- It's All About You:The March Toward Parity in the American Theatre
In true showbiz fashion, I want to begin my reflection on the current state of the field by dropping a few posh names. Liz Duffy Adams. Rachel Axler. Annie Baker. Sheila Callaghan. Kia Corthron. Melissa James Gibson. Ann Marie Healy. Young Jean Lee. Suzan-Lori Parks. Theresa Rebeck. Sarah Ruhl. Lucy Thurber. Naomi Wallace. These are just a few of the fifty-one extraordinarily talented women writers whose plays were produced on and off Broadway during the 2009-10 theatre season in New York City. The writers are winners of Emmy and Obie awards, Blackburn prizes, and MacArthur and Jerome fellowships. Some have been finalists for the Pulitzer. Their plays grapple brilliantly with culture, politics, and the depth and complexity of the human condition. They wear a multiplicity of hats as mothers, producers, teachers, and ambassadors of the American theatre. They appear to have enough commissions to keep them writing plays for decades.
This is incredibly good news for women playwrights, who are due for good news after decades of virtual stasis. In 1978, when Julia Miles founded Women's Project, plays by women were produced about 7 percent of the time. In 2002, Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett reported that 16 percent of the professionally produced plays nationwide were written by women.1 In 2008, the New York Times reported on a group of playwrights who had determined that fewer than 20 percent of the plays in New York City were women-authored.2 In 2009, Todd London reported that "the average income for women playwrights is significantly lower than men's—$25,000-$39,999, as compared to $40,000-$59,999 for men."3 But I digress from the good news that, according to my own research, women playwrights cornered a solid 28 percent share of the professional productions in New York City during 2009-10. [End Page 571]
Awareness of gender bias in the theatre is nothing new. For decades, we have talked and talked and talked about the need to level the playing field for women theatre artists. And all of the talking has engendered what appears to be the nearly universal acknowledgment of a bias problem within the theatre community, and a general agreement by women and men alike that such a bias is unacceptable. And yet here we are, stuck even now in the twentieth percentile. What is perhaps new for the field is the realization that merely raising awareness about the existence of bias does not necessarily stimulate change. What is clear is that a spectacular number of advocacy efforts on behalf of women theatre artists during the past year seems to be having a serious impact.
During the dog days of August 2009, a movement called "The 50/50 in 2020 Project" was launched with the explicit goal of achieving pay and production parity in the theatre by 2020, the 100th anniversary of suffrage for American women. The kick-off event on 25 August 2009 resulted in the creation of a list of ten pro-active items that any individual can do to help move the American theatre toward inclusiveness.4 Along with lobbying local theatres (and the donors who fund them) to produce more plays by women, the items speak to the need for audience members, artists, students, and scholars to share responsibility for our theatrical landscape and the artistic legacy we leave to future generations. The extraordinary momentum from that first meeting continued to build throughout the year, with individuals and collectives creating and implementing their own unique, pro-active initiatives, including the formation of a meet-up group to attend theatre created by women5 and the launching of the Lilly Awards to honor the work of women theatre artists.6 NYTheatre.com made the unprecedented commitment to review plays by women in equal measure to plays by men, and it also established a database featuring profiles of women playwrights.7 And these are just a few excellent efforts among the many.
All of this is to say that while the playing field for women is not yet level, the bulldozers are...