Women playwrights are counting on parity when artistic directors at not-for-profit theaters across the country choose a season — but so far the numbers haven't added up.
The Dramatist Guild of America and the Lily Awards last month released a report that tallied 2,508 new play productions in American theaters from 2011 to 2014 and found that only 22 percent were written by women.
The figure is similar to a survey by American Theatre magazine, which reported that 24 percent of plays produced by regional theaters — such as Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theatre and Westport Country Playhouse — were written by women. Only two of the plays in the top 10 most-produced list for the past season were by female playwrights.
The disparity is not confined to regional theaters. Only two of the 11 new plays on Broadway for the past season were by women: "Airline Highway" by Lisa D'Amour and "Wolf Hall, Parts One & Two" by Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton, The previous year there were none. The previous season there was one.
Last year, a new advocacy organization of women writers and producers — called the Kilroys (named after the "Kilroy Was Here" graffiti left by GIs in WW II to mark their presence) — approached the gender disparity in a constructive way: by creating a list of 46 works by female writers that have been recommended by playwrights, dramaturges and artistic directors across the country. In June, a new list featured 53 recommended plays by female and transgender playwrights, based on input from more than 300 theater figures.
The list was to assist artistic directors and producers charged with programming for the country's regional and commercial theaters, and where ticket buyers are predominantly women.
"The Kilroy list is a response to what's perceived in the field as a lack of straight-out work for women," says Jennifer Kiger, associate artistic director of Yale Rep. "The list was created because of the feedback everybody was getting from the field saying there's just not enough good plays written by women. Clearly, it's a false assertion."
'Walking The Walk'
"It's time to see who is walking the walk," says Wendy Goldberg, artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford. (Four of the eight playwrights at this year's conference were women playwrights. More than 60 percent of the 1,300 submissions were by women writers.)
In Connecticut the participation of female writers at leading theaters varies, with some theaters having strong commitments to presenting women playwrights and other theaters that present these writers occasionally.
For the upcoming 2015-16 season — and the last four years before that — Hartford Stage ticks in at four female playwrights out of 30 productions as well as a female lyricist ("Anastasia"), co-librrettiost ("Kiss Me Kate") and three co-adapters; Westport Country Playhouse's tally was four out of 25 productions (five if you count one of three "conceivers" for a revue); At Hartford's TheaterWorks, it's five out of 24 productions (with a recent surge of three coming from the upcoming season); at Long Wharf Theatre it's six out of 30 productions; Yale Rep boasts the strongest record with 11 plays and one adaptation of its 28 productions.
Over at Goodspeed Opera House's main stage (which is mostly made up of revivals), none of its 15 productions had a women writer, composer or lyricist but in its Norma Terris Theatre, which primarily presents new musicals, six of 13 shows had women involved in at least one of those positions.
"It's an extremely important question to ask ourselves," says Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre. "What living female writers are we employing at our theaters? The Kilroy list was an act of advocacy and a well-needed one. It's a good reminder that very few of us are doing enough to right a wrong of inequity of productions."
For the coming Long Wharf season there is only one female playwright out of six programmed (Emily Mann's mid-'90s play "Having Our Say," which is a co-production with Hartford Stage). Edelstein says he had hoped to choose several new plays by female writers "but they went instead to other theaters."
"There's still bias and most of it is unconscious," says Edelstein who says the Kilroy list was helpful to him. "There are writers in the list that I didn't know and it stimulated me to find out more about them."
"Some of the most exciting works today are by women playwrights," says Edelstein. Among the leading new wave of women playwrights — some of them Pulitzer Prize-winners and finalists — are Sarah Ruhl, Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Lisa Kron, Halley Feiffer, Sheila Callaghan, Dael Orlandersmith, Danai Gurira, Gina Gionfriddo, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks and Quiara Alegria Hudes, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning "Water by the Spoonful" was commissioned and premiered at Hartford Stage.
Yale Best Numbers
Edelstein says his focus is having more women participate in a new play fund that the theater created in its 50th anniversary last season. Most of the commissions are by women playwrights, he says, such as Kimber Lee and Janine Nabers, both of whom were Aetna Voices Fellows at Hartford Stage.
Edelstein says he could see a season of all women playwrights just as in the past there have been seasons with all male playwrights.
That season may be closer to reality across town at Yale Repertory Theatre. For the 2015-'16 season three of its five productions are new plays by female playwrights (and four of its five shows are directed by women).
"It makes me feel good that we're helping to move the needle," says James Bundy, artistic director of the Rep and dean of the Yale School of Drama. "We want an inclusive theater. ... All of us [in leadership positions] have a public responsibility to look closely at the long-term performance of our theaters in terms of diversity." He also says that goes for all of a theater's creative, administrative and backstage teams, too.
Bundy, who has been in his positions at Yale for 14 years, credits the Rep's higher percentage of women writers to Yale's Binger Center for New Theatre, which was created seven years ago thanks to $21.8 million in gifts from the Robina Foundation and others to support the commissioning, development and production of new plays and musicals. The majority of the Binger commissions were to women writers.
One of the factors for the dramatic imbalance is that many theaters have a commitment to the classical canon, such as the works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Moliere, a repertoire that has been predominantly male over the ages. But even taking in this part of a theater's mission statement, the numbers are still disappointing to advocates for greater representation for women writers.
"I tend to be much more worried about the living playwright," says Elizabeth Williamson, associate artistic director at Hartford Stage, "and how much they're getting hired and paid. "[I] feel the more important question is how many living women are we producing vs. living men."
With that perspective, the surveyors say the percentage is in the low 20s.
Many say a strong factor in the bottom line statistics is that most of the people making these final decisions at theaters are men.
"If you look out there in the American non-for-profit theater, the amount of executive artistic leaders who are women ... it's just paltry," says Kiger, who is also director of new play programs at Yale's Binger Center for New Theatre.
Among Yale Repertory Theater, Long Wharf Theatre, Hartford Stage, Goodspeed Opera House and TheaterWorks over more than 50 years only Westport Country Playhouse, for a brief period, had female leadership. Joanne Woodward was artistic director from 2001 to 2005.
"I'm not suggesting only women artistic directors would chose plays by women because here at Yale we produce lots of plays by women," says Kiger. "Ultimately it is the artistic director's taste and strategy for their organization that leads the decision-making. The truth is, If you want to make an impact, you simply have to produce this work and produce it consistently over many years. Period. It's not a difficult formula. People just have to commit to it and just do it."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct when Yale’s Binger Center for New Theatre was created and that women created 11 plays and one adaptation out of 28 productions at Yale Rep.