Here’s the thing—theatre should lead culture, not follow it. If the theatre we are making today solely reflects society, then we’re failing it. We are not a mirror, we are a lens. We see what’s coming, we embody it, we catalyze it, and we make the better future happen because we tell its story first. Or we should.

Unfortunately, with regard to women, their stories, and their valuable lives valued onstage, the American theatre right now is a mirror, not a lens. We look backward (like mirrors do), we look at ourselves (like mirrors do), and we show the world as it is, not as it should be. That doesn’t sound like an urgent art form to me. That sounds safe. That sounds easy. That sounds boring.

Generally, a third of the roles go to female actors versus male. Twenty percent of plays produced are by women versus men. Only six women have ever won the Tony for directing.

Graph depicting how many women Olivier award winners there have been
The number of women to win an Olivier Award in 5 gender-neutral categories.  By Guardian Graphics.

Now, are we story-telling artists catalyzing a better world, or are we tractors hauling the old guard forward? Are we defining our age or merely maintaining the status quo?

I’m not saying all theatre needs to address this issue, and if it does, that it be with serious, frowning faces. Feminism can be fun, funny, heart-warming, thrilling, suspenseful, and poetic. We needn’t be righteous to be right. We can still have fun, and entertain, and do the great old plays of yore. But for the love of god, if theatre’s stats on women are as bad as the US Congress’s, then we are not doing our art right.*

This is happening in London theatre too, as this article from The Guardian presents:

This failure to represent women, argued the actor, writer and director Stella Duffy, was deeply entwined with society’s wider failure to put women’s voices on an equal footing with men’s. A sense of responsibility to the world was, she said, being ducked—particularly by our larger national stages. In an impassioned blog post, she wrote: “When we do not see ourselves on stage we are reminded, yet again, that the people running our world (count the women in the front benches if you are at all unsure) do not notice when we are not there. That they think men (and yes, white, middle-class, middle-aged, able-bodied men at that) are all we need to see.

This wouldn’t be as deeply infuriating if the audiences for our work weren’t decidedly female. Seventy percent of theatre ticket-buyers are women and at least sixty percent of the audience members in every theatre are women. And yet our female-driven audiences are, over and over again, given male-driven stories, written and directed by men.**

What Can We Do?
We can ask ourselves these questions while doing season planning:

  1. How many roles will we offer to women compared to men?
  2. How many plays do we plan to produce that are written by women compared to men?
  3. How many of our productions will be directed by women compared to men?
  4. How many women designers are we hiring compared to men?

Then count. If the numbers don’t look fair, it’s probably not fair. And theatre is better than that.

Some theatres are already proving to be better than that. I’ll use my community in San Francisco as an example. Shotgun Players in Berkeley is planning an all-female-written season in 2015; Symmetry Theatre won the 50/50 Applause Award from the International Centre for Women Playwrights for its work consistently producing plays with gender parity in casting; TheatreWorks in Silicon Valley announced a season with more roles for women than men, Crowded Fire reaches parity in almost every category (women directors, writers, and actors; the theatre’s staff is four women and one man). And recently, a new group of excited female theatre practitioners has sprung up called “Yeah, I Said Feminist,” started by Fontana Butterfield Guzman, to rally behind female-positive productions. Good news, friends. Good news.

And we need good news. Because the world is already unfair to women in business leadership, political representation, sexual predation, dismissiveness of ability, sexualization, and equal pay—and, in some countries, the right to vote, to have property, to go to school, and to not die at the hands of virginity-obsessed male family members.

Should theatre be on that list too? Hell no. Theatre should teach that list a lesson.

* Women in the US Congress are at 18.6 percent. Women in the US Senate are at an all-time high of 20 percent. Boy, those numbers sound familiar.

** See these incredible statistics of London theater’s gender problem here.