Results tagged “playwrights” from critical difference

A friend just mentioned a conversation with a woman who, until recently, was an artistic director at a prominent regional theater. Prompted by Emily Glassberg Sands' college thesis on female playwrights -- and consequent reports that female artistic directors and literary managers are to blame for failing to produce women's scripts -- she said she was feeling guilty.

Does she, personally, have any reason to feel guilty? I don't know. I do know that there's a good chance a lot of women in theater are feeling similarly guilty, even though Sands' research does not prove they're at fault, nor does it suggest that there is a single cause for the low number of plays by women on American stages.

Guilt can be a terrific motivator. If guilt, deserved or undeserved, prompts women in theater to take a closer look at scripts by women; to make more active efforts to seek out, commission, nurture, and produce female playwrights; and to question their own assumptions about what their audiences are hungry to see, or even willing to see, then it could be a very good thing.

But if women are the only ones feeling guilty, there's something terribly wrong with the response. That is one of the huge dangers of pointing the finger at women: In that interpretation of Sands' paper, men are off the hook. If they're not part of the problem, they don't need to trouble themselves to be part of the solution, except maybe in making sure that a guy gets the next a.d. or literary manager job that opens up. Women, after all, can't be trusted to be fair to other women, right? Wrong, but you wouldn't get that impression from the eagerness to label them as biased.

Male artistic directors and literary managers, as a group, are no less to blame than are female artistic directors and literary managers, as a group. Male artistic directors also occupy far more of the high-profile, big-budget jobs -- which means the 50-50 gender split among respondents to Sands' survey skews the results in a way that doesn't correspond to the real world. Men aren't off the hook. No one is.

If anyone is going to feel guilty about the underrepresentation of women's plays on our nation's stages, let that guilt be a motivator for positive change. And let that guilt be shared.
June 26, 2009 11:43 AM | | Comments (1)
When I worked at the conservative New York Sun, I tended to keep mum about politics. A lot of the liberal staffers did the same. But after the paper folded last fall, just as the presidential election went into overdrive, I began to feel slightly dishonest in not revealing my political stance to one of the paper's hard-line Republican contributors, an ardent Palin supporter with whom I'd developed a friendly rapport.

Finally, I took a deep breath and told him -- upon which he informed me that I'd given him plenty of clues. "How about your love of theater?" he asked, kindly not mentioning the time I'd spoken enthusiastically to him of Dario Fo, any right-winger's artistic bête noire.

That's the prevailing assumption about the theater: that it's liberal to the core. And maybe, in theory, it is. Practice, as Emily Glassberg Sands' thesis on female playwrights reminds us, is a different matter.

There is a crazy-making dissonance to encountering a hostile environment in what we're assured is a sympathetic milieu, at least politically. In Hollywood, another famously liberal industry, women face a similar set of obstacles, as an anonymous "emerging producer" wrote last week in The Wrap:

I never thought of myself as a feminist until I came to work in Hollywood. I'm part of a generation and class of women who were reared on the rhetoric that we could grow up to do anything. At no point did gender figure in as a limitation, and the idea that it would for anyone who might judge my capabilities seemed completely ludicrous.

It was confusing when I heard or read about women's complaints of gender discrimination -- didn't we figure all this stuff out in the '70s?

Well, no, she's discovered -- and she thinks it's time that women take some action: "We've become so complacent that a touch of extremism is warranted. You could never lose weight if you refused entertain the idea that cheeseburgers are fattening. Instead of waiting for someone to blaze a new trail, it's time that we make a more conscious change in our appetite."

No diet works, however, without a change in behavior to accompany the change in appetite. In order for female playwrights to increase their prominence in the theater, one thing they're going to have to do is make more noise: write more plays, get them out there, and better their odds simply by having a greater presence.

Sands' research relies on doollee.com for numbers on scripts by male and female playwrights; as she admits, this is a less than ideal source, given that much of the information is self-reported. But what if male playwrights -- already more numerous than their female counterparts -- are more likely to do that self-reporting? Women need to be assertive about making sure that their work is noted, too, in high-profile places. 

Ours isn't a culture that encourages loudness in women; for a literal example, see the current controversy over female tennis players who have the audacity to grunt on the court. Meekness is, in fact, encouraged in us at every turn. But if a woman's object is to make her voice heard, as it is with playwrights, then being quiet is not a strategy that will ever lead to the desired reward.

In my experience as an editor, I've observed the same thing in writers that artistic directors and literary managers say they see: far more submissions by men than by women. In order to find female writers, I had to be active, not passive. I couldn't rely on women to call themselves to my attention; I could, however, rely on men to be rather fearless, and less perfectionistic than women, about putting their work out there.

Sands' research suggests that producers hold women's plays to a higher standard than they do men's, but I suspect women also hold their writing to a higher standard before they're confident enough to let a script leave their hands. That's understandable, but it's probably not helpful. Women need to be stronger, more confident champions of their own work -- and artistic directors and literary managers need to actively seek them out.

If producers would, in the process, stop assuming that audiences won't show up to see plays by and about women, that would be another step in the right direction.
June 25, 2009 1:35 PM | | Comments (2)
One could be forgiven for thinking, when reading the New York Post's Michael Riedel, that he has it in for the Tony Awards -- or at least for the people who run them. More than once recently, in his usual unrestrained manner, he's called the Broadway League's Charlotte St. Martin and the American Theatre Wing's Howard Sherman "apparatchiks."

But Riedel makes an important and perfectly fair point in his column today: "As Broadway prepares to celebrate itself next month, many theater people are increasingly concerned that writers, especially writers of nonmusical plays, are getting the bum's rush at the Tonys." In great part, that's because when the Tony for best play or best musical is announced, the writers get lost in a swarm of producers -- some of whom are not producers in the true sense but merely backers, people who gave large chunks of cash. At least the writers of musicals have their shot at the spotlight in the best-book and best-score categories, but for writers of straight plays, this is the only recognition they'll get.

"Why doesn't the playwright accept the award by himself?" wonders composer and lyricist Maury Yeston, whose shows include "Nine" and "Grand Hotel."

"The bookwriter does, the lyricist does, the orchestrator does, even the person who runs the sound system does. One would think that the progenitor of an original piece of theater would be the person on whom the award would evolve."

No one with any understanding of what a producer does would suggest that the role is unimportant or undeserving of recognition. Neither is the role of backer. But it's evidence of warped priorities when the writers, without whom no one would be standing there on Tony night, are deemed less important than the money people. Some of them, Riedel suggests, are thinking of the Tony spotlight from the start:

Veteran producers say that many of their biggest investors now have it written into their contracts that if the play wins the Tony, they get to share the stage with the author.

These, no doubt, are the same crass individuals who'd also try to take credit for a playwright's Pulitzer, a prize that has nothing whatsoever to do with producers or backers (though that point is frequently lost on them).

Here's the thing. You can always get another producer; you can always find another investor -- and you'll probably have to, given the crowd it takes to finance a Broadway show these days. Only in the most artistically doomed, too-many-cooks circumstances, however, is switching out a writer even a possibility. That's not going to happen to an original, single-author straight play. In the grand collaboration that is theater, the playwright simply is not expendable.

Playwrights, the most successful of whom earn only a pittance from the stage, are fond of saying they prefer working in the theater to doing more lucrative TV and film writing because the theater treats them with so much more respect. A glaring exception to that rule seems to be the moment at the Tony Awards that ought to be theirs more than anyone else's to celebrate.
May 20, 2009 3:52 PM | | Comments (0)
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