Fourteen years ago, a group of anonymous, feminist, artists and critics, The Guerilla Girls decided to analyze the gender dynamics of the theater world. Their findings? “There’s a tragedy on Broadway, and it isn’t Electra. Only eight percent of the plays and less than one percent of the musicals on Broadway were written by women. Guerilla Girls think that’s even sadder than a Greek tragedy.”
Unfortunately, this tragedy has been compounded by the passage of time. According to Karen Moore, founder and executive producer of the Memphis Women’s Theatre Festival, progress since 1999 has been glacial. In 2011, for example, only 17 percent of plays produced nationwide were written by women, and only 16 percent were women-directed. At the same time, Moore notes that year after year, approximately 69 percent of ticket buyers and 63 percent of audience members are female.
“Women are greatly under-represented in theater,” she wrote in an email. “Despite the fact that great strides have been made in other fields, women continue to face enormous employment challenges in the arts.”
Although the problem exists everywhere – from Broadway to Off and Off Off Broadway to regional theaters and Summerstock – groups including the New York State Council on the Arts [NYSCA] report that the smaller and poorer the company – and the farther it is from the bright lights of midtown Manhattan – the higher the participation of women. In fact, a 15-year-old NYSCA survey found that US theaters with an operating budget of less than $500,000 featured the works of women playwrights and directors far more often – occasionally hitting the 30 percent mark – than theaters on the Great White Way.
Molly Marinik, Literary Manager of the Barefoot Theatre Company in New York City, told Truthout that this, too, has remained relatively static. “The smaller companies have more freedom to produce works that are exciting to them, including perspectives that differ from those of straight white men,” she begins. Still, she makes clear that both gender and racial discrimination persist. “While the Off Broadway and regional theater communities include mention of diverse works as a discussion point, it is still very often considered a generosity. When the plays of women and people of color are produced, you know it’s an issue because when you look at the season’s lineup, you say, ‘Oh, wow, there are three plays by women, blacks, Latinos or Asians,’ as if it’s a huge thing.”
Marinik blames theater’s lack of diversity on habit, history and expectation. “For a long time, the American theater voice was exclusively male. We tend to trust men with our storytelling. The male voice is the default in all forms of entertainment. It’s what we’re used to, but people are coming to realize that this has to change,” she says.
One roadblock, Marinik notes, is that people are reluctant to criticize small, underfunded companies, as if casting aspersions on hard-working actors, directors, designers and producers somehow undermines their efforts. What’s more, those on the defensive are typically quick to point to numerous contemporary women, many of them of color, who have succeeded – Caryl Churchill, Katori Hall, Eve Ensler, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Theresa Rebeck, Susan Stroman and Wendy Wasserstein, among them – as proof that the critique is unfounded.
But it’s not. And despite less-than-encouraging numbers, women of all races, creeds, colors and ages continue to flock to theater, hoping against hope that they’ll be able to defy the odds and make it.
Actor and playwright Aizzah Fatima’s one-woman show, Dirty Paki Lingerie, a performance piece that addresses what it is like to be Muslim-American from multiple women’s perspectives, has been performed Off Off Broadway, on numerous US college campuses and on the festival circuit in Canada, Pakistan and Scotland. Despite challenges including the near-constant paternalism of producers and directors who treat her as if she’s a know-nothing little girl, writing for live theater offers Fatima something that other creative outlets do not. “I’m interested in developing strong, intelligent characters that move away from the stereotypes of Muslim women as battered, abused, sexually enslaved or married to terrorists or imams,” she says. “I almost never see women from my cultural heritage portrayed in a positive light, so I wrote something myself. For me, there is something magical about people being in a room and watching theater together. There is something to see and feel and connect to that takes everyone away to another place.”
Like Fatima, playwright and performer Aja Houston says that she began writing plays to create roles for the kinds of women she is drawn to. “There are not enough female characters who live on their own terms,” she says. “The most popular plays about people of color are gritty urban dramas about the ghetto, the ‘hood. I am not saying that this is not a valid theme, but there are many other facets to the black experience. It’s important to me not to be easily categorized as an African-American professional.” Nonetheless, the need for what Houston calls “multifaceted, 3-D, characters” inspires her to keep writing. At the same time, her exasperation about the shortsightedness of today’s theater establishment is audible. “The kind of work that theater companies pick for staged readings or full production is all too often not as varied, not as out-of-the-box or imaginative as I’d like to see. Way too frequently the year’s production roster is completely devoid of works by people of color and I can’t help but think that producers rely on who they know or who studied with whom.”
Yet despite her frustration, Houston is clear that when a production works – when an audience is moved to tears, jubilation or outrage – there’s nothing better.
Playwright Cindy Cooper, whose prochoice ensemble piece, Words of Choice, has been widely performed, underscores the power of theater to sway public opinion. She points to plays about AIDS as an example. “Theater is a live conversation that offers a richness that does not exist in other forms of writing,” she explains. “It allows an audience to think through a problem, experience something from someone else’s shoes and then change their thinking. Theater can take people to places they can’t otherwise get. Plays about AIDS sensitized people to what it meant to have the virus or be HIV-positive. They helped shift the culture. People were able to see AIDS, AIDS activism, and the health care system differently, more sympathetically, as a result.”
That such a shift has not happened around women’s issues makes sense to Cooper. “Because of all the theater people lost to the pandemic, the theater community had an intrinsic interest in the topic. Theater about women or women’s rights is not necessarily of interest in the same intrinsic way,” she says. To emphasize the point, Cooper notes that three separate attempts to establish a women’s committee within the Dramatists Guild have been rebuffed.
This is where women’s theater festivals and the nearly 50 women’s theater companies throughout the US come in. Dee Jae Cox, co-founder and artistic director of the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project (LAWTP), admits that she had long been aware of women’s under-representation in all things theater-related. Still, when a 2011 study conducted by the LA Female Playwrights Initiative confirmed that women made up just 20 percent of the area’s working professionals, she knew she had to do something concrete. “I wanted to do more than simply complain about the disparity of women in the performing arts and make a concerted effort to address the problem,” she wrote in an email. Along with songwriter Michele Weiss, Cox created the LAWTP. “We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is dedicated to the education, support, promotion and performance of projects that are written and directed by women and are of interest to women. We also serve as fiscal sponsors for any woman wishing to produce her own work. I tell playwrights all the time, ‘Don’t spend years writing a play and then wait around for someone to like it. If you believe in it then get it on the stage.’ “
Similarly, playwright and actor Adilah Barnes, co-founder of the 20-year-old Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival (LAWTF), an annual presentation of approximately 20 solo works, says that when she noticed that there was no vehicle for female performers to present one-woman shows, she raised the issue with a few women colleagues; shortly thereafter, the group took it upon itself to develop the LAWTF.
Maxine Kern, co-president of the League of Professional Theatre Women, is a cautious celebrant of gender-specific events. “Over the last 15 years, festivals that started off as a daring feat now have a heartening regularity,” she says. “It’s a ghetto, but it gives women a home and is affirming. I just worry that audiences may think they need to be champions of women or feminism in order to see the work, which, in turn, puts them in an audience ghetto.”
Dee Jae Cox and Adilah Barnes in Los Angeles and Karen Moore in Memphis, Tennessee, disagree. “We seldom stop to realize the number of theaters that exclude any play written by women from their season,” Cox wrote. “Once you become aware of that gender inequity, you are astonished. The shows that we have supported through production, promotion or fiscal sponsorship are not simply feminist shows. They are shows that are written by women; women are capable of writing diverse stories that appeal to a broad audience. A female protagonist should never be perceived as simply speaking to a female audience any more than we think of a male protagonist as only being directed at a male audience.”
The idea that women’s festivals are confining is ridiculous, Barnes adds. “People go to the theater for a variety of reasons. Some come because they want to see solo artists. Others come because they know they’ll see works of excellence or know the artist and want to support her. Some people are intrigued by the subject matter of a particular piece. In no way, shape or form can that be seen as ghettoizing.”
The bottom line, say playwrights, performers, directors and feminist activists, is the need to undo sexist assumptions and promote 50-50 parity in all productions, regardless of where they’re being performed and regardless of whether they are comedies, dramas, musicals, solo performances or ensemble pieces. As Cox notes, “If 80 percent of the stories that are told are written by and about men, if the majority of female characters are created from a male perspective, and if the directors, producers and critics are predominantly male, something is inherently wrong. We do ourselves and the theater community a great disservice by not working together to address this problem.”