say that they, too, are “professional” theaters because they use artists in all disciplines who are members of professional unions. How many of these companies are there in SoCal?  According to a reply tweet to us from Los Angeles STAGE Alliance  on October 14: “Well, we estimate we have around 350 companies working with us in a given year. But we also have a list of 230-some others.”

So, let’s just say that each of those 350 companies (and the sometimes additional +230 groups) produce several shows a year. Who’s counting all of these LA theatre season rosters for gender parity stats? No one.

So do we truly have any understanding of the complete theater scene in terms of gender parity and statistical breakdowns in Los Angeles or SoCal?  No, we do not. And it’s not just here in southern California. Try finding 2013-2014 season data related to gender parity for New York City shows—New York, the exciting heartbeat of our American theater scene. Can you find them? (If you do, please add them to the comments sections of this blog post. Because I could not.)

When LA FPI began, it was in part a response to Julia Jordan’s 2008 decision to calculate the numbers of female playwrights in the New York seasons per non-profit theaters, and her finding that only 12.6% were female-authored. Our website has a “Facts” page where we have attempted to aggregate gender parity/theater data links in the past few years, but I haven’t tried to update it in awhile. I don’t know what data or studies to add, because there are no precise new annual national numbers to report.

To be completely clear, the numbers used most often to describe the typical American female playwright’s status are New York-based stats. In 2011, Ella Martin, Jennie Webb and I partnered to investigate data from the Los Angeles area for the beginning of the twenty-first century. We wanted to find out what the percentage number was in SoCal for productions by women playwrights. Thank goodness for the Los Angeles STAGE Alliance and their willingness to hand count into their 2002 – 2010 records for us, because without their generous efforts, we never would have had a basis for our 20% result, reflecting the 993 shows that were female-authored and produced here during those years.

Some of the problems that plague an accurate assessment of any gender parity stats in American theatre are:
1) lack of funding or resources for any such studies;
2) uniform metrics, methodology and data sources of what should be counted and when.
I’ve shared some samples of these types of questions in the early part of this essay. One of the more famous American studies that garnered attention in 2009 was Emily Sandburg Sands’ report which relied on the database, a source criticized by some as incomplete. You can find Sands’ “Opening the Curtain” report here.  And yet, as Doollee is incomplete, where will more accurate data come from?

Fortunately, there are heroic theater datakeepers in various places around the world who are trying to amend the numbers problem by keeping track of what’s going in the communities where they live, as related to gender parity and diversity.

One of those people is Niall Tangney of Sydney, Australia. Tangney is a long-time hospitality employee and theatre enthusiast who has “rediscovered his love of theatre in his middle-age.” He promotes theatre free of charge to the theatre community of Sydney and NSW via the Theatre in Sydney website [found at], which he runs as a fairly intensive hobby. Niall writes: “I am a regular theatregoer but am not involved in making theatre in any way, so I am able to stir the pot in a way that no one can accuse me of it being self-serving. I think perhaps this is part of the problem. Regarding speaking out on the issue, I think (but do not know for sure) that some female playwrights may not want to be seen as simply complaining that their particular play was not selected or got rejected by a major company… but if no one speaks up, nothing will change.“ Here’s Tangney’s tally of the 2013-14 season as related to gender parity. For the 2013-14 season, Tangney found that from a total of 59 shows of five state-funded theaters, approximately 30% are plays written by female playwrights, and approximately 30% of plays will be solely directed by female directors.

Tangney thinks that collecting the numbers does matter, related to fairness:  “The issue has been discussed in Australia for a number of years already, particularly by this group of playwrights called 7-ON  who raised the issue as a collective. I also have three sisters, none of whom are writers by the way, but they give me a fair insight into things as well, in terms of equality. So I just say to myself…’if I was a woman would I think that was fair?’  One thing I have been thinking about with this issue is that, where theatre companies receive state funding, you could argue that since taxpayers are funding the art, and governments are committed to equal opportunity, that the theatre companies should be required to represent the genders equitably in their choices of work by (at least, living, and taxpaying…) playwrights. But it is a tricky question, and not being involved myself in theatre I have no idea how you would implement this practically. But it is worth thinking about. If people in theatre are smart enough to put on all this great theatre, which I love, surely they are smart enough to work this out.”

In 2012, a major report on Women In Theatre was released by the Australia Council, in hopes of raising awareness about the current state of gender equity in the art form, and advocating for action to bring about change. Those who authored the report found “no progress over the decade since 2001 and there is evidence that the situation for women in creative leadership deteriorated over that time” (pps 4-5).

Hilary Bell also makes a strong case as to why it matters to keep track of gender parity-related stats.  Bell writes for theater, radio, film, TV, opera, and music theatre; she graduated from Julliard in 1998 and lives in Sydney, Australia. Bell responded to me on behalf of  the “7-On” Playwrights. Bell wonders what would happen if 16% male quotas were proposed for theater seasons, such as: “’In our next season, we will give male directors 16% of the productions.’ There’s an unconscious bias towards giving creative roles in theatre to men. The only way to redress the balance is to make employers conscious. Rightly, there’s a hue and cry about women being underrepresented on boards, in business and government. In the arts – supposedly inclusive, progressive, liberal – women artists are consistently marginalised. An all-male playwrights season raises no eyebrows; an all-female season (were anyone to ever propose one) is seen as a provocative statement. This, despite an equal number of female artists and a majority of female ticket-buyers. The ‘merit’ argument is as spurious as it is insulting. Only when artistic directors see the numbers, over and again, will they wake up to the fact of this discrimination, and do something about it.”

Another theatre data keeper here in the U.S. is Gwydion Suilebhan of Washington, D.C.; he’s a playwright, transmedia artist, arts advocate, and digital strategist for arts organizations. Suilebhan is part of the new D.C. company “The Welders, A Playwrights’ Collective.” Suilebhan has partnered with playwrights Patricia Connelly and David Mitchell Robinson to keep track of theatre demographic data from the area. The season results for 2013-14 are here. You can access the full study, launched in 2012, here. From the 2013-14 results: “Of the plays being produced in D.C. in the 2013-14 season, 73% were written by men, 27% by women. By comparison, in the 2012-13 season, 79% of the plays were written by men, 21% by women.”

Of why the numbers matter, Suilebhan writes: “Looking at data is like looking into a well-polished mirror. It shows us exactly who we are, whether we like what we see or not…and helps us make reality-based decisions. If we really want to achieve gender parity in the American theater, we have to know exactly where we’re starting from…and monitor whether our choices are really making a difference or not. That’s why I gather data.”

Performer Valerie Weak tallies data from the San Francisco area in monthly posts called “Counting Actors.” In a Tactics Interview with Amy Claire Tasker posted earlier in 2013 on the “Works by Women Blog,” Weak said: “The big tactic with Counting Actors is to let the numbers speak.  When I do my monthly blog post, I don’t say anything about how the numbers make me feel, about what’s bad or what’s good.  I just say here are the numbers, please talk about them.” Weak’s count may be found here. In one of Weak’s recent posts, she reports: “There were 56 shows (56%) that were on [AEA] contracts that use health weeks.Those shows had: 46 male directors, 21 female directors (67%, 33%), 58 male writers, 15 female writers (79%, 21%), 274 male actors, 208 female actors (57%, 43%).”

In the United Kingdom, Professor Maggie Gale made headlines this summer at a National Theatre panel in London with an assessment that women playwrights there are produced in the 8-12% range; this estimate is especially discouraging when compared to “18.4% in 1923, 20.4% in 1936, and 22% in 1945.”  (For a response to Gale from a different perspective, please read Katy Brand’s view.)

Wendy Thomson, Editor of, an online U.K. magazine promoting women in the arts, pointed me towards several key sites with research on gender parity and playwrights, such as the excellent Archives of the Sphinx Theatre, which lists on its header: “35% of actors, 17% of writers, 23% of directors…52% of the population.”  Thomson also referred me to this excellent Datablog piece in The Guardian from December 2012, about the 2:1 ratio of men to women working in theater, compiled in collaboration with Elizabeth Freestone: 35% of new plays in this Datablog are female-authored.

Another great U.K. site with specific regional data is the 17Percent Blog. In a guest post by Lindsay Nicholas, Nicholas writes that keeping track of what’s happening is purposeful: “For now, it seems to be down to writers themselves, such as Sam Hall at 17Percent, dedicated to changing a very bad statistic through regular showcases of women’s writing, to explore the issues. She suggests that close monitoring of gender ratios in theatre writing could bring about improvement. This has worked well in Sweden, for example, where in 2011 46% of new plays were written by women.”

Thomson, too, believes there’s value in keeping track of parity-related data. “It is important to monitor on a regular basis if gender inequality is decreasing or increasing and this activity should be funded! The public must be aware so they can celebrate when things get better and campaign when things get worse, we can never be complacent. There should be equality on stage just as in every walk of life. There can be rapid deterioration of women’s rights and achievements and that is why we need campaigners like Malala for girls education and LA FPI for Los Angeles playwrights.”

What of Canada? I do not have specific data from any regional sites to report. But here are some recent studies that address the general topic of Women in Theatre.

1) “…only 27 percent of the plays produced in Canada are written by female playwrights.” – “The Status of Women in Theatre: Disturbing Reports from Australia, Canada, and the US” by Sarah O’Conner, August 2012, Vol. 1, No.2, published in Women in TheatreFrom March 2011, the same 27% stat for female playwrights is quoted in “Females Try to Smash Glass Ceiling” by Kathleen Renne, but there’s also a mention that most stage managers and costumers are female.
2) The 2006 Study on the Status of Women in Canadian Theatre  – “Adding It Up”
3) The 2009 Equity in Canadian Theatre Report, from Professional Association of Canadian Theatre [PACT], discussed here.

Rebecca Burton, of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, shared an update on overall 2012-2013 stats and plans for a new Canadian initiative: “The Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) has followed-up every year since then [2006] with a straw poll to see how women playwrights are faring. This year, for the 2012/13 season, women constituted 23% of the produced playwrights (men were 61% and mixed gender collaborations accounted for 16%). These stats suggest that the situation is regressing rather than improving! PGC has plans to launch an industry-wide Equity initiative next year to help combat the problem.”

One global organization for women playwrights is the International Centre for Women Playwrights [ICWP]. They feature a research page for gender parity data on their site.

Margaret McSeveney is a writer, poet, and playwright who resides in the U.K. McSeveney has been an ICWP Board Member since 2000, was ICWP President from 2009-2011, and ICWP Vice President from 2011-2013. McSeveney, too, feels that data should be collected on gender parity in theatre: “It matters a great deal because the figures will show the progress (hopefully not the lack of progress) theatres are making towards treating women playwrights fairly, as artists worthy of equal treatment and human beings worthy of an equal share of the commissioning and production funding used to support the theatre industry.”

Winding back to New York City, I have discussed these same gender parity data issues recently via e-mail with several members of the League of Professional Theatre Women. There is a desire for a more formal study about gender parity in theater from LPTW members, and there’s a hope for future funding. Jenny Lyn Bader is a playwright and author, a Dramatists Guild member, the Artistic Producer at Theatre 167, and an executive board member of the League of Professional Theatre Women. Bader generously shared some of her thoughts about data collection related to gender parity arts stats, or lack thereof.

In regards to New York stats, Bader writes: “It’s shocking how little hard evidence there is to document this problem that so many are aware of — and how difficult it is even to find a record, not just of gender breakdowns in our industry, but of everything in our industry! It’s nearly impossible to find a comprehensive list of all Broadway and Off-Broadway openings. And forget Off-off-Broadway — we’re talking about 2,000 productions. “

A methodology for data collection is also daunting, related to the shows produced in New York. Bader notes: “I realize that the statistics are not easy to compile. For example, just look at new plays on Broadway in 2012. I found one list that seemed comprehensive. But it included Rebecca, which never even opened. So I narrowed it down to shows that opened. But does that include musicals? It might be easier not to count musicals since they are frequently co-authored. But then how do you count a play with music? Do you count one-person shows? Does Kiki Tyson count as a female playwright, since she co-authored, with Randy Johnson, Mike Tyson’s one-man show? Does the comedian Lewis Black whose Running on Empty played 8 performances on Broadway during its tour count as a male playwright? Should William Shatner’s one-man show count as a play? What about Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which has been produced on Broadway four times? Should that still count as a new play? Should Wit, by Margaret Edson, previously produced Off-Broadway and already having won the Pulitzer, be counted as new? Maybe since Edson and Albee are both alive, they can be put in the ‘new play’ category, but then how do we count Nora Ephron, whose play was produced posthumously but was new?  In the end, using any consistent method, it still looks like women playwrights wrote fewer than 15% of new plays produced on Broadway in 2012. But how do we decide on what the method is?” And of course, any variance in data collection methodologies may mean that the data is not directly comparable.

And even though issues of collection, such as funding and methodology, are challenging, it is necessary that we collect the data, according to Bader. “We’ve exploded glass ceilings in so many fields, but not in this one. There are different numbers, but everyone can agree that of produced plays, a minority are written by women, while women make up the majority of the audience. So women are coming to see these plays mostly written by men. At some point, that has an impact. It’s a question of putting women’s stories at the center of stories and not just on the sidelines, of privileging voices from both genders, of not teaching young women always to be considering things from the male point of view. It seems surprising and bizarre that we have not reached gender parity in a field such as theatre which is normally not perceived as exceptionally traditional or conservative. Indeed it seems so surprising and bizarre that many knowledgeable people don’t even believe it. That’s why the numbers matter. It’s important to collect them.”

With so many people in so many places agreeing on the need for gender equity data collection in theater, isn’t it time we start a serious conversation about ways to solve this numbers problem, so that studies may be executed to encompass all communities of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and the entire world beyond–including the vast number of non-English language theaters? And shouldn’t we extend our data numbers to embrace all positions held in theater, including designers, stage managers, costumers, etc.?

In closing, and in an attempt to answer the question I began with, about the ratio of female to male playwrights in American 2013-14 theater seasons, I do have one final piece of data to share. A volunteer in Los Angeles (who wishes to remain anonymous) counted all productions listed in the American Theater magazine 2013-2014 season preview, pages 48-97 of the October 2013 issue. This is only an estimate, as some slots were To Be Announced or listed no authors, and thus were unable to be tracked. These are the current seasons of 500 Theatre Communication Group member companies only, spread over 47 states. The data encompasses some non-English language shows. In keeping with other counting methods, any plays by William Shakespeare were not included.  This estimate found that 35% of the shows listed for 2013-14 were female-authored, and 65% were male-authored (female-authored shows, 446.93; male-authored shows, 1,274.77).

Again, this is only an estimate.

© 2013 by Laura A. Shamas. For permission to reprint or repost this article, please inquire: blog(at)lafpi(dot)com

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(If you have more links to share, please let us know in the comments and we will add them below as we can.)

Career Playwrights: (Australian) Working Women Dramatists, 1928-1968, by Michelle Arrow, University of Sydney
Seven On
Theatre in Sydney, Niall Tangney’s Site
2012 Women in Theatre Report by the Australian Council

Playwriting Australia

The 2006 Study on the Status of Women in Canadian Theatre: “Adding It Up”

From Rebecca Burton of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, on 2012-13 stats:
“The Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) has followed-up every year since then [2006] with a straw poll to see how women playwrights are faring. This year, for the 2012/13 season, women constituted 23% of the produced playwrights (men were 61% and mixed gender collaborations accounted for 16%). These stats suggest that the situation is regressing rather than improving! PGC has plans to launch an industry-wide Equity initiative next year to help combat the problem.”

Playwrights Guild of Canada, Women’s Caucus

Statistics on Women Filmmakers

Gender Issues for Female Playwrights and Filmmakers

Sphinx Theatre Archives
The Guardian Datablog in collaboration with Elizabeth Freestone
The 17percent Blog

The Blog of the Playwrights’ Commons – 2012-13 Stats
Company One – Season 15, 2013-14, all female playwrights

Gender Equity Report, 2010

8 of 10 shows at Cleveland Public by women, 2013-14: Cleveland Public Theatre

Los Angeles
2011  LA FPI “The Study,” lead by Ella Martin
2013 – “News”

New York
June 2013, Scream into a Bucket Alert – Guerrilla Girls On Tour
“Why Playwrights Horizon Isn’t Talking About the Gender Imbalance in Their Season”

North Carolina Triangle Theaters
2012-13 Data Compiled by Jules Odendahl-James, Resident Dramaturg, Duke University
“Women writers & directors representation in the 2012-2013 seasons of 20 Triangle NC Producing Theaters/Theater Companies.
94 shows announced. For 21 of these shows, directing staff unknown as of July 21, 2012.
27 women directors. (Some of these are directing more than one show in a season, e.g. Meredith College; some also creators of the work so they are given credit for directing and writing.)
2 women co-directing shows with men. (A Christmas Story, Haymaker’s Elektra).
13 female playwrights.
17 women working on projects as co-writer/part of devising company.”

San Francisco
Counting Actors by Valerie Weak

Washington, D.C.
DC Theatre Demographics, 2013-14, collected by Gwydion Suilebhan, Patricia Connelly and David Mitchell Robinson
DC Theatre Demographics, Full Study

2002 – “Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement” by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett
2010 – Discrimination and the Female Playwright by Julia Jordan and Sheri Wilner
2011 – Karen Kinch’s data on 2011 LORT counts, as cited in a 2012 post by Diane Grant
2012 – The VIDA Count 2012
2012/2013 – Guerrilla Girls On Tour Annual Girlcott List

With special thanks to Niall Tangney, Hilary Bell, Gwydion Suilebhan, Wendy Thomson, Margaret McSeveney, and Jenny Lyn Bader. 

15 thoughts on “The Numbers Problem and Why It Matters

  1. On the solutions side of gender parity, some of us worked to create a streamlined statement, which theaters (and our service organizations) could adopt and add to their mission and materials. A first step. Thanks to Catherine Rogers who drafted the final with me. Please use it if you can!

    “This organization is committed to advancing and sustaining fairness, equality and gender parity for all theater artists.”

  2. Thanks, everyone, for the welcome comments. Re: the last paragraph and final estimate, Shakespeare was not counted as he’s not counted in the TCG annual Top Ten List either:

    Yes, I agree it does make it “rosier” than it really is. I’d be happy to add any new estimate of the same pages with Shakespeare counted if anyone wishes to undertake it.

    Yes, the Jonas/Bennett link is in the original article under “USA/Misc,” but I’m happy to have it highlighted in the comments, too!

  3. Its great to see such a lengthy article on this subject, with so much information from around the globe. Two points to add (along with agreeing with Cindy Cooper’s citing of the Susan Jonas/Suzanne Bennett study in 2003). 1) the Emily Sands report had much more wrong with it than that the Doolee database was incomplete. It is in fact a self-reporting site, and thus cannot be considered reliable in any way. 2)why are we not counting Shakespeare as a male playwright in a company’s season? There are countless classical plays by women (and a number of initiatives currently underway to bring these scripts back to light). My guess is that by not counting Shakespeare, the numbers for women playwrights are artificially skewed higher, and thus tend to make the situation appear rosier than it actually is.

  4. thanks so much for this thorough article and all of these resources! I am honored to be included here. I think that this counting and measuring is important for individual female artists because it shows us the degree of bias in the system/culture, and helps us recognize that the ‘I’m not getting work/getting produced, so there must be something wrong with me’ feeling may actually be a kind of cultural gaslighting.
    I would love to see someone fund a counting measuring project and I would also love to see counting standards developed for use across the country. I would also like to figure out ways to count things that are more behind the scenes – how many scripts by men and scripts by women did the literary departments of those theaters receive/solicit? How many male directors and female directors applied to direct in the open slots? How many men and women were seen at auditions? How many tried to get seen? How do we measure these things too?

  5. Great work as always, Laura. Recently, we saw a few bright spots in the Los Angeles area. This fall, I’ve had the joy of seeing my work performed in local festivals giving women playwrights prominence; Santa Monica Rep’s WAVEFEST, which ran September 7 – October 13, 2013. Two-thirds of the plays, (including my new “5:15 a.m. Ocean Avenue”), performed there were written by women. The show was co-produced by Jen Bloom and Isabel Storey. Currently, my Eileen Heckart Award winning play, HAPPY AND GAY is part of the BROWN & OUT Festival at Casa0101 in magical Boyle Heights. One half of the plays in this fest have been penned by women playwrights. By the way, CASA0101 was founded and is run by Josefina Lopez, well known for “Real Women Have Curves.” BROWN & OUT runs weekends through November 3. Both of these productions are terrific examples of what theater in this town and nation CAN become when we provide support for each other.

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