Tag Archives: dramatists

Taking Stock

(Guest Blogger This Week – Laura A. Shamas, LA FPI Co-Founder and National Outreach Agent)

The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, as a grassroots movement dedicated to the cause of achieving gender parity for women playwrights (and all female theatre artists), has been around for awhile now. Inspired by the advocacy efforts by women playwrights in New York, Jennie Webb and I had our first conversation about it in September 2009 over lunch at the Marmalade Café on Ventura Blvd. In November 2009, we put up a temporary website, begged Ella Martin to head a study of L.A. female playwrights’ activities in the first decade of the 21st century, and tried to figure out how to organize a community-wide outreach to the hundreds of female dramatists here (and those who love them)—not an easy feat when you consider SoCal’s 500 square miles.  But we knew lots of people here cared about this issue and wanted to do something about it. We had our first official meeting in March 2010 at Theatricum Botanicum during a major storm; it seems like a metaphor, looking back. Still, many talented women and men trekked to Topanga Canyon during the torrential rain, and spoke from the heart about how and why this cause—and theatre as an art form—matters.

That initial wet chilly meeting seems like ancient history now; so much good work has happened in the past 2+ years. There’s a long list of artist-volunteers who have contributed to the LA FPI mission. Some highlights include: the creation of this website by Jennie Webb, sponsored by Katherine James; the award-winning staff of playwright-bloggers (Tiffany Antone, Erica Bennett, Nancy Beverly, Robin Byrd, Kitty Felde, Diane Grant, Jen Huszcza, Sara Israel, Cindy Marie Jenkins, Analyn Revilla, and Cynthia Wands) who are featured daily in this space, expertly managed by editor Robin Byrd; Ella Martin’s historic 2011 study results; Alyson Mead’s podcasts with inspiring women playwrights; the Women at Work Onstage page (still the only weekly list of female-authored shows in L.A.), created/maintained by Laurel Moje Wetzork; the bi-monthly e-mail blasts that include member news and submission opportunities, curated by Erica Bennett, then Helen Hill (we’re now looking for communication help!); the support from Larry Dean Harris, who wrote about us for The Dramatist—and gave us a spotlight, featuring Janice Kennedy, at a 2010 regional Dramatists Guild meeting (followed by a panel slot for us at 2011 National DG Conference); the new venture with Tactical Reads launching this week, connecting women playwrights to female directors, originated/helmed by Sabina Ptasznik; the spread of our badges on the Web and in person (a branding scheme with an important meme); an annual look at LORT seasons and stats in SoCal as related to gender parity and playwriting; the enthusiastic LA FPI support for female artists in the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2011 & 2012 (lead by Cindy Marie Jenkins, Jennie Webb, Jan O’Connor, Alyson Mead, Kat Primeau, and Jessica Abrams); sharing scenes via social media in order to increase accessibility and visibility; approaching theaters to ask how we can build relationships, fostered by Debbie Bolsky and Tami Tirgrath; meet-ups to see plays by women, coordinated by Task Force leader Diane Grant; online discussions, such as the fascinating one just hosted by Cindy Marie Jenkins with guests Etta Devine and Carolyn Sharp, about applying the Bechdel Test to the stage—a streamed broadcast that may (fingers crossed!) evolve into an ongoing monthly LA FPI/TV theatre conversation; etc. We have more people following us on Twitter, domestically and worldwide, than ever before. Lots of folks “Like” us on Facebook. And it’s all been created and executed by volunteers of professional theatre artists, for free!


But has anything really changed? “Has LA FPI made any difference at all?” It’s a question I’m frequently asked and asking. When we compiled the SoCal LORT stats in May/June this year, for a while it looked as if there might be small gains of +1.5% or even +3.5%, in terms of female-authored shows for the 2012-2013 professional seasons. But then, in the end, it was pretty much the same as it ever was: still around 22% (or slightly less). Discouraging! “Is consciousness-raising effective anymore?” we wonder. Why doesn’t the excellent LA FPI blog have more commenters, at the very least?

In these moments, I have to remind myself: Statistics don’t tell the whole story—only part of it. Things have changed in this way: we are not sitting around and ignoring “the problem” any more. We were cautioned in the early days of LA FPI not to confuse “Activity” with “Progress.” Maybe not, but when you have this much ongoing work towards a goal (see above), there’s a shift of some sort—of attitude, of creativity, of focus, of opportunity, of spirit. It may take many more years before we achieve true gender parity for female theatre artists in the English-speaking theatre (or for women in the world at large). But we’re pretty sure that more Angelenos are aware of the issue and are working towards the goal of parity now. Solved? No. Better? Definitely.

Female theatre artists in New York continue to advocate for gender parity; the 2012 Lilly Awards held on June 4, 2012, at Playwrights Horizons, and the upcoming “We Are Theatre” protest on September 24, 2012, at the Cherry Lane Theater (organized by the Guerrilla Girls On Tour!, 50/50 by 2020, Occupy Broadway, and the Women’s Initiative members of the Dramatists Guild) are two timely examples.

Recent reports from the U.K. and Australia also mirror our struggles. Lyn Gardner, writing from London in The Guardian in February 2012, wonders if a universal blind submission policy is a possible remedy. A new report, “Women in Theatre,” released April 2012 by the Australian Council for the Arts, details the status of Australian women playwrights and female theatre artists. 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). It’s a thorough, well-crafted study, and on page 49, there’s a “cross-sectoral approach” that suggests three pathways towards improvement in the professional theatre arena:

1) Information
2) Accountability
3) Vigilance

These points really resonated with us because they align with so much of our LA FPI work thus far. And it’s reassuring to know that others in the arts, including the Australian Council, recognize that the problem of gender parity in theatre is a grave one and must be remedied.

Here’s our promise. We will continue to spread the word; we are taking stock. And of this you can be certain: we won’t give up.

What are your ideas about how to create equal opportunities for women playwrights and female theatre artists? Join us on Wednesday, June 27, 7 p.m., for our next LA FPI gathering to share ideas and network, followed by an 8 p.m. reading of Paula Cizmar’s new play Strawberry, directed by Sabina Ptasznik in the new Tactical Reads program
. And please share your thoughts in the comments section below. 


Knowing Your Place and Your Story…

Most of my life, people have tried to put me in a place.  This place is usually wherever they think I should be based on who they think I am.  In my quest to know myself and to know my voice as a storyteller, I have had to make it a point to stay true to who I know myself to be.  Round pegs don’t fit into square holes; square blocks don’t fit into round holes, nor, do 41-inch hips fit into a size 4 pair of pants.  Tried it.  You might get in them by some miracle but you aren’t getting out of them without a fight or a pair of good cutting shears.  Lost a favorite pair of jeans that way…oh, the memories…I had purchased them when I was stationed in Germany, they were black and had straight legs, and – I digress.  I was stuck in them for two days, thank God for undies that snap.  There is nothing like a jolt of reality to make you pay attention to what happens when things don’t fit which is why one must know one’s own place in this world.  The wrong influence can send you off on a wild goose chase or land you in a pair of pants that you have outgrown.  Growing, in itself, is not a bad thing but ill-fitted clothing can be a hot mess.  Knowing yourself as an artist will help you navigate the waters no matter what changes around you.

Some years ago, I attended a conference where the playwrights were assigned directors to direct the reading of their pieces.  One of the playwrights at the conference got a director who chopped her 20 minute scene up so bad; we weren’t able to give her any feedback on her original scene.  The whole purpose for the playwrights to attend the conference was to hear their work read.  I had to stop the same director from adding lines that did not belong into my 20 minute piece.  I explained to this director that I wanted to hear what I had written; if, after hearing it read, I wanted to change something, it would be my choice.  I knew my piece.  I knew what I had written and why and I wanted to hear it as written; I also knew my rights as a playwright (see Dramatists Guild Bill of Rights http://www.dramatistsguild.com/files/DGBillofRights.pdf) so, I spoke up – not only to the director but also to the conference runners in the “after conference” survey.  The magic that is supposed to happen when a piece has the right director is something to aim for (I’ve had it and oh, the ride is rich and full of surprises, confirmations, and just out and out joyous moments.).  Twenty minutes isn’t a lot of time; it wasn’t a showcase on directing though a reading done well does just that, it was a snippet of a play read for the playwright’s benefit.  From my 20 minutes, I was able to tell that the audience liked my story and wanted to hear more which let me know I was on the right track.  I asked the other playwright why she allowed the director to move things around in her piece (which even with the disjointing of the scene we could tell she was an excellent writer, we just didn’t know what her story was supposed to be about); she said she didn’t know she could stop the director from making changes.  I told her to join the Dramatists Guild www.dramatistsguild.com .  Information is liberating. 

As a playwright, collaboration with other theater artists will enter the process; it is a given.  Part of what makes theater so powerful is the collective gifting of the playwrights, directors, actors, set designers, costumers, lighting and sound techs, etc. who all add to the theater experience.  Just last August, I had a play read in North Carolina.  The group of actors and director who came together to breathe life into my words were so phenomenal.  A character thought to be unnecessary (by panel members) at a previous reading proved to be quite necessary in this one.  The director understood the character.  The director, also, knew how to pull this character out of the actress portraying the character.  The actress knew her craft and knew how to stretch…  Where I was unable to hear the true voice at the previous reading, I was blown away at the second one.  I had suspected that Indigo had something to say and am eternally grateful to the actress, Antonia McCain, who gave Indigo her moments.  I am, also, grateful to the director, Melinda J. Morais, and all of the other actors and actresses who contributed to that reading for list see http://ladybyrdcreations.com/byrd_sightings.  I could hear the harmony building from page to voice, hinting at the stage…

The quest for harmony is an intricate part of what I do when I create.  I try, with each play, to access the artists circle – a place, my place, where all things are equal.  There is neither male nor female in my artists circle – only songs of the soul and rhythms of the spirit – and that circle is sacred.  If I did not know what my place/purpose is, I would never be able to regulate where I should be at any given time.  My journey would be undefined.  I would not know which stories are mine to tell and which ones are for some other writer.  Knowing my place in the artists circle helps me stay focused on keeping the “waste of time factor out of the equation – out of the place where stories are born…