Tag Archives: gender equity in playwriting

Notes and Quotes: The D.C. Women’s Voices Festival

by Laura Shamas

The travel gods smiled on me this fall, and I’ve been able to catch several new plays that are part of the historic D.C. Women’s Voices Festival, currently running in our nation’s capital. The Festival’s mission, according to their website, is one that I love and support: “To highlight the scope of new plays being written by women, and the range of professional theater being produced in the nation’s capital,” as part of “the largest collaboration of theater companies working simultaneously to produce original works by female writers in history.”

About fifty-tWomensVoicesLogowo world premieres of female-authored plays and musicals are being produced by 48 D.C. area theaters, a mix of large and small companies (Equity and non-Equity); the launch party was on September 8, and the last show closes on Nov. 22, 2015.

With a budget of over $500,000, co-produced by Nan Barnett (Executive Director of the New Play Network) and Jojo Ruf (Managing Director of The Global Lab at Georgetown University and Executive & Creative Director of The Welders), the Festival was modeled on the 2007 “Shakespeare in Washington” celebration that lasted for six months across the city. Over a two-year period, 7 D.C. area theaters created the Women’s Voices Festival: Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Make no mistake about it: the Festival is both a boost to women playwrights and a way to draw attention to the scope of D.C. theaters – a win/win.

I am unable to see even 1/10th of the shows being offered, so I don’t consider myself an expert about the Festival in any way – just a lucky pop-in attendee. Here are some of my informal impressions, with quotes from some of the amazing artists involved in the Festival.

“Witches Vanish” by Claudia Barnett – Back row from left, Lakeisha Harrison, Vivian Allen and Tara Cariaso, with front row from left, Leticia Monet and Jennifer Berry, directed by Deborah Randall. (Photo by Deborah Randall)

1) WITCHES VANISH by Claudia Barnett

The first play I got to see in the Festival was Witches Vanish by Claudia Barnett, directed by Deborah Randall at Venus Theatre. LA FPI’s own Jennie Webb put Barnett’s play on my radar, and I’m so glad she did. I’ve had a longstanding mythological interest in The Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and this play features the archetypal trio as a metaphoric theatrical entity who witness (or sometimes cause?) women vanishing, in real life and in literature. As playwright, Barnett asks from a political, historical and sociological perspective: “Why do women vanish?” With elements of puppetry, dance and fascinating vignettes, Barnett’s script interweaves scenes about “lost” women; it runs 90 minutes without an intermission. I admired the theme and originality of Barnett’s play and Randall’s inventive direction. I admired the all-female cast.

Witches Vanish closed in late September, and I asked Barnett for her thoughts about her play and the Festival: “Witches Vanish gives voices to women who’ve disappeared throughout time—both by telling their (fictionalized) stories and by explicitly naming them in a series of chants between scenes. Given the common theme, it fit the Festival perfectly.”

Barnett described what it was like to be there as a playwright: “The sense of community was amazing, even for an out-of-town playwright who was only in Maryland for four days. One reason was Lorraine Treanor, who introduced the playwrights to each other with her series of interviews, which she distributed to us daily with cheerful emails. (The interviews are posted on the DC Theatre Scene website.) Another reason was the American Theatre photo shoot, where many of us met. I remember the moment when we were all nervously posed on the staircase at the Arena Stage and were told this shot would be the cover of the October issue. First I felt shock, then acceptance, then delight. It’s a tremendous honor to be part of that group.”

Claudia Barnett is the author of No. 731 Degraw-street, Brooklyn, or Emily Dickinson’s Sister: A Play in Two Acts, published in October by Carnegie Mellon University Press.

2) CHIMERICA by Lucy Kirkwood

The next play I saw related to the Festival was Chimerica by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. Although it was not an official part of it, it was scheduled to “coincide” with the Festival. This is Chimerica’s U.S. premiere. I‘ve wanted to see this play since I’d first heard about its 2013 run in London (and its subsequent wins for Best Play for both The Evening Standard and the Oliver Awards). The title refers to the domination of the U.S. and China in modern geopolitics, covering a span of twenty years. A photographer’s iconic photo taken in Tiananmen Square becomes a catalyst for a mystery that spans generations and cultures. The two-act play, masterfully directed by David Muse, at the Studio Theatre, is ambitious, powerful and quite moving. It was over three hours long but seemed to fly by. Kirkwood’s approach was cinematic in style and epic in scope: I find myself still reflecting about her characters and images more than a month after seeing it. (For more on Studio Theatre’s production of Chimerica, click here.)

3) IRONBOUND by Martyna Majok

Ironbound by Martyna Majok, directed by Daniella Topol, at Round House Theatre was the next show I caught in the Festival. Majok, who was born in Poland, is an award-winning playwright on the rise (New Play Network Smith Prize, David Calicchio Emerging American Playwright Prize, 2015-2016 PONY Award, among others). Majok was inspired to tell the story of Darja, a Polish immigrant who works as a caretaker and factory-laborer, because “poor women” are misrepresented in our theatres; in the video linked below, Majok comments: “I wanted to see my own story on stage.” Ironbound is a 90-minute tour-de-force that takes place mostly at an urban bus stop; it has a cast of four. A huge “X” image in the industrial set by James Kronzer marks the spot; it embodies the protagonist’s economic and emotional quagmire, suggesting a steel cage. The protagonist Darja (beautifully played by Alexandra Henrikson) holds the stage the entire show, and we learn in real time and flashbacks about the key points of her life and relationships in the U.S., from 1992 – 2006. Without giving too much of the plot away, I felt especially lucky that I got to see Ironbound with my mother. It’s ultimately about the bond between mother and son, and the meaning of love.

Ironbound will open next in New York in March 2016, co-produced by The Women’s Project and Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, again directed by the talented Topol. (For a brief interview with Majok about Ironbound, scroll through this page.)


“Inheritance Canyon” by Liz Maestri, directed by Lise Bruneau. Pictured: Esther Williamson as Shell. (Photo by Brittany Diliberto.)

I’ve followed playwright Liz Maestri for years on Twitter, and was thrilled to have a chance to see her new play Inheritance Canyon as part of the Festival, directed by Lise Bruneau, produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Company.  Maestri is based in D.C. Her most recent projects include the site-specific piece LAZE MAJESTY with Field Trip Theatre, and she was a 2015 O’Neill Playwriting Theatre Conference finalist.

Inheritance Canyon is a zany and thought-provoking look at a scientific experiment and the meaning of life. It takes place in a canyon near a desert, and involves three friends: Shell (Esther Williamson), Sal (Teresa Castracane) and Gary (James Flanagan). They witness a mysterious explosion, and then are put under medical surveillance, a sort of limbo-quarantine, for the rest of the play. This work was commissioned by Taffety Punk and is related to a previous Maestri play, Owl Moon (the program notes describe Inheritance Canyon as an “un-prequel”). I didn’t see Owl Moon, but I did catch that the owl is a major symbol/prop in Inheritance Canyon, and is connected to “doubling.” The play, in two acts, runs about two hours, with intermission.

And speaking of intermission, the character switch that happens (during it?) between the first Shell and the other Shell (Gwen Gastorf) was theatrically fun at the top of Act Two. One of the meta-themes in Maestri’s play was “performance” in modern life: if we “perform” a function, does that mean we become it, Maestri asks? Gary, one of the doomed trio, repeatedly states his longtime dream to be a performer, and rehearses songs, wearing a wig, as he impersonates Olivia Newton-John in anticipation of an audition that never comes. Shell wants to pretend to be a scientist, and in the end, a Camera Kid/Intern comes along to document the “reality” of it all.

I asked Maestri for her thoughts on attending the Festival, as well as being featured in it: “The Women’s Voices Festival has been a powerful and formidable ride so far. I’m very much inspired by all the new and exciting work I’m seeing, the energy around the Festival itself, and the remarkable efforts of Nan Barnett and Jojo Ruf realized. I’m still processing it all–the past few months have been such a whirlwind of new experiences, hard work, and straight-talk about the industry’s commitment to parity. The Festival is churning things up, causing trouble, changing lives, starting conversations, and catapulting new art into the world. I’m proud to be part of it.”

“Queens Girl in the World” by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Pictured: Dawn Ursula. (Photo by Teresa Wood.)

5) QUEENS GIRL IN THE WORLD by Caleen Sinnette Jennings

Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings has two plays in the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival. Jennings’ one-person play Queens Girl in the World, directed by Eleanor Holdridge and produced by Theater J, is the last show that I saw.

This play stars the virtuoso performer Dawn Ursula as the young Jacqueline Marie Butler (“Jackie”), during her tween to teenage years–until the mid-1960’s–in Queens. Ursula plays every character in the piece, including her worldly “best friend” Persephone Wilson, Jackie’s parents, young male suitors, the grandfather of a friend who molests her, her teachers, her mixed race middle school friend Doug, Persephone’s mother, and more. Jackie must constantly navigate dual worlds: neighborhood street life versus her stricter home rules as the daughter of a doctor; Queens versus Manhattan, as one of four black students in a progressive Greenwich Village school; leaving childhood/entering adulthood.

Queens Girls in the World depicts in two acts (with the act break serving as a tone shift marker when the script turns from “fun” to “serious”) what it was like for a studious, bright African-American girl to grow up in the Civil Rights era, and to live through its violent days: the 1963 death of Medgar Evers, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. She memorizes the names of the four girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carole Denise McNair. Jackie gets to meet Malcolm X one night, and then, soon after, mourns his death. By the end of the play, Jackie’s parents are so fed up with life in America that they move to Nigeria. The beautiful star-field projected at the end of the show, as they sail away, serves to highlight Jackie’s poignant continuing search for her identity. Everything about the production is top-notch, and the super-talented Dawn Ursula is unforgettable.

One thing I’ve been tracking is the number of excellent female directors working in the Festival. It’s been inspiring to see so many female-helmed productions. I asked Eleanor Holdridge, a director in great demand and the head of the MFA Directing Program at Catholic University, about directing in the Festival: “It has been so thrilling to direct not one but two World Premieres by Caleen Sinnette Jennings in the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival. Just opened her Queens Girl in the World at Theatre J, a semi-autobiographical piece in which the wonderful work of Dawn Ursula evokes a girl coming of age in a very turbulent time. A really remarkable process.”

Darius&Twig_titleimage KenCenHoldridge continued: “On October 8, I will embark on rehearsals for Caleen’s Darius and Twig, a TYA show at the Kennedy Center, based on Walter Dean Myers’ stunning young adult novel about two kids growing up in Harlem whose friendship and resilience take them through very difficult times. The current draft gets beautifully at the difficulty and joy of growing up in rough circumstances. And somewhere in the middle of it all, on October 19th, I will direct a reading of a new play by Sarah Gancher at Mosaic Theatre, The Place We Built, about the lives of young people striving for voices and a place of their own in Hungary. It’s a thrilling bi-product of the festival that so many women directors are being brought along for the ride. For my female directing and playwriting students, I find the season a wonderful inspiration for what enriching strength that women theatre artists can bring to the art form in America.”


I wish I could see many other shows in this Festival, which runs until late November; it is such a rich, thrilling expansive endeavor. I tweeted an inquiry several days ago, to ask if the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival might become an annual event. (Fingers crossed?) They responded: “Great question. At this point it’s still too soon to say. We’ll keep you posted on any updates.” In Holly L. Derr’s recent Howl Round post about the Festival, Nan Barnett mentions plans for a post-Festival handbook that could be used as a guide by other cities to mount their own versions of this kind of festival. Yes, please!

Martha Richards, Founder and Executive Director of Women Arts, attended the first October industry weekend of the Women’s Voices Festival, and was part of a Gender Parity panel on October 4 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Richards notes the Festival’s significance: “I think that history will recognize the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as a turning point for women in theater. Gender parity activists have been looking for ways to reach our goal of 50/50 by 2020, and large-scale festivals like this provide a perfect mechanism to push our numbers up quickly. So many women in theatre are fed up with the inequality in our field, and I predict that the Washington role model will inspire them to create similar festivals all over the world.”


While there are some who feel that the concept of a “Woman’s Festival” is patronizing in and of itself (e.g., shouldn’t “women playwrights” just be considered “playwrights,” after all?), I applaud these innovative producers and theatre-makers in D.C. for taking positive action, and for bringing attention to female writers and the thriving theatre community in our nation’s capital.

In future iterations, one always hopes for improvements. Here are a couple of areas to consider:

a) Inclusion – Playwrights of Color. In the October 2015 article entitled “Women’s Work” by Suzy Adams in American Theatre, Arena Stage’s artistic director Molly Smith regrets that the number of writers of color in this Festival is less than 10 percent: “When we talk about diverse voices, it always has to include race, and I think that’s one thing for me that’s a weakness of this particular festival” (p. 47). That’s an important factor that should be addressed in a future festival incarnation or iteration.

b) Coverage Disparity? It’s so hard to get press for the arts these days, so we’re all grateful for the theatre reviews that are published. But as is standard in reviewing festivals these days, the practice of combining critiques of several shows within the same review seems to infer “competition” among the shows (a “see this, skip this” consumerist tack, sometimes even at the headline level). Also, some plays in the Festival received their own stand-alone reviews, while others didn’t. I don’t know what the remedy to it is from a press perspective, but I’m sure some of the theaters noticed levels of disparity in the coverage. Surely the playwrights noticed, too.


Could this festival be replicated/produced/curated in another city? Yes! How about it, L.A.? Why not try to organize a multi-month festival involving fifty (or more) L.A. theaters that’ll produce shows by female playwrights at the same time? Let’s consider this, SoCal theatre-makers. It’s a great way to promote the high talent level of our theaters, large and small, as well as promote the high level of female playwrights who reside and work here.

And beyond L.A., I hope the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival launches a worldwide movement: Women’s Voices Everywhere! Maybe if enough female-focused festivals occur, it will eventually be “normal” to include a 50/50 ratio of female playwrights in all regular seasons on the world’s stages. A playwright can dream, can’t she?

(Note: A shorter version of this post is published in the International Centre for Women Playwrights October 2015 Newsletter. Another version is published on the Women Arts blog. )


D.C. Women’s Voices Festival

“Women’s Voices Theater Festival: Getting a Piece of Real Estate” by Jami Brandli

“Something is Afoot in Washington, D.C.” by Holly L. Derr & The Women’s Voices Festival Weekend Recap by Holly L. Derr

“Women’s Voices Theater Festival in Washington is An Energizing Showcase” by Charles Isherwood, New York Times 

“Putting Women in the Spotlight” by Nelson Pressley, Washington Post 

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 Doollee.com 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 www.theatresydney.info], 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 FemaleArts.com, 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.