Female Trouble

Interesting article in the New York Times this weekend by Patricia Cohen about the lack of female playwrights on the city's major stages. On Monday night, those women's voices will be much harder to ignore, when a standing room only town hall meeting at New Dramatists convenes to discuss the issue.

Though some New York artistic directors, such as Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop, might scoff at the problem, well, that attitude really just serves to underscore its depth. [CORRECTION: Please see Mr. Bishop's comment below.] By playwright Gina Gionfriddo's own observation, the O'Neill and Humana new play festivals are "dominated by women." Mind you, this meeting will examine New York's Off-Broadway houses and nonprofits, where men's work is produced four times more often than women's. Broadway is in even worse shape.

(At left: the Wilma Theater's production of Eurydice, a play written by a woman, produced and directed by another woman. Hear them roar?)

So how do Philly's major theaters compare? I took the top 14 area houses--"top" meaning they're professional, they've been around a while, mostly have a permanent location, have at least a three-show season that's readily accessible on their website, and are not solely Shakespeare-centric--and did a little comparing of my own. Here's the list: The Wilma Theater; Theatre Exile; Delaware Theatre Company; Interact Theatre Company; Walnut Street Theatre; Lantern Theatre; Philadelphia Theatre Company; People's Light and Theatre Company; Hedgerow Theatre; Arden Theatre; Media Theatre; 1812 Productions; Act II Playhouse; and Bristol Riverside Theater.

In New York, of the 50 plays by living playwrights being produced Off-Broadway and by nonprofits,10 were written by women. In Philadelphia, this season's grand total (which happens to include a few dead guys) comes to 64 shows. Of these, 13 were written by women, and of those 13, one is responsible only for a show's music, one for lyrics, and two are collaborations with men, so really the total's more like nine, but I'm willing to let everyone slide on this point. Still, the results aren't encouraging: on Philadelphia's major stages men are being produced at five times the rate of women, a fact that makes us quantifiably worse than New York, which in itself is a fact that really pisses me off. 

However, the productions are only one facet of the issue. While in New York female artistic directors might be, as the article says, a rarity, six of our 14 theaters are headed by women, so that's better. Of the season's 64 shows, 17 do not list a director. Of those remaining 47 shows, 19 are directed by women, and though that's not a perfect division of labor, it's not terrible, and most likely a result of Philly's nearly equal number of female artistic directors. Still, it remains to be seen how those percentages hold up when the rest of the season's directors are announced.

It's also worth looking at who's reviewing these plays. I don't know the New York numbers, but here in Philadelphia, among regular female critics, freelance or otherwise, there's Toby Zinman, me, and that's pretty much where the list ends. P.S., we both work for the same paper, whose fine arts section is edited by a woman and overseen by a female arts editor. Wonder if there's a connection? 

If nothing else, having women equally represented among the writing, producing, directing and reviewing ranks would, at the very least, affect the amount of David Mamet plays that get revivals each year, and for that, I think everyone would be just a little bit grateful.

October 26, 2008 7:54 PM | | Comments (6)


Maybe uninvited, but I attended the playwrights townhall at ND this week. It was incredible and powerful - the hundreds of women who turned out. Oddly, it seems that too many ADs had their annual Board Dinner that night. But other than some 'teaching' that a couple of ADs engaged in, the dialogue was inspired, if a bit defensive. However, I was most disheartened by the good deal of talk about Submissions - as if these major theaters chose their next season from anything that arrived in their mailbox. I just don't see it happening that way. Networking, community participation, introductions, and other off-the-clock gatherings seems to me the most likely routes to their mainstages.

I am reminded of my days as an intern at Playwrights Horizons, attending post-show parties, and seeing this frumpy wallflower of a young woman named Wendy. Although I couldn’t see why at the time, Andre championed Wendy W., like he did Chris D., Albert I. and a few others at a time when I doubt if she would have lasted long in this biz without such an angel. The opportunity for her craft and business skills to blossom proved me wrong. And I worry that this is what is missing in today’s tough times - more ADs who take it upon themselves to find the talent and see them through, credibly introduce them and share them with their professional community - women, minorities, or just damn talented writers. I hope that more women will demand such investment. That’s how I see it happen.

The depth and width of this problem need to be examined too. I suspect some of the causes may be found in the composition of the boards of directors of theaters (artistic directors have to answer to them). Also, how many male and how many female playwrights are signed by the shrinking number of agents who handle playwrights? Are these agents interested only in representing writers with proven track records? Uh oh, those are mostly men. To submit scripts to LORT theaters, you must have an agent. The problem is circular and rife with Catch 22s. Female playwrights are represented at the O'Neill and Humana, but then rarely go on to major productions. I understand they also do well with grants, fellowships, and winning prizes. Yet -- few or no productions. What's the story there? Clearly female-authored plays aren't inferior. It's a bear. - Robin Rice Lichtig (playwright, NYC)

Great to hear about Echo. Here in Philadelphia there's a company called Gas and Electric Arts that's also dedicated to women's work (there's a term you rarely see in this context!). I didn't include them in the list--though I loved their production of Anna Bella Eema this season--because they are not quite as established as the others, but for sure, companies like yours and theirs are out there refusing to allow the dramatic voice of half the population to be silenced.

Want to make sure you know about Echo Theatre in Dallas TX. Echo produces only plays written by women and has been doing so for over 10 years.

Well Mr. Bishop, thanks for being a regular reader (so nice to know it's not just my mom on here) and I'm really pleased to be wrong in this case. Now please, no more humility and self-flagellation or you'll leave those of us given to chronic cynicism with a really bad case of introspection.

Dear Ms. Rosenfield:
I happened to read your blog today (I always enjoy it) and was horrified to read that you felt I "scoffed" at the problem of women having trouble being produced. I feel the opposite of "scoffed" and cannot imagine what I said in the interview that made you think this. I think it is a real problem; I said I hoped it was not because many artistic directors are men, and I realize full well that I should have been paying more attention to this issue than I have -- being a pathetic mortal, I said. I am someone who tends to get down on himself alot. I was NOT being ironic. I am very sad that you would have thought that. Anybody who knows me, including Patti Cohen whom I talked to for half an hour, would know that I would never scoff at anything in the theatre that was important to discuss.
Andre Bishop

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