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Women Playwrights

Who is Keeping Count?

At the end of April, Michele Willens in The Atlantic noted that only two plays on Broadway in the 2013-14 season were written by female playwrights, both dead: Sophie Treadwell and Lorraine Hansberry.

This February, a new study was released to The Wrap about statistics for women playwrights and directors working on Broadway last year, based on information in the Internet Broadway Database. For the 2012-13 season, women playwrights only wrote 10.7 percent of the shows on Broadway. Grim news indeed.

And yet, in terms of “the glass ceiling” for women playwrights, a commonly referenced statistic is that “about 22 percent” of all current productions are female-authored nationally. Here are just three recent examples of the use of that common “22%” figure: in Broadway World Los Angeles; the Council of Urban Professionals website about The Women’s Project in New York; and a prominent D.C. theater critic on Twitter. Where does this 22 percent figure, as a comprehensive marker, come from? To the best of my knowledge, there is no national study about gender parity and women playwrights in America. And that’s too bad.

There are some important gender-related university theater and entertainment studies ongoing, to be sure, but not about playwriting. There’s the Women’s Leadership in Residential Theaters study, cosponsored by A.C.T. and Wellesley. The Geena Davis Institute in partnership with Dr. Stacy Smith and her team at the University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism, promote studies of gender issues in family entertainment, including the status of women writers. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego Stage University has many reports about women working in the entertainment industry behind-the-scenes and on-screen, but not in theater.

Where is our official university study in the American theater for female scribes? It seems so odd that the actual percentages should remain a perpetually unsolved mystery, with our twenty-first century love of big data. Is there really no institution in 2014 that will sponsor an ongoing annual study of American women playwrights working in theater seasons around the country (and directors, producers, designers, for that matter)? It is nice that Theatre Communications Group draws some attention to the issue each year by publishing an “Annual Top Ten Most-Produced Plays” list, noting the gender of the playwrights included on the list. But even that list has its critics, in terms of overall accuracy related to gender representation, as any shows by dead classical writers such as Shakespeare and those with holiday themes are omitted from the tallies. Having an accurate measure of the current situation is crucial as we strive for improvement in inclusion and diversity; how else will we judge if we're truly making improvements? By what standards will we measure if we’re getting any closer to 50/50 parity?

Instead of “22 percent,” another figure that comes up often is that “17 percent” of theater seasons are female-authored. Patricia Waters, editor of The Omaha Herald, wrote about The Women Playwrights Initiative of the National Theater Conference in Fall 2011. Waters’ article says that at a regional level, women get only 17 percent of the productions. In England, research by the Sphinx Theatre Company in 2010 showed that females were: “35% of actors, 17% of writers, 23% of directors, 52% of the population.” In London, playwright Sam Hall runs “17Percent”, an organization and blog to promote female playwrights.

Seventeen percent, by the way, is the same percentage for productions by female playwrights as listed in American Theatre in the 1994-95 season rundown, according to the famous 2002 Susan Jonas/Suzanne Bennett report, prepared for the New York State Council and titled, “Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement.” The 1994-95 theatre season: that was twenty years ago.

But even 17 percent is optimistic for U.K. female playwrights, according to researcher Maggie Gale, who reported, at a 2013 National Theatre conference in London, that women are really produced only in the 8 percent—12 percent range, and that it’s gotten worse in the past hundred years for them, not better. In southern California last year, volunteers from the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, counting only the local League of Resident Theater (LORT) seasons, found that merely 16 percent productions were female-authored in 2012-13.

In 2013, I tried to get accurate figures about women playwrights working in New York, at levels other than Broadway. I was unable to find this information, because no organization was funded to count it; it entails investigating about 2,000 productions each year—a huge task.

There are some heroic individual theater data counters across the world, keeping track of statistics in their own communities because they care deeply about demographics and theater. They include Niall Tangney in Sydney, Australia; Gwydion Suilebhan in Washington, D.C., with Patricia Connelly and David Mitchell Robinson; and Valerie Weak’s Counting Actors Project, which includes playwrights, in San Francisco. Patrick Gabridge wrote about the numbers in New England on his blog. I found a recent blog post online by Lois Dawson about counting gender representation for playwrights and directors in the Vancouver, Canada, theater season; Dawson was inspired to count in Vancouver by “The Summit” discussion at Arena Stage earlier this year.

But what if there were a way to fund some sort of new national study, to formalize a precise methodology of what shows/seasons to count and when, and get an accurate assessment of what the gender equity percentages for women playwrights in the United States really are in 2014?

If we can’t find an institution or university that will fund this (which seems a shame), is there a DIY way to organize an all-inclusive study that includes every region of the country? Can we pool our resources and do this? Or will we remain stuck, repeating statistics based on best guesses or decades-old data, sort of like “the American Myth of the Female Playwright Production Percentage”?

In Sweden, five years of ongoing monitoring related to gender parity in the performing arts brought female playwriting participation up to 46 percent by 2011. Isn’t it time we get started here in the U.S.? 2020 is only six years away, if we’re still striving for 50/50 by then.



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[this comment is copy of a comment added to the more recent Kilroys conversation, on this same idea of counting and making our field accountable]

The League of Professional Theatre Women has an ongoing data project tracking employment in off-Broadway theatres -- analyzing women and men employed in 13 categories for full productions in 22 theatre companies. The project continues, and more companies could be added retroactively of course -- this is our start.

Counts and analyses of the following employment categories are tracked, will be provided for four seasons (2010-2011 through 2013-2014) in this first project report covering 22 organizations producing Off-Broadway:

Set Designer,
Lighting Designer,
Costume Designer,
Sound Designer,
Projection / Video Designer,
Composer / Original Music,
Conductor / Music Director,
Production Stage Manager and
Stage Manager / Assistant Stage Manager

The first project report presenting season totals is being finalized now and should be out soon.

Martha Wade Steketee, report co-author.

We’re so glad that Laura Shamas (a long-time activist for gender parity in the theatre, and for the rights of artists everywhere) has addressed an issue that is extraordinarily important to the Dramatists Guild of America. This summer, in coordination with the Lily Awards Foundation, the Guild is endeavoring to do an official count of female dramatists produced at leading regional theatres, LORT theatres and important development organizations and small theatres throughout the country. Once the data has been collected, and then vetted by experienced statisticians, we look forward to sharing our findings with the greater theatre community. It is our hope that a presentation of reliable data will encourage producers to look at their own practices and lead to theatrical seasons that actually reflect the culture at large and give audiences access to a wider range of voices and views.

OK, I'm asking questions here -- my theory is Agents who need to make a living are going to try and work with writers who work, so that the agents get an income (I'm an agent in another field for my day job, thankfully one that focuses on diversity and is only about concrete skills, but we do search for people who can get hired) - So my theory is since most theater companies only take Agent submissions - and most (not all) but Most Agents have more male writers on their roster - women playwrights are under-agented, because the money for Agents is in TV (theater doesn't pay very much for agents - I met with a manager who frankly told me he only works with people he can staff on TV shows and film, that he can get them traction in theater, but he doesn't focus on it) -- Anyway - People put up lists of names here of great women writers for TV shows, which is thrilling frankly, but the statistics from the writer's guild are not as happy.


I was excited to see this call to action and just wanted to add a few thoughts! Laura, my initial reaction to your post was that the questions you were asking could be more inclusive--not just limited to playwrights, but looking at a wide variety of arts-related professions; and also, not limited to gender, but looking at larger areas of self-identification. Because the issues you highlight here are definitely questions that should be asked of the field as a whole. So I was even more thrilled to see that TCG is working on just that!

Off the top of my head, some other partners whose priorities align with these questions could include: the NEA (potentially though the Research: Art Works grant program), the National Center for Arts Research based out of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the Cultural Data Project, the Joyce Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Trust. And of course, there must be many others, as evidenced by the posts here! Anyway, thanks for the post, and I'm looking forward to seeing what develops.

FYI - Playwrights Guild of Canada tracks production stats for playwrights each year, and has been doing so as a follow-up measure since the release of the 2006 study on the status of women in Canadian theatre (see https://www.playwrightsguil.... Last year, for the 2012/13 season, 177 companies produced 646 productions, 61% of which were written by men, 23% by women, and 16% by mixed gender partnerships. For the 2013/14 season, we had 183 companies that produced 812 productions: 63% were written by men, 22% were created by women, and 15% were developed by mixed gender collaborations. That's higher than the 17% usually cited for women, but not by much!

The larger theater companies don't accept play submissions except through agents. Agents make a living when their writers work. Women are severely under represented in the one main area where writers can make money -- TV. Most agents and managers don't want to take on women writers because women don't / can't get staffed on TV shows, TV is a boy's club (that industry has tons of statistics to prove that.) Playwrights earn about 15K or so when their play is produced at a larger theater (LORT or Off Broadway.) An agent will get $1,500 approx (10%). That is nothing. So women writers can't get Agents -- IF THEATER COMPANIES REALLY CARED ABOUT WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS THEY WOULD ALLOW WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS TO SUBMIT DIRECTLY WITHOUT AGENTS.

I've read that in Washington they were looking for women playwrights and couldn't find them and said that the agents weren't sending them, this was a quote I read, unfortunately I don't remember where, but it went viral because people were talking about creating a binder of women playwrights. That coupled with the research that was recently sent to me, made me think that women are under-agented. But everyone is telling me they have women writers, so that's good, then why the disparity? In terms of plays produced? I've personally seen Theresa Rebeck's plays many times on Broadway. I'm a big fan. But others on the above lists I don't know. I hope women are making inroads into TV writing (where the money is, and agents have to make a living, so likely they want clients who "work") As soon as I find the research I'll post it here. Because it seems based on what people sent me this week, the above listed women may be the exception to the general rule?

Hi Alex, I'd be curious if this is an impression on your part about agents or whether you've done some research. I just counted my playwright list which came out to 17 women, 17 men and one gender queer writer. I appreciate your post because, to my surprise, it's the first time I ever did the count. Thank you for inspiring me to do that. I have great faith in my female playwrights who are interested in tv to follow in the very successful footsteps of Emily Kapnek, Annie Weissman, Tanya Saracho, Sheila Callahan, Nahnatchka Khan, Diablo Cody, Shonda Rhimes and Mindy Kaling, I don't argue your premise that this is a multi pronged issue that should be looked at from all directions. But I do wish it had been framed in the form of a question asking the agenting community to report their numbers and mindset. I don't feel I have ever passed on a potential client because of their gender. I'll also say on behalf of the hard working people working in understaffed literary departments, I've seen them throw their doors open to unrepresented writers who they meet at a panel or conference or party, or whose work is advocated to them through a mutual friend, or because they read a great review, or it won an award or it got into a great development program or any of the other ways unrepresented writers find to access those offices. Rather than saying women need a special dispensation, I'd prefer we be encouraging each other to get noisy, knock on more doors, assume we have just as much right to a seat at the table as the next "guy" and when it suits us, to build our own damn table.

To supplement Beth's list of women playwrights currently or recently writing for TV, I'd add Bridget Carpenter, Julia Cho, Sofia Alvarez, Theresa Rebeck, Rachel Axler, Carla Ching, Eli Clark, Cusi Cram, Jennifer Haley, Leslye Headland, Marlane Meyer, Kate Robin and Sarah Treem. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting. So women are making serious inroads into the "Boy's Club" of TV writing, especially now that there's such a hunger for playwriting talent for quality TV shows on cable networks. By the way, all those playwrights I listed above have also received commissions from South Coast Rep, as have Annie Weisman, Tanya Saracho and Sheila Callahan from Beth's list, along with many more women playwrights.

Thank you very kindly for the shout-out, Laura.

I wanted to share a small update. We are nearing our end-of-year report for the DC metropolitan region. We hope to be able to share our data by the end of June. We are also going to be announcing, at the same time, a new year-long initiative to increase the stability and robustness of our data-collection platform. The hope will be that we'll be able (eventually) to provide the backbone for a national, crowd-sourced initiative to track demographics for playwrights and directors. (Perhaps we ought to connect with TCG to ensure that we aren't duplicating efforts... or perhaps a duplication of efforts will provide a necessary backup. Time will tell.) In any event: my colleagues and I share your desire for a strong, dedicated, long-term initiative to help us all look in the mirror and see what we see, unvarnished... and to track where we progress (or -- ulp -- not) as well.

This is a bit of segue, but i am wondering less about the figures but what is at the root of them. Zinnie Harris resonates with my feeling when she says: "It is somehow harder for people to embrace a play written by a woman, whatever its quality. There is something slightly unseemly about filling stages with our voices, whereas men have a sense of filling Chekhov's or Ibsen's shoes. The woman who raises her voice becomes shrill and hectoring; the man becomes authoritative." She also says about reviewers. "When plays by women don't work, they are over-condemned. With men, they are seen as a step on the way to developing an interesting voice." In regard to this preconception, I wonder how it might be for theaters to do more 'blind reading' of scripts?

I think that something else happens in contemporary theater. When you get a playwright like Jordan Harrison or Christopher Durang, they have a hit that is performed all over the country, with their voices echoing everywhere. I'd be interested to know how many women's plays get that kind of repetitive national attention.

Thank you Laura for asking this question yet again - why is nobody interested in funding any counting? Thank you also for mentioning the San Francisco Bay Area's Counting Actors Project which marks a 3 year anniversary this month. We count writers, directors, actors and AEA actors working. Men receive more work opportunities than women in all 4 of these areas.

TCG is creating a demographic survey platform called REPRESENT to create real-time reports on gender parity at the board, staff, and artist level, in addition to seven other areas of identity and privilege, from user-created, self-reported data. We're working on the beta version with our Diversity & Inclusion Institute Theatres now, and are hoping to scale the platform up over the following year. We're looking for how REPRESENT can intersect with both internal TCG data sets, like Theatre Profiles, and outside data sets, as well. We're eager to work with anyone and everyone on this, so please feel free to email Gus Schulenburg at [email protected] to learn more. And you can learn more about our Diversity & Inclusion Initiative, of which REPRESENT is a part, here: http://www.tcg.org/fifty/di....

Zannie Voss compiled a brilliant, well structured, comprehensive study for Todd London's book, Outrageous Fortune. Is there any way to get grant money for someone like her, with her expertise, to sign on to this data collection?

I am the ED of StageSource, which is a service organization for the Greater Boston and New England theater community. We recently convened a town hall meeting about defining gender parity for our community, and created a task force to move action steps forward. I agree that there should be funding, but absent that, I would love to come up with some standardized systems for data gathering across the country. DIY can work, especially if we all work together. I would love to talk more about this subject. Feel free to contact me--our first task force meeting is in early June, and there is a lot of energy behind 50/50 in 2020.

Amy - At Counting Actors, I lump the writers for book, lyrics and music of a musical into the 'playwright' category - for someone with more resources, these are some great things to tease out into separate counts. I also lump directors and musical directors into the 'director' category, but haven't counted choreographers. Again, more questions for someone with more resources to tease out.

Martha Richards and her team at WomenArts.org have compiled a page of statistics about the employment of women in the arts, in many disciplines. http://www.womenarts.org/wo...

These kind of numbers always seem to be one-off studies, which provide a snapshot of a certain moment in time, but a long-term study with consistent methodology over decades could give us a more accurate picture of how things are and how they are changing. So glad to hear that TCG is making plans to investigate this!

I've also found a few studies with more detail on the state of UK theatres, which can be found on the DATA page of London's GAP Salon (Gender and Performance) website. http://gapsalon.wordpress.c...

Playwright Maev Mac Coille has recently begun a round-up of plays by women currently in production in London. The percentage of women writers hovers around 10%. http://thebookofmaev.wordpr...

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