November 6, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

The Year of the Man (Again), Again

New Dramatists made their conversation about playwright gender parity public last week. That’s when they invited the artistic directors of all the big-gun theaters in the Off-Broadway and nonprofit world to a panel discussion about why female playwrights’ work is being produced at such a meager rate in comparison to that of the guys. (For a scathing assessment of the problem, read Theresa Rebeck’s article in the Guardian.)

In the run-up to the event, the New York Times published the following article summarizing the need for the panel in the first place. As for the meeting itself, turns out I can’t discuss the discussion yet; all present were asked to refrain from sharing specifics with the public, in order to maintain the collaborative spirit of the conversation and minimize the tendency to finger-point and over-defend. But I will say it was elegantly, soberly and intelligently negotiated by all parties. All the steps New Dramatists (and in particular Julia Jordan) have taken toward bringing this issue to light have been impressively active yet non-confrontational. And from an audience perspective, it was an evening much like last night’s election, but without the final act: in turns frustrating, comic, confusing, boring, hopeful. That’s my limited review; more later, as the work continues.

From the New York Times, October 24:
Charging Bias by Theaters, Female Playwrights to Hold Meeting

Frustrated by what they describe as difficulty in getting their work produced, enough female playwrights to make a standing-room-only crowd are planning to attend a town hall meeting on Monday night to air their grievances with representatives of New York’s leading Off Broadway and nonprofit theaters.

The gathering was organized by the playwrights Sarah Schulman and Julia Jordan, who have rallied their colleagues to the cause, contending that their male counterparts in the 2008-9 season are being produced at 14 of the largest Off Broadway institutions at four times the rate that women are. More than 150 playwrights appeared at a meeting last month to discuss the issue, and all 90 seats at New Dramatists, the playwriting center where Monday night’s meeting is scheduled, are already spoken for, and there is a long waiting list.

“I personally don’t think playwriting is a gene on a Y chromosome,” said Theresa Rebeck, a playwright whose work (“Omnium Gatherum,” “Mauritius,” “The Scene”) has been produced frequently on New York stages, including on Broadway. She added that there has been a reluctance to confront the issue: “Many of our male peers find the debate intolerable. Men in the community seem to think that everything is fine.”

Ms. Schulman counted 50 plays by living American playwrights that are being mounted at the 14 theaters, 40 by men and 10 by women. Although there are differences about the best way to tally the numbers, no one disputes that a significant inequity exists.

“It’s harder for women playwrights and directors,” said Oskar Eustis, artistic director at the nonprofit Public Theater, because “it’s harder for professional women in the United States.”

This season the Public is putting on six new plays by men and one by a woman. Since Mr. Eustis arrived in 2005, the count of new plays has been 19 plays by men and 9 by women (with one by a male/female team). It is a record that Mr. Eustis labeled as “pretty good but not great.”

“The issue is best dealt with by consistent consciousness-raising rather than a specific program,” he added, saying the same approach applies to minority playwrights.

Mr. Eustis plans to attend the meeting on Monday night, along with representatives from about a half-dozen other institutions, including the Atlantic Theater, the Manhattan Theater Club, Second Stage, SoHo Rep, MCC Theater and Playwrights Horizons, Ms. Jordan said. Audience members will have a chance to question the panelists.

The explanation for such an imbalance is a puzzle, said Andr?? Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, which has one Broadway and two Off Broadway theaters. Some people argue that “most artistic directors are men, and they don’t relate to or connect with women as much as men,” Mr. Bishop said.

“Connecting to a play is a very personal and unconscious thing,” he mused. “I hope that isn’t true, but I don’t know.”

He added, “I try to think about these things all the time, but I don’t, because I’m a pathetic mortal.” He said he could not attend the meeting because it conflicted with a board of trustees dinner but said the recent opening of Lincoln Center’s new Off Broadway theater, LCT3, should provide more opportunities for female playwrights.

Lynne Meadow is an example of that rare commodity Mr. Bishop referred to: a female artistic director in New York. Ms. Meadow, who has led Manhattan Theater Club for more than 35 years, reviewed submissions from recent years and estimated that about 40 percent came from women. Of 22 plays commissioned in the past eight years, 8 have been by women, she said. Manhattan Theater Club has two Off Broadway stages and one Broadway theater.

Over a five-year period, 28 plays by men (including revivals) and 6 by women have been produced. This season, one of six plays is by a woman, Lynn Nottage.

Ms. Jordan said she did not think that the sex of the artistic director was an issue, nor that there was conscious discrimination. The primary aim of the meeting is to raise awareness, she said. “Everyone knows of the problem, but they don’t realize its depth,” she said, or that “it is not getting better.” She said she wanted artistic directors and their literary managers to request more plays from American women if they were not getting them from agents.

Monday’s meeting will focus on Off Broadway, which includes a number of nonprofit theaters with a mission to bring diverse new work to audiences. Broadway’s high-priced commercial operations, however, have a much worse record. At the moment, none of the plays on Broadway are written by women. The problem seems to be magnified in New York, many playwrights agreed.

Gina Gionfriddo, whose play “Becky Shaw” is having its New York premiere at Second Stage in December, said that in her experience, the country’s most prominent festivals – including those at Humana in Louisville, Ky., and at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. – were dominated by women. She said there were probably multiple reasons for the additional barriers women face, citing the fondness among directors and audiences for revivals and British imports, as well as some unconscious biases.

Ms. Gionfriddo said she had been told that her characters were unlikable. “I wonder if Neil LaBute hears this,” she said of a playwright known for his corrosive depictions of human nature. She also suggested that women’s plays often do not resolve as conclusively as those by men, and that they do not follow the Aristotelian model of drama, which makes directors uncomfortable.

Andrew Leynse, the artistic director of Primary Stages, where two of the six new plays this season are by men, said his organization was trying to improve that record. (Tina Howe’s new comedy “Chasing Manet” is being presented there.) Balancing all the demands of Primary Stages’ mission is “something we struggle with,” he said, listing support of minority and emerging playwrights, and pleasing audiences, which can sometimes pull in different directions. (The organization’s gala will prevent his attending the meeting, Mr. Leynse said.)

For Carole Rothman, the co-founder and artistic director of Second Stage, the disadvantaged position of women is a familiar story. “Is there a cultural bias against women? I don’t know,” she said, but either way, “People don’t care.”

Although artistic directors have the largest say over which plays get produced, Ms. Rothman is not convinced that they are the best pressure point. “It’s all about money,” she said. “Talk to people on the board, that’s more important than talking to the artistic director.”

She added that contacting enlightened foundations that provide money to the arts and recruiting powerful female artists like Eve Ensler and Jane Fonda are other useful tactics.

Ms. Rebeck said that male friends “in the system say to me I have to keep my mouth shut; don’t be part of the problem, don’t be a whiner.” But Ms. Rebeck, who has written on the subject in the London newspaper The Guardian and attended the last meeting, has disregarded their advice.

“I think it puts in question excellence,” she said. “Whether it’s cronyism or bias,” she added, the result was that a message is sent that what is put onstage is “not about excellence.”