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  • Editorial Comment:Special Issue on Contemporary Women Playwrights
  • Penny Farfan, Special Issue Coeditors and Lesley Ferris, Special Issue Coeditors

Theatre's "Dirty Secret"

In 2003, the New York Times published an art news item with the headline "The Season of the Female Playwright." Splashed across the half-page article were large photos of Tristine Skyler, Julia Jordan, Tracey Scott Wilson, and Amy Freed, all of whom were having premieres of their plays Off-Broadway. The article began by describing an encounter, ten years earlier, that playwright Theresa Rebeck had with an established male director who told her: "Women don't write good plays. . . . Look at history: they write good novels, but as for plays, they just don't have the knack for it." Rebeck described this offhand comment as "the dirty secret of the American theater."1

A few years before, the Guerilla Girls, the anonymous group of feminist art activists, launched a new campaign that focused on theatre (fig. 1).2 In 2000, Sue Halpern, in Mother Jones, described the Guerilla Girls as "the queens of agitprop" and wrote about the expansion of their "anarcho-franchise to theater," and specifically about their street protest of the fifty-fourth annual Tony Awards at which the "masked avengers" passed out cards with political commentary, including the following: "Q: What do toilet stalls and the Tony Awards have in common? A: They only let in one woman at a time."3 This particular political jab referred to the absence of women directors from the awards, but a few years before, in 1998-99, the Guerrilla Girls had protested the exclusion of women playwrights by posting political stickers in the women's toilets of major New York theatres that had not produced a play by a woman that season. The stickers read: "In this theater the taking of photographs, the use of recording devices, and the production of plays by women are strictly prohibited."4 In 1999, the Guerilla Girls published a full-page ad in the Tony Awards issue of In Theatre magazine that read: "There's a tragedy on Broadway and it isn't Electra."5 In reaction to the continued lack of representation by women artists in the awards, the newly formed Committee for Recognizing Women in Theater initiated the Lilly Awards, named in honor of [End Page xi] Lillian Hellman. The first awards ceremony took place at Playwrights Horizon on 24 May 2010 with just a two-week notice. The style of the awards is decidedly different from the Tonys: there are no nominations, simply awards and recognition of a range of women artists.6

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Figure 1.

Guerrilla Girls On Tour in their Tony Awards demonstration, Times Square, New York City (1999). (Photo: Guerilla Girls on Tour.)

Arts Council Counts the Numbers

According to some playwrights, the reason for the 2003 season turnaround was the publication in January 2002 of a report based on three years of research by the New York State Council on the Arts. The report, made by the council's Theatre Program, was titled "Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement?" and was widely disseminated. As Rebeck [End Page xii] recalled, "Everyone read the study. . . . We passed it around like a joint."7 While the statistical findings were mixed, the message was clear: "Without a doubt, there is significant progress. But that progress has been both inconsistent and extremely slow in coming. Women have, according to The Women's Project, tripled their participation rate from 6-7% in the late Sixties through early Seventies, to roughly 20-25%, where it had been holding for at least five years. This past year [2001] saw a decline of women playwrights to roughly 16%." The report goes on to note that this "figure does not take into account that much of that 16% is accounted for by a single play, Art, by a single woman playwright, Yazmin [sic] Reza—who is not American." Beyond the significance of the statistics, the cold, hard facts demonstrated that smaller, low-budget theatres produced the majority of the plays by women.8

Flash forward five years from the 2003 New York Times celebration...


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