Monday, January 11, 2016

Working for Women Working in Theater

Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong’o, and Saycon Sengbloh in ECLIPSED Off-Broadway at The Public Theater (c) Joan Marcus
It’s Time to Make Sure That Women Stop Getting Upstaged
By Lauren Yarger
2016 may just be the year we start to see some change for women in theater.  As much as we hear about equality and change in the news, the numbers, when it comes to women represented in professional theater productions, haven’t been keeping up.

The next time you sit in your seat for a production, take a look around you. More than likely, you will see a majority of women sitting in those seats with you -- according to industry studies, women represent about 65 percent of audiences. In fact women make about 70 percent of theater ticket purchases. So why then, in a recent study conducted of major non-profit theaters across the country, do we find that women are represented in only about 30 percent of shows being produced?

One reason is that because many theater artistic directors – the ones deciding what show to present – are men. It’s not surprising that they would be drawn to stories about men, presented from a male perspective, most often written by men. And who better to direct all that, but a man? In the old-boy environment of theater, it is really easy to assemble an all-male, or mostly all-male creative team.

Theaters who are interested in serving the interests of their audiences, however, make an effort to ensure that the shows being presented are what their ticket-buyers want to see. Now this isn’t to say that women want to see shows that only are written by or about women. There are many wonderful male writers and directors. And this also is not to say that any play written by a woman is good, or that plays should be included on a theater’s season simply to say a female is represented.  

But not enough is being done to ensure that we will see women’s issues created by women on stages (and we won’t even get into the need for more women represented behind the scenes designing sets, lighting, sound, costumes, etc.) More good plays by women, about issues that are of interest to women, directed by women who understand those issues would be welcome both here in Connecticut and in New York where I sit through many more shows by and for men.

With all of the theater I see every season, I often do find myself yearning for something to which I can relate.  Theaters seem to understand the need to produce shows of interest to kids, to LGBT groups, to persons of various ethnic and racial backgrounds (which they should), but seem to bristle at the thought of seriously engaging the people who are buying most of their tickets.

Some directors claim they don’t know where to find good plays by women. That seems a lame excuse. In fact, one of the oft-repeated themes at the recent GoodtoGo Summit in New York was that directors who use that excuse probably shouldn’t have their jobs. Just check out some recent Pulitzer Prizes and you will find female playwrights. Goodtogofestival.org  itself is a platform of plays, musicals and songs written by women and ready for full production. In addition, The Kilroys.org are a group of playwrights and producers in LA who generate an annual list of plays written by women.

Lisa Kron (Book and Lyrics), 

Sam Gold (Director)
and Jeanine Tesori (Music) FUN HOME.
Photo: Joan Marcus
There are even some folks who scoff, and deny that there is a gender parity problem in theater at all by pointing to successes like 2015’s Fun Home, for which Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori were the first all-female writing team to win a Tony Award for a musical's score, or the upcoming Eclipsed by Danai Gurira, which, when it opens in March 2016, will mark the first time a Broadway cast, director and playwright are composed entirely of female artists. These are wonderful accomplishments, but the fact that 70 years of Tony Awards had to be passed out before that finally happened tells me we still have a ways to go.

So how are we doing here in Connecticut? We have an unusually high number of female theater artistic directors here: Jacqueline Hubbard at Ivoryton Playhouse, Wendy Goldberg and Paulette Haupt at the O’Neill Theater Center, Darlene Zoller at Playhouse on Park and Semina De Laurentis at Seven Angels, so we are better off than many states in this area.

At the larger theaters presenting new plays, Yale Repertory, under the artistic direction of James Bundy, consistently presents works written by and directed by women.  Take a look at the 2015-2016 season and you’ll want to give them a parity prize (only three of these names are for males):

·         Indecent, written by Paula Vogel, directed by Rebecca Taichman
·         Peerless, written by Jiehae Park, directed by Margot Bordelon
·         The Moors, written by Jen Silverman, directed by Jackson Gay
·         Cymbeline, written by William Shakespeare, directed by Evan Yionoulis
·         Happy Days, written by Samuel Beckett, directed by James Bundy

TheaterWorks in Hartford, under the artistic direction of Rob Ruggiero, offers five productions this season representing three female writers and two female directors. Long Wharf (Gordon Edlestein, artistic director) and Hartford Stage (Darko Tresnjak, artistic directors) both offer six-show seasons with one of the works written by a woman and two directed by women. At Westport Country Playhouse (Mark Lamos, artistic director) the new season has just one female represented among the writers and directors of its six-show season. It would be an interesting project to see how these numbers compare to prior seasons.

So what can be done to continue to increase awareness about the parity issue and actually do something about it?

Professional theater women in Connecticut will be forming a state chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women, which is committed achieving parity for professional women theater artists by 2020. An event in September will feature a panel discussion and perhaps play readings or a play contest. And there’s talk of mounting a festival here, inspired by the Women’s Voices Theater Festival recently held in DC. More than 50 theaters there joined together to present new works by women over several months. Now that’s making a difference!

If you are a woman working in theater in Connecticut and would like to be involved, sign up for one of two brainstorming sessions coming up in Hartford or New Haven:


For more information, visit these sites:

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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