- Taking the Long View
With my contribution to this forum, I hope to linger in the critical and political space suggested in the midst of Julia Jordan's passionate opening remarks from the town hall meeting that she convened with fellow playwright Sarah Schulman in October 2008. In decrying the persistently unequal rates at which women playwrights see their work produced relative to their male counterparts, she made a necessary rhetorical gesture toward a broader coalitional field, noting that "[w]riters of color are also part of everything we discuss here tonight. But women cut across all racial lines, all class lines, they write in all aesthetics, and we have so much power in our numbers that we have the responsibility to lead."1 Admittedly, this framing of women's simultaneously singular responsibility and multiple social locations risks eliding other power dynamics that also contribute to the political economy of professional theatre and deserve consideration. Nevertheless, Jordan introduced a necessary quantitative dimension into this broad appeal for women playwrights by gathering information about the recent production histories of several major not-for-profit theatres in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, which confirmed what she already knew as a working female playwright: that most of the production opportunities at these theatres were being awarded to men—a fact that Jordan sees as a reflection of a pervasive cultural bias that devalues the work of women in nearly all professional fields.
With a nod to the late August Wilson, I decided to repeat and revise Jordan's question by examining the upcoming seasons for the seventy-six member companies that comprise the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), the primary negotiating entity that manages relationships between producing regional theatres and the unions that represent creative artists. While Wilson studied LORT information to condemn the lack of black member theatres in 1996, I write today to understand how these (still) nonblack theatres are participating in the cultivation of (African American) women playwrights.2
Why focus on LORT theatres, one might ask? As a network of theatres that has a reciprocal relationship with Broadway (which is understood by some measures as the [End Page 547] cornerstone of American theatrical culture), LORT member organizations offer a glimpse into the material and discursive mechanisms through which playwrights develop the national reputations that allow them to make a living at their craft. The site at which philanthropic-foundation dollars, critical acclaim, and extensive media coverage converge, major regional theatre houses are instrumental in producing playwrights whose work can be trusted, especially in difficult economic times, to sell tickets and to facilitate the exchange of cultural capital between artists and institutions.
One of the perceived shortcomings of regional theatre is its conservatism, its tendency toward reproduction of the theatrical status quo (whether through staging revivals of "classic" works or through a seemingly national consensus that certain plays deserve multiple productions within one seasonal cycle) rather than fostering innovation. However, this conservative tendency might, when viewed through a charitable lens, be an economic necessity that helps to preserve institutions from one year to the next, enabling artists to believe that there is, in fact, an American theatre for which to write. Although such a rationale is no substitute for a nuanced politics of representation, the principle of continuity—or, at least, endurance—deserves some place in our consideration of what forms and methods of feminist involvement in the mainstream are most appropriate.
In gathering information for this brief essay, I have not pursued a longitudinal study: this summary does not inherently reveal emerging or longstanding trends in the selection processes of regional theatres, but is instead a snapshot of the moment in which I am writing and could therefore betray time-specific idiosyncrasies of the institutions involved. Based on my retrieval of 2010-11 season announcements from LORT member theatres, it appears that there will be at least 467 productions across seventy-three member companies, of which 360 will be plays written by men and 107 by women. Of these 107 plays by women, thirty are productions of plays written by women of color, and of those thirty, twenty-five are productions of plays by...