In August 2016, a group of Twitter users from different countries started using a new hashtag designed to bring more attention to women-identified playwrights. Modeled on the successful “#52FilmsbyWomen” social media campaign created by Women in Film (which has had as many as 10,000 participants already), each participant in #52playsbywomen volunteered to see or read one of these plays each week for a year (readings, musicals, adaptations, and short plays included), and then to tweet about it.
I created this Call to Action after finishing the #52filmsbywomen initiative in 2016, and realizing how much it had enriched my life. As someone who cares about parity in theatre, I know that raising awareness in inventive ways often yields new results. Guidelines for the Call to Action, along with a list of fifty classic plays by women online accessible for free, were provided. Many participants were already signed up for the New Play Exchange, and opted to read plays there. The initiative operates on “the honor system,” with each participant responsible for self-tracking. Some responders choose to attach a program or play cover photo with their tweets.
This theatre Call to Action was given a real boost around January 2017, when the Women Arts blog generously published a New Year’s Resolution notice about it. More people joined and contributed. As 2017 came to a close, I gathered feedback from some of the active participants to reflect on the success of the project. Has it worked (or not)? How can this initiative be improved? Was it like a virtual book club for theatre lovers, or was it something more?
By the first week of November 2017, over three hundred and fifty women playwrights had been mentioned in the initiative, and over three hundred different plays listed. Active users of the #52playsbywomen hashtag have ranged from five to twenty-five weekly, and live in Canada, Finland, South Africa, the UK, and the US. In a poll online and in interviews, participants expressed strong ideas about the initiative’s purpose.
Shaun Leisher, the founder of The Punk Theatre of the Lehigh Valley, defines the mission as “to raise awareness about the gender disparity in theatre and promote the work of brilliant women in the field.” For Mildred Lewis, a playwright, and member of the Humanitas’ PLAY LA workshop, the purpose goes further: “To get audiences for those playwrights. To start a dialogue conversation about their work.”
Anna Andes, a theatre professor at Susquehanna University and a director, felt part of it worked but had hoped that deeper details could be shared: “I wish participants had been more proactive about promoting or educating in their tweets.”
Many found it challenging to fit a play a week by a woman playwright into their lives. In November 2016, the UK-based feminist “17 Percent Blog” published a supportive post explaining why they had to bow out. Genie Sheth, a theatre enthusiast in the Puget Sound (Washington) area who aims to watch one hundred plays a year, took fourteen months to complete the initiative. During that time period, and in order to meet the fifty-two play total for this initiative, Sheth found she saw about 60 percent shows by men.
The initiative relied on self-regulation, and several users expressed regret on Twitter over falling behind the weekly target. Others, including Paula Cizmar, a playwright, librettist, and theatre professor at the University of Southern California, finished on their own: “I truly wanted to check in every week—but I would frequently get swamped with work.”
Pat Morin, a San Francisco-area therapist, writer, and the Co-Chair of the I.C.W.P. 50/50 Applause Awards, loves the initiative’s purpose, but admitted: “I did not read/view fifty-two plays. I think the number is too much to expect—a play a week? I couldn’t do it.” Hanna Åkerfelt, a playwright, writer, and translator in Finland, did not tweet each week, either, opting instead to use the hashtag whenever she did see or read a play by a woman.
There were some surprises: The hashtag was co-opted for marketing by organizations and artists, even though the guidelines suggest not to do so. Jennie Webb, playwright and-founder of the LA Female Playwrights Initiative, noticed: “In a way it irked me that people used the hashtag for their own shows, but I suppose that's unavoidable.” As the “facilitator” of the hashtag from 2016-2017, I tried to walk a line, by occasionally retweeting some of the first announcements of specific projects, because I know how many theatres desperately want help with promoting women and trans playwrights. But I didn’t want this type of tweets to slow down the momentum of committed users with weekly listings.
For some, the unity of a virtual collective mission was unanticipated and worked well. Leisher “loved all the writers I got to discover through this initiative and being connected with a community on Twitter that was also going on this journey.” Lewis “found to my delight that many more of my students, followers and colleagues than I’d realized picked up on the campaign.”
So was it a success or failure? I’d say it’s had mixed results. Participants agree there are many ways this Call to Action could and should be improved. Some think a more formal “social media pledge” as a first tweet to kick off the campaign each season would be a good change, perhaps accompanied with a catchy graphic that could be retweeted by others. Nearly everyone feels the campaign should go bigger and wider, both geographically (some hope “worldwide”) and expand to more social media platforms. But one of our goals was to help artistic theatre decision-makers find new names and plays, and I don’t think we’ve achieved that. Another participant suggested that these tweets should be brought to the attention of all artistic directors, perhaps addressed directly to them. Another idea was that maybe everyone should agree to retweet other participants for maximum amplification. Others thought the initiative should be restructured and re-titled “#26playsbywomen.”
One positive measure is that nearly all participants who were surveyed hope it will continue in 2018—with new participants. And the good news is that #52playsbywomen will continue with a new facilitator: Cindy Marie Jenkins. Maybe with our new facilitator and more participants in 2018, these goals might become possible. We hope to have even larger participation pool this year of other like-minded theatre lovers.