Positions, Please: Confronting gender inequality in American theater

Theatre Unbound’s production of “Hamlet” // Photo courtesy of Theatre Unbound

I sit at a table with five other women and one man. I fidget with the papers in front of me, aware that no matter how prepared I am, this meeting might not go my way. I had told them, the other board members at this community theater, that I had something to discuss. Their eyes turn to me, and suddenly I’m nervous among friends.

We have a responsibility in the community to support gender equality, I say. In our theater’s history, only one-fifth of the plays we’ve produced were written by women. I dive in to my research, year by year, and the body language in the room has changed. The moment I say “gender equality,” eyes shift away, bodies lean back, arms cross.

The male board member, whose eye-rolling I can almost hear, tells me in no uncertain terms that he would not include a female playwright at the expense of a better male playwright, and that it degrades women to act as if they need help.

I’m stunned. The heat rises in my face. I search the room for an ally, and find silence.

I recount this experience to Anne Bertram, the executive director and a founding artistic associate of Theatre Unbound, a Minneapolis company devoted to work by and about women. “It can be a challenge,” she agrees, recalling her company’s founding. She was among a group of seven women “sharing tales of, you know, ‘I’m having a really hard time finding work, are you having a really hard time finding work?’ And the initial idea was, let’s give ourselves some work to do.”

Since Theatre Unbound began in 1999, they have given opportunities to over 700 female theater artists. In addition to their three seasonal productions, they offer an annual 24-hour play festival with an overwhelmingly female authorship, and are teaming up with Raw Sugar this year to develop comedic scripts as part of their WTF (women/trans/femme) New Play Workshop.

It turns out my community theater is a good reflection of American theater at-large. When The Lilly Awards Foundation conducted a survey in 2015 called The Count, they found an overwhelming 78 percent of theater productions in the U.S. were written by men. Lilly Awards cofounder Marsha Norman remarked, “Women have lived half of the experience of the world, but only 20 percent of it is recorded in our theatres.”

Miriam Monasch, Carolyn Levy and Teri Parker-Brown in 24:00:00 Xtreme Theatre Smackdown 2017 // Photo courtesy of Theatre Unbound

Not all theaters are conscious of the gender gap, however. Anne Bertram believes it’s about cultural perception. “The quote we often disseminate is ‘“King Lear” is perceived as being about death and mortality, “Wit” is perceived as being a play about a woman dying.’ So men are universal and women are not.”

Some may argue the problem is with the canon: “King Lear” was written by history’s most renowned playwright, whereas Margaret Edson of “Wit” is relatively unknown. What they might not understand is that the canon is never set in stone: “Wit” was declined by theaters across the country before South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California took a chance on the first-time playwright, sparking acclaim and winning several awards, including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This imbalance of access is reflected in the recognition for dramatic achievement—just 15 of the 86 Pulitzer Prize–winning dramatic plays were written in full or in part by women.

It’s not just writers who are underrepresented—similar inequality exists behind the curtains, so to speak. A study by the League of Professional Theatre Women in 2015 found that in New York City, just 33 percent of theater directors were women. That’s where Hayley Finn, an associate artistic director for the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, began her directing career. “There were a lot of male directors who had taken on female assistant directors, which was really kind, and I benefited from that. But it was very difficult to get past that and get the jobs, particularly the higher-level paying jobs.”

Director Danya Taymor (left) and Core Writer Martyna Majok at the Playwrights’ Center in January 2017, part of the 2016-17 Ruth Easton New Play Series // Photo by Paula Keller

It’s not just a matter of getting women into decision-making roles, however. Emily Glassberg Sands tested this theory for gender bias in her doctoral thesis at Princeton. She distributed four scripts among different artistic directors all over the country, changing only the gender of the pen name between two male and two female names. She then asked the artistic directors to rate the scripts along a variety of criteria. She found, incredibly, that female artistic directors were even less likely to produce a “female-written” script than their male counterparts.

What accounts for this? Do they subconsciously think that producing a female-written play will pigeonhole them in some way? Do they think selecting a male’s work instead will make them look more “serious”? There are no obvious answers to account for unconscious bias. The solution, in part, is to make that bias a conscious factor in the decision-making process.

Take for example The Playwrights’ Center, which supports over 1,800 playwrights across the globe through its membership, fellowship, and education programs. They also develop new works through their Core Writer program and offer fellowships through the McKnight and Jerome foundations, totaling more than $325,000 each year. “This season, 70 percent of the fellows are women, 60 percent of the writers in our Core Writer program are women,” Hayley says. “These numbers are significantly higher than the number of women playwrights being produced in this country.” Just this spring, The Playwrights’ Center announced the incoming Jerome and Many Voices fellows, of which six out of seven playwrights are women.

“We don’t select any of the writers ourselves, the artistic staff,” Hayley explains, “but we curate panels [to select the playwrights] and we work to find a really diverse panel—diverse in terms of aesthetic, in terms of gender, and in terms of race. I think when you create a diverse panel like that […] it’s inevitably reflected in terms of the writers we support.”

If bias is unconscious, what can artists do in their own communities to bring about gender parity? Hayley says it’s all about the relationships. “We are very conscious that we recommend plays of women—other people too, not only women, but there are many women that we really advocate for because we think their plays should get done, and we think they should get produced more.”

Core Writer Christina Ham and director Hayley Finn during a rehearsal of Ham’s “West of Central,” part of PlayLabs 2016 // Photo by Paula Keller

Anne sips on her tea, looks away, and answers thoughtfully, “The more diverse your decision-makers are, the more profitable you are. The more balance in terms of gender, the more balance in terms of race, you get smarter when you have the different perspectives in the room. Make a concerted effort to have women and people of color in the decision-making. Always bring the numbers to light. Cultivate relationships with women artists, cultivate relationships with women playwrights.”

Back at my theater, the conversation has continued—most notably with my male counterpart. He has encouraged finding ways to include more female playwrights, and we have begun work on a female-centric festival of one-acts for the fall.

Theaters should seek out new relationships, balance their decision makers, and research the numbers. People can change, and so can theaters. I asked Anne if she foresaw a future where women’s theaters wouldn’t need to exist. “I feel hopeful that things will change and shift as we move through time […] but there is plenty of work to be done.”