The Kilroys Were Here
Moving Female Playwrights into Production
On June 11, 2014, The Kilroys, an independent Los Angeles-based advocacy group of female playwrights and producers, released THE LIST, the results of the first annual industry survey of excellent new plays by female-identified playwrights nominated by 127 industry representatives. THE LIST is intended as a tool for producers committed to ending the systemic underrepresentation of female voices in the American theatre. A few days ago, I had a chance to sit down with four of the Kilroys—Joy Meads, Carla Ching, Annah Feinberg, and Kelly Miller—to talk about how THE LIST was generated and responses since it was released.
P. Carl: I’d love for you guys to speculate as to why we have a parity problem in 2014. Any theories?
Joy Meads: I can start by saying I know the reason is not because we’ve got shadowy smoke-filled rooms full of avowed misogynists who are harboring conscious enmity towards women. That’s not what’s happening. That was what was happening in the past, way back when, but not now. I think what’s happening is that we have a lot of systemic, institutional and unconscious bias. All of these reasons that have converged to make it feel quote unquote riskier for one reason or another for a theatre to produce a play by a woman. With unconscious bias, the way our minds work, our expectations and assumptions are shaped by our experiences, and that’s just something going in. So when you’ve had a lifetime of reading and seeing quote unquote successful plays that come from a male perspective and are male-centered, that influences the way you perceive what will be successful, unless you are very conscious about identifying and being aware of that bias. I think that’s one thing. I think everyone wants to produce equitably. No one wants to consciously prop up men and keep women down, but I think there are all of these forces that we haven’t yet been able to talk about because the conversation has been stuck in this loop of “oh, the plays aren’t there,” which they are. Part of what we want to do is we want to just move the conversation forward from that place. We want to take “the plays aren’t there” or “we couldn’t find any good plays by women”—we want to take that off the table as a talking point.
I think what’s happening is that we have a lot of systemic, institutional and unconscious bias.
Annah Feinberg: I think there’s also kind of a hangover from the era of shadowy misogynists in smoke-filled rooms that used to be conscious but has become unconscious in that, we hire people and we are drawn to stories in which there are people like us, and there’s still a problem of male leadership in the American theatre, so it’s kind of all coming from the top. If I’m running an institution, and I’m a straight white man, I’m going to be drawn to stories that center around straight white men, whether I realize it or not.
Carla Ching: If I could tell a quick anecdote about that—I have been pitched as writing like a man, and that being a positive thing. My agent has pitched me that way because she thinks it’s going to get me more work. That belies the bias about what writing by women looks like.
Carl: Any guesses as to what the distinction is there, Carla?
Carla: She’s used the words that my writing is very muscular and I write unsentimentally. I was taken aback that that’s how she feels like she needs to pitch me in order to get me out there, that she thinks that people will respond to that.
Joy: To add on to what Carla’s saying, I think that women and men both write in all kinds of different ways. But I think that women sometimes face an extra stigma when they write plays that are quieter in tone, more focused on relationships and the subtleties of every day life. In the realm of literary fiction when women novelists talk about this experience of writing stories that center on every day life and relationships but that reach that larger theme, they’re pitched as domestic stories, as women’s fiction, quote unquote. When a male author writes a similar type of book, one of the biggest examples to date was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom; it’s pitched as something that’s relevant to everyone, that says important things about the time we live in now.
Carl: What made you think that this intervention of a curated list would be the way to have the most impact? And part two of this question is did you imagine THE LIST would have this kind of effect?
Annah: To us, it was just a simple answer. We had been talking a lot about the response that we had heard from artistic directors about how either a) the work didn’t exist. Plays of quality by women did not exist. Or b) they didn’t have access to them. This was an action on our part to just answer that concern, yes, they’re right here.
Joy: I want to speak to the curated aspect of it. I’ve been working in the professional theatre for about ten years, and during that time I have consistently heard artistic directors when asked why they don’t have more women in their season say, “we just choose the best plays.” I know this isn’t intended, but the logical analog to that, the next unsaid sentence is “and the best plays are written by men.” I know from ten plus years of reading, a lifetime of reading plays, I know for a fact that isn’t true. First of all, we wanted to do something that was distinctive from other efforts, that were marching along side and building on the shoulders of other efforts. There have been fantastic lists that have just proved the breadth and the exciting depth and variety and range of the talented female writers working today. For example, the We Exist list, that is a stunning accomplishment. You just look at that list, and you know there is no shortage of writers writing. Our list is complimentary in that we were just hoping to produce something for those artistic directors to answer the quote unquote quality question in language that they would recommend. There are a huge number of high quality plays by women available to you to choose from. In the future, we have a place on our site for people to nominate themselves as recommenders, or nominate others as recommenders. This first year was a very grassroots initiative, and we were just reaching out to folks that we knew were reading a lot of plays. In the future I really think we’re going to have a broader range of voters. But for this first year, it was very important to us that we just take that quality argument off the table. It’s not just that there are a lot of writers working—there are. It’s also that there are a lot of writers working that people who I know you know and recognize the expertise of—these people are validating the quality of the work.
I have consistently heard artistic directors when asked why they don’t have more women in their season say, 'we just choose the best plays.' [...] the next unsaid sentence is 'and the best plays are written by men.'
Kelly Miller: I actually want to speak a little more to the curatorial nature of this first year. To us, we did take a big page of inspiration from the Blacklist in Hollywood. The idea that part of what generates the power of that list is quite literally the quality of the plays and the writers involved. We didn’t curate the list of plays themselves or the writers—we curated the people who were nominating the work. We emailed 250 industry professionals and 127 responded for this first inaugural list. It’s really important to us that people know that it was about really making this huge grassroots effort to get an industry-wide response, or as big a response we could the first year out. Quite literally THE LIST is an actionable, active advocacy on behalf of the entire industry, or as many new plays tastemakers and leaders and advocates as we could involve.
Carl: I’ve seen in my Facebook feed around that issue of curation—some people saying that this is another form of exclusion. In an effort to be inclusive, it’s exclusive. I wonder how you respond to that, because I can imagine waking up to THE LIST and being a struggling woman playwright and not seeing your name there, and feeling like it was a loss rather than a gain.
Annah: One of the things we’ve talked about a lot in this group is that—whatever the expression is—the rising tide raises all ships? We really believe that; by shining light on all these amazing plays by women, all amazing plays by women will gain a higher status.
Carla: Our intention is to help move everybody forward and to help open the door for everybody so there is more opportunity for women writers. It thoroughly dismays us that people may feel excluded, because that is absolutely not the point. It may very well be that those folks are on the list next year. It’s about timing and the time that we happened to ask for the recommendations. It’s when these particular plays floated to the lips of the people that we asked. There’s a good chance that all these other folks’ plays will be read between now and then. They should absolutely get their plays in the hands of people that are making plays across the country. I’m not on the list. There are a bunch of other Kilroys that aren’t on the list either.
Joy: Part of what we are really hoping is that people will look at this as the first year of what is a multi-year process. Part of it is who has plays that are out there right now that have been read right when the request went around, so they were fresh in people’s minds. Who has plays that are being read widely—how can we broaden the list of nominators in the second year, once we’ve get beyond this very grassroots initial push? I think over time this is going to be an incredibly exciting demonstration of the depth of talent in our field. One other point I’ll make is that one of the inspirations and heartbreaks of this advocacy is that there are so many incredibly gifted writers—female writers, female and gender queer writers—who are writing today. A list that would really be truly inclusive and include every under-produced play by a female or gender queer artist that deserves production would be massive—pages and pages—it would crash our website. It’s heartbreaking that’s a fact, but we’re also interested in how can we capture attention with the list? How much information can people process? It’s part of why we divided THE LIST into two different chunks: the 46 most-nominated female-authored plays and the complete list, which is 300 titles. There’s something that happens sometimes when you see a very long list—you get the force of the list, but you’re not really able to take action on individual components, because it becomes overwhelming. We’re thinking of this as a long-term project. You’re going to see the range, diversity, and depth of our field of talent represented on this list. There’s a link on our page to nominate yourself or somebody else as recommender. We want this to be as inclusive as possible. We started out focused, but we want it to grow.
Carl: Do you feel like you’re dealing with a particular kind of play here? I keep thinking about all the ensembles that are devising work who are probably a mix of genders, so I just wonder if you feel like the list represents a particular kind of play, or if you feel like it represents the breadth of the kind of work being done in the American Theatre?
Carla: With the ask, we didn’t put any parameters on the kind of work, we just said anything and everything. New work was the only stipulation. THE LIST is what people chose to put out there. But perhaps in the future it’s something where we could nudge nominators to think more broadly.
Annah: I think we only have one play written by more than one author—Deb Stein and Suli Holum collaboration.
Carl: That’s what I noticed, so I was just curious if it felt besides that exception more like a single-author kind of play or not.
Joy: It absolutely does not represent the range of work that’s being done today. Absolutely not. I think we can be explicit in the future—we didn’t think about this for this first round—but I think we can be explicit about the fact that we welcome mixed gender contributions with female authorships. We were really targeting the people we’re reading in interviews saying they can’t find the plays. Those people are big artistic directors in big theatres. One of the things I really love about this field is there is so much range and diversity, so many people working—I saw two really great fringe shows in the last week, and that just speaks to how much great work is being done beyond the big regional theatre level. But production at the big regional level comes with money for writers, which is something I think about a lot; how to survive as an artist. The names of plays at the regional theatre level tend to get out there more—to universities, to smaller theatres—in all of these other ways that a play can have a life, and a playwright can make money. Part of it is really pragmatic. It’s not fair that the most lucrative places for work to be done are so skewed towards men. It really actually hurts the ability of women to have a career with their writing. Ten years in, I’m starting to see some women I was so excited about starting out drop out and drop out in greater numbers than the men I was excited about starting out. Some of the most exciting work that’s being done is not being done at the regional level. It’s not a statement about quality.
Kelly: We actually did talk about that. When we looked at our nominator list, we had a 100, 150, nominators and we thought we had to up that. Who else do we need to reach out to? Places like La MaMa? Places like 3-Legged Dog in New York? People that are working outside of the traditional structure of new play form? So that conversation has begun and will evolve with future lists. We want everyone—all the new play professionals and advocates—to join us in nominating so that the breadth of the style and writers nominated grows, that the advocacy continues to grow, and THE LIST grows with it.
Carl: I’m trying to think about where this particular intervention lives in the landscape. What is the impact of a conversation about parity now? Do theatres look radically different if there is parity on stage? Do audiences look radically different? What’s the impact in your mind of a project like this for the theatre more broadly? I get the impact for more women being employed, I get all the tangibles of that, I wonder what kind of impact are we writing large across the theatre with a movement like this?
Joy: There’s a study of high school students who have studied theatre as an extra curricular activity versus people who do other activities, and one of the things they find is that those students are more likely to be empathetic and less likely to tolerate racism, name calling—things like that. One of the incredible powers we have in our field is the way we can help. When we do work that reflects the community around us, audiences get to walk in the shoes of people that are unlike them. There is a bigger level of understanding to experiences that are not your own. I think it is so necessary for civic conversation in a democracy, and I also think it has a political impact. The way that we see women is partially shaped by the stories we see about them. The way we see trans and gender-queer people is partially shaped by the stories we see about them. There is power in seeing yourself reflected in a story. It’s very validating. I think it’s necessary that we have women, and trans and gender-queer perspectives reflected on our stages. Just in order to make ourselves a better society, a better democracy.
Carl: This has been a crazy fun exciting week. It feels like in three or four days you’ve moved the needle forward in conversation. What’s next for you guys? What are you talking about? What else do you feel like the Kilroys want to do moving forward?
Carla: One thing we talked about is we want to be a very nimble group, to be able to create quick but subversive action we could do well, so we’re still discussing what the next thing might be.
Carl: Do you think it’s going to be an LA-based thing? Do you think there will be potential Kilroys in other cities?
Annah: We hope so. We’re so inspired by the 13P model, and we would love it if there were Kilroy groups that popped up in every city in the country.
Carl: Is there something I didn’t ask? Something you want to say?
Kelly: There’s something I want to say, and I’m going to think through it out loud—the groundswell, and the outpouring and the response has been overwhelming and incredible. It has helped to move that needle, and I think we all want to thank everyone who has been a part of it. Nominators, playwrights, organizations. For us, what it comes down to is, and we’ve said this word a few times—advocacy. And the groundswell of the advocacy we’ve seen in the last two or three days is not only national or institutional or from a certain group of industry professionals. It is personal. It is one to one. We have playwrights speaking up for other writers. We have playwrights emailing entire groups of literary managers and artistic directors saying, “hey, you know that list? Well, here are four plays I loved on that list, and here are ten other plays you need to know that are going to be on the list next year.” Or it’s not about the list. The point is making sure everybody is amplifying advocacy both on an institutional level and in a personal, daily, direct way. We all have the power to advocate for these phenomenal female and female-identifying authors. And to literally move them forward to production. None of us should wait for anyone. We shouldn’t wait for that next list. That advocacy begins with us and ripples out. I just wanted to add that, because for me, for us, one of the most profound gifts this week is the amplification of that personal, individual, and collective advocacy.
Joy: One of the things we’ve talked about is how what we’re doing is really standing on the shoulders of the work of so many others. Part of why the list has had the reach it has is because of all the work that so many people have done that came before. Elissa Goetschius standing up at the Summit and reeling off that list of stats that was pulled together by those artists in DC. Ilana Brownstein storifying it so it got out to everyone. The LA Female Playwrights Initiative, who created these great stats. The Lily Award. Theresa Rebeck. The We Exist List. The “yeah I said feminist” salon in the Bay Area, and the associated counting project spearheaded by Valerie Weak.
Kelly: Women’s Project. New Georges. This is an ongoing decades-long conversation that’s going to continue.
Joy: Just two other points. Last night we tallied up what all of us have spent so we could reimburse what needs reimbursing. Between all thirteen of us, we spent less than $200. We planned it and put a lot of time on it, for—just under a year. We met so often and spent so many hours. We felt impatient a lot of times, like we wanted to pull the trigger right after the Summit. But we wanted to make sure that when we launched it, it would have the greatest impact possible. All that to say, I think anyone can do this. Anybody who feels a calling to do something on this issue. I’m so heartbroken by all the people who felt hurt and excluded, because it’s really the opposite of what we wanted. Not only are we going to try and do better next year, but I want to encourage people to turn any feelings of exclusion into action and get together with your own people, and choose your own action that will add to the conversation. The other shoulders we’re standing upon are all the other artists who have come before us, and who have been inspirations and mentors, people whose work we fell in love with, who made us want to go into this field and choose this calling. One of the most amazing things that happened in the course of this project is that we contacted Zakiyyah Alexander, one of the playwrights who was nominated, who emailed Adrienne Kennedy. We’ve had this amazing dialogue with Adrienne Kennedy, with Paula Vogel, with Beth Henley, Timberlake Wertenbaker, all of these playwrights who are so talented, who are inspirations to us, who have talked about the struggles that they endured. Reading these emails, it just stopped my heart for a second when I thought about all the people we aren’t hearing from, all of the people whose names never got out there, and the waste. The generations of talent. The frustration. The heartbreak of that. It’s overwhelming. When I think of that happening to this generation of playwrights, who I love, who I’m so inspired by, it just can’t happen. It cannot happen. It is unendurable. It’s gotta stop.
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What a wonderful interview! I love Polly's question: "where does this particular intervention live in the landscape?" Our theater ecology is constantly shifting both locally and nationally. And no matter how many times we tell are stories - they do not stay told - we have to keep retelling them, refining them, introducing them to new audiences. For more ideas about gender parity advocacy efforts everyone can undertake, check out the Tactics Interview Series Recap on the Works by Women San Francisco blog. http://worksbywomensf.wordp...
I certainly applaud the Kilroys' adoption of the P13 model and the goal of creating more opportunities for female playwrights who have been excluded.
However, I some reservations about the list of 46 that boil down to two points:
All but one playwright whose work made the list already has an agent and/or a publisher, meaning that they are already fairly successful playwrights whose work is already getting out there. Many have enjoyed prestigious fellowships, and full productions at prestigious theaters. Most of the names are fairly recognizable to people who regularly read the more popular theater publications whether in print, or on line. There are certainly female playwrights being unfairly excluded in American theater, but the ones who did make the list are for the most part, fairly privileged vis-à-vis other playwrights. (And note: at least three Kilroys made this list-- how did the fact that the Kilroys were the ones asking the question affect that result?)
Secondly, how many of the producers, literary managers, dramaturgs, artistic directors, and directors were disinterested in the voting process? Had any of them worked on the development or production of plays they nominated for the list? Were any of them already committed to producing these plays next season? As a critic who is also a theater artist, it's a pretty major breach of ethics for me to review a company with which I have recently worked, am currently committed to work with, or with which I am in some sort of work-related discussion, but the Kilroys' description of their process makes no mention of recusal in the case of potential conflict of interest. The point is that this list can be gamed for cynical reasons.
Thank you for your thoughts. I understand your reservations. I'll share with you our thought process, but we know others would have made a different decision. (And we welcome other efforts!!)
First of all, no play was eligible for inclusion if it had more than a single production. So, though many of these playwrights have familiar names, by definition none of these plays have been over-exposed.
Secondly, it is not our intention with this list to create a system of absolute equality for all playwrights, but rather to try to decrease the gender disparity that already exists when you look at production.
I have less faith than you that all of these plays would see the production they deserve without intervention. As proof of this, I offer the fact that several of the plays on the list may have been encountered by the recommender within the previous year, but were actually written years ago and have yet to be produced.
I agree that it is important that decision makers become familiar with as many writers as possible. But the fact remains that too few of the plays by writers they already know are getting produced. In my experience, the gender disparity isn't primarily due to the fact that those decision makers have no literal knowledge of female playwrights, but that their plays are not rising from the level of familiarity to production at the same rate as male writers. I believe--on average--it is less likely that their works will be produced multiple times and achieve the level of exposure that is necessary before a work is included in the canon. This is a problem. It is a different issue than the problem of absolute anonymity that you've brought up here, but it is an important one. Our skewed perception of the canon is another reason for the production disparity.
To address your second question:1. We reached out to people we knew were advocates for women's work. It would be more problematic to attempt to curate a list of exciting plays by women by surveying people who have demonstrated little interest or expertise in the subject.2. Isn't the decision to produce or commission a play the highest possible demonstration of faith in a writer?3. While a play could be listed amongst the nominees with only a single nomination, multiple recommendations are necessary to make the list of the top 46. 4. Logistically, I'm not sure how we could enforce a recusal policy. We felt it was vital that the recommendations be anonymous: they were tracked separately from the identifying information of the nominator: none of us knew who had nominated which plays. We put this policy in place to ensure we did not skew the results towards plays written by members of The Kilroys.
That's some of the reasoning behind these decisions. That said, I know others will have different priorities and would have made different choices. I absolutely encourage those people to take their own action in a way that reflects their priorities. There is room for all of us; the movement is made stronger with every added voice.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts!Best,joy
Thank you Joy, for responding to my questions.
I get that it's hard to enforce a recusal policy-- but even if there is a stated policy, one assumes that at least some people are going to comply because they know the rule is there. Obviously, my editor doesn't have time to keep track of which theater companies might have solicited my work, or whom I have otherwise worked with, but knowing that my editor expects me to adhere to a code of ethics means that I volunteer any potential conflict-of-interests when we discuss my next assignment-- because otherwise it's fairly easy to imagine person from theater A nominating "A Play By B" after having workshopped it last season, while person from theater C nominates it when they already have it on deck for next season-- and then both theaters A and C get to declare that they produced or are producing a play from the 2014 Kilroy list in a press release. This is potentially a huge conflict of interest.
Secondly, since all but one of the playwrights who made the list have either publishers, agents, or both (and likely, if I checked the bios, I'd probably find the same four to six MFA playwriting programs cropping up) it still looks like class-privilege to me. In short, the list may promote gender equity for playwrights, but only playwrights of a certain class-- and this is a form of exclusion that concerns me greatly.
I agree that this survey measured, in part, which plays were being widely read, and having representation helps enormously in that regard. I also agree that the question of unequal access to agent representation is an important one, and class plays a role in that conversation.
But, I want to point you to something that Isaac said beautifully in his essay (RTWT, please, it's excellent): "Not every solution can target all problems at once. Similarly, no single diversity or inclusion effort can really afford to be all-inclusive. The more generalized and vague a solution is, the more likely it is to fail."
I believe that wholeheartedly. I think the questions of class and gender inclusivity are separate issues caused by largely distinct dynamics. Insistingthat the same action must address both issues would do a disservice to each. I believe you would be taking the most clear, efficient, and actionable solutions off the table and confusing and muddying the message.
We are at least three decades into talking about the issue of gender equity. I believe the most effective actions at this point are those that surgically target specific causal factors. The message should be clear and difficult to argue and the path of action should be clear. Trying to cover multiple issues in the same action will, in almost every case, simply dilute the power of that action.
While I respect your opinion about conflicts of interest, I'm afraid I continue to disagree. I haven't seen much of a problem when it comes to development of plays by women. In fact, too frequently theaters channel all of their diversity initiatives into development, which then help deflect attention to the homogeneity of their productions. Too often, deserving plays by women are stuck in development hell: the calculation of "risk" really only factors in when it comes to production. And I'm happy to give theaters more reason to celebrate their productions of female-authored plays. Based on my experience, it's hard for me to imagine a theater producing a new play by a woman they wouldn't have also recommended as one of the most excellent they read that year regardless of that production. In fact, in most areas of life, disenfranchised people have to be "twice as good" to overcome bias. I just don't believe that any possible conflict of interest is significant enough to distort the results.
Ian and Joy, thank you for this valuable exchange.
Joy, as the child of a feminist scholar who launched the first women's studies department at the University of Massachusetts while raising two sons and not yet tenured, I think she would laugh at the notion of required recusal for elevating the works of other women. Men get to apply self-interest and mutual back-scratching for centuries, but women have to demonstrate utter fairness across the board from the start?! Come on!
I think the tricky-wicket in this (to use my mother's term) is how to untangle the issue of the regional theatre's audience/donor dynamic from the gender balance of play selection. While our writers may be living in 2014, the audience/donor structure of the majority of longstanding regional theaters are living somewhere between 1974-1985. Their age. Their gender distribution of domestic/work activities. Their expectations of story structure and themes; The lack of familiarity with gender deconstruction in narrative and theme. Their distance from the distinctive personal/political challenges for women now in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. I AM MAKING GROSS GENERALIZATIONS HERE. GROSS. Yes, we know women in this leading demo are by greater percentage the cultural decision-makers, but are they making choices independent from the pervasive male gaze they grew up with, married into? I think this is a genuine issue for programming new plays in general, but I do wonder how much it plays directly to the issue of parity-- fairly or not -- in the minds of theatre leaders, whether they think of it as being about male/female authorship or not. It is certainly not the Kilroy's job to interrogate this, but I do hope that our colleagues will go public with the kind of conversations they have when reading the plays on The List and other lists as so why their audience will respond more strongly to a 20 year old play by David Mamet than a new one by Rachel Bonds, Nilaja Sun, or Bess Wohl.
You certainly are making some gross generalizations here. My parents' tastes are far more avant-garde.
As to recusal from conflict of interest being ridiculous: Should I publish a review for a show in which I also dramaturged? Choreographed the puppetry on? Should I review a show by a company that has solicited one of my scripts for their reading series? Given a donation to?
I'm going to have to say "no," and I think most people would agree with me. Why? Because readers would question my honesty and my sincerity-- readers might forgive me for having an opinion with which they disagree, but they'll never forgive me for being dishonest.
So is it okay to expect ethics for critics but not from the folk we write about?
Hmm. Not sure about your interpretation of my comments, Ian. Your point about journalists and conflict of interest is utterly valid - for journalists. I won't detour too much into the grand tradition of artist/critics and activist/journalists, but yes when the press hat is on an expectation of objectivity exists. However, when a group of smart, talented, clear-headed, experienced women unite to contribute to a critical movement -- and when their activism advances their own interests, the interests of their friends and family members, as well as others in their specified group -- that's not an ethical pit. That's a win. For them. For their cause. A complete win.
And when that win has exclusionary results? i.e. still affirming class privileges, even as it brings about greater gender parity within the privileged class?
What about in scholarship? Should scholars be the peer reviewers for their own research, or to which they contributed? Should people edit wikipedia articles in which they are either the subject, or in which they are mentioned prominently?
Hypothetically speaking: Were a group similar to The Kilroys to start off in my neck of the woods, should they be able to expect to solicit a donation from me AND expect me to write thoughtful criticism of their plays? Would it be an ethical conflict of interest, or would the worthiness of the project supersede and ethical questions?
I'm asking this in full seriousness.
Okay, here I go, back in the land of broad generalizations, but the feminist movement and civil rights movement each share a shorter "list" of victories when it gets to addressing systemic inequalities of class. The debates and turmoil within both movements regarding class (and sexuality) are well documented and there is much self-reflection that occurred and continues to occur among activists and public policy advocates in this realm. So I have no problem with your meta-point, that economic barriers are often mightier than ones of race or gender (though most often it a combination of both/all where the most insidious discrimination exists) and that the Kilroys are not focused on knocking down those barriers yet (or maybe ever).
But the Kilroys are not Marlene in TOP GIRLS. They are not mimicking and upholding a male-dominated structure. They made clear the terms by which they made their selections and will measure their success. While I find it hard to believe that theatre leaders in 2014 can claim not to know of plays by women that will resonate with their audiences, awareness and attention is the first objective of their endeavor. And they have succeeded. Big time. To you this achievement is diminished because it didn't transcend that goal. Not to me. We both know how difficult it is to be an artist in America. Amidst that -- their exhaustive, challenging lives -- to do something like this. Productive. Collective. Powerful. That's a win. Their only goof was not asking me for nominations :-) And we'll just need to agree to disagree on this.
For scholarship -- there is peer review. And Wikipedia is not scholarship. So I'm not sure how to delve into that more.
And in terms of you giving money to a Kilroy-like crew, they are free to ask, and you a free to decline. So I'm not sure of the threat to ethics there either. Now if just their solicitation affected how you wrote about them, I imagine you would have something to wrestle with there.
The problem remains then that this list is really only for the benefit of female playwrights who are already part of a privileged, well connected class (at least vis-à-vis American theater) and it leaves the female playwrights who lack those privileges while they battle the same (and possibly worse) gender inequality.
All it says to that bunch of female playwrights is: "It's your own fault for not having acquired a degree from a prestigious MFA factory." That is, as diplomatically as it has been phrased, is a defense of exclusion. It's the exact same message given when we discuss the plight of playwrights without putting gender into the equation.
In the end, it looks like insiders picking insiders-- yes we're advancing the careers of insiders who have been discriminated against (presumingly unconsciously) by other insiders, but we're still leaving many more outside, and affirming that barrier between inside and outside is right and proper-- so long as the seats on the inside are rearranged a bit.
That Butler "beautifully" defends this position is really no surprise, as he has been defending class privilege in American theater really up until the point when I stopped reading Parabasis.
As far as the "privilege" of female writers is concerned, I have a hard time locating the privilege of a group represented at our theaters at numbers 30% below their share of the population at large.
Try to imagine a theater where 75-80% of the plays were written by women. Would you feel that men were in a position of privilege there?
But, the fact that gender parity isn't a concern of yours certainly helps illuminate why you take issue with our campaign for gender parity. Thank you for the discussion, but I'm not sure any further conversation will be productive if it doesn't begin from that shared understanding.
Actually, gender equality in theater is a concern of mine: Looking at my work as a theater critic, I've promoted the work of any number of female playwrights and other theater artists, who are either early in their careers, new to American audiences, or simply overlooked. In many cases, I have been one of the first, if not the very first to give them any critical attention in America. I have a track record, and I can stand by it.
As noted earlier, I applaud the formation of The Kilroys as a group that makes plays and whose membership is made entirely of female playwrights-- I only take issue with the list.
I'm pointing out that this list only works for gender equality for female playwrights of certain class who happen to also have many (though not all) of the class privileges successful male playwrights (i.e. agents, publishers, degrees from prestigious MFA programs, and at least a foot in the door at a prestigious theater) while the female playwrights who lack these class privileges gain nothing from the existence of this list. They are not going to get on the list, no matter how deserving they might be, because they belong to the wrong class of female playwrights.
And yes, that's exclusionary.
I know a number of people who attended Yale and other MFA "factory" programs who were dirt poor. Yale is free, in fact. The Michener program in Austin is free. Iowa is extremely inexpensive and offers tons of scholarships. So I think this notion that everyone who ever attended an MFA program is a bloodline descendant of Betsy Bloomingdale is erroneous. That said, there is an obsession with MFA programs in the American theatre, and it sucks, but I don't know that the Kilroys means to solve that issue. I would also argue that I know a few of the writers on this list personally and they grew up poor. Does that matter to you? Or are you more invested in having contempt for people who were insider-ish enough to make a list like this? You seem to have a ton of assumptions about these writers and claim to be overly familiar with them, and yet can you talk me through the body of work of Tanya Saracho? Basil Kremendahl? Jen Silverman? What is your favorite Larissa FastHorse play and why? Do you feel Larissa FastHorse is overexposed in the American Theatre? What about Alexandra Collier? Is she played out? Maybe familiarize yourself with the works and concerns of these writers before you make gross generalizations about who they are, how privileged they are, where they come from and where they write from. These are not a bunch of demographics for you to sort through -- these are artists with histories and lived experiences, and you are dismissing them as a bunch of spoiled MFA brats and I take issue with that.
I would also suggest that if YOU want to start a list of women playwrights with restricted class privileges who have never been to MFA programs, I think it could be really galvanizing and interesting. And it will be exclusionary, as it is a list. And lists by definition exclude.
Ian, you have an MA from a private school in philosophy. You're a white man. And you're bitching about privilege on behalf of poor women playwrights? Do you not find the irony rich? I do.
Well, Jasper, you're making a number of suppositions about my background based on incomplete information. The only thing you got correct is that I "have an MA from a private school in philosophy" though you are unaware as to what my tuition was, or how many years I spent in public education. I'm certainly not "bitching" (your word, not mine) and I am definitely not using any of the terms of derision that you seem to want to attribute to my thought process.
I guess my point is that you are making the same suppositions about the women on this list.
And you missed my point: I am talking about structural issues in American theater not about individuals. Hence, I am discussing class privilege that keeps some playwrights from even being considered, not whether or not I think an individual playwright is worthy of honors.
But I also can make my point without using derogatory names.
PS. Isaac Butler wrote a typically thoughtful essay that addresses some of these points. It's worth reading, if you have the time. http://parabasis.typepad.co...
Great conversation. Thanks for your advocacy. I've posted some thoughts here: http://www.thefeministspect....
I might have missed it, and apologies if I have, but what are the parameters that define "best" in the curated list, and why do you feel confident that this definition fits that of a producer? It seems there is a circular economic argument that walls off production opportunities, tied to cost/benefit. Does this list work to remove the perceived risk of producing plays that may not be as well known as other plays? That challenge does seem to be a tough one to overcome and reveals a Catch-22. I cynically believe that the same plays are done, and by extension gendered plays that resemble these same plays are done, because their is a perceived lower financial risk to them. I doubt that risk-aversion can be supported with any evidence (it is doubtful that a well-known male playwright or a male playwright that resembles the well-known male playwright is more financially successful than an unknown female playwright). The pressures of marketing, however, come down to dollars, and often marketing strategy is derived from biased experience. I wonder if there is a way to offer a pro-forma financial argument with a cost/benefit factor to the The List, to argue that producers ignoring these plays are reducing a financial opportunity for their theaters. I'd be willing to work with you on making this argument.
Thank you for this thoughtful comment. We did not give the voters a definition of excellent. However, in order to be eligible, a play could have no more than one professional production. So all of these plays are either un- or underproduced.
I've heard some argue that we should have kept to unproduced plays, and I understand that argument. I felt strongly that we should include plays that had had a single professional production, as I believe the reaction to a play's first production is an important site of systemic bias. From what I've observed, it seems that plays by women--wonderful, high-quality plays by women--are less likely to see the second, third, fourth etc etc productions that a play needs to become canonical, and, therefore, revivable--this bias feeds into the fact that we believe we have a much more male dominated canon than actually, in fact exists.
That said, there is another conversation to be had about the relationship to risk throughout the field. I feel that this is beyond the scope of our project: we are targeting one specific aspect of a large and complicated dynamic. But it's a worthy conversation and one I hope we continue to have.
I think this first step with the Killroys will change the conversation on authorial value, that for now is far too gendered. I applaud this effort and stand ready to help anyway I might.
Joy, I would also argue that this bias extends to plays written by men or women whose lead roles are female -- which is a different but related -- and equally serious problem imo.
Yes, I think that's true.And I think it's particularly true if the female protagonist isn't particularly "likable".
There was a large discussion of this fact in the world of literary fiction a year or so back. Here's one great article: http://m.theatlantic.com/se...
All that said, if playwrights worried about making their characters likable, we'd lose some (most?) of the most interesting characters in the canon. I love seeing complicated, fascinating, determined women on our stages. I feel confident that we'll see more and more of them in the years to come.
And, yes, it is our hope that inclusion on the list lowers the perceived risk of producing a play by a less-known author. Personally, I imagine it as something that and AD could take to their board..."you might not have heard of X, but..." In a perfect world, maybe these things would not mean so much. But, pragmatically, I believe it might help plays see productions they otherwise wouldn't.
Adding to the conversation, an interview with one of the founders, Daria Polatin. http://wp.me/p3sdFJ-w9
I am so inspired and encouraged by The List, and no, I'm not on it. I'm afraid too many people who are not on the list are sitting passively and taking it as a rejection. I see a small group of fellow playwrights who actually DID SOMETHING, something that took considerable time, follow-through, social capital, and creativity to pull off. Oh, and two hundred bucks. (Thanks for that detail. It's awesome.) So Ladies Not On The List: don't get mad, don't get sad, get inspired! If you're not out there dreaming up a creative, fun, effective way to get noticed and help your colleagues, why not?
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:
Playwright, Director, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Costume Designer, Sound Designer, Projection / Video Designer, Choreographer, Composer / Original Music, Lyrics, 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.
During a TCG Conference breakout session of artistic leaders of theaters $5M and up (where there were 3 women and 20 men), I raised the question of gender parity in a way I fear got misconstrued. The gist was this: at a regional theatre where there is an expectation and/or desire for at least 50% of the plays to be "popular classics", our historic sexism perpetuates its poison as there is a high likelihood that these plays will be by dead or near-dead white guys. These plays often possess larger casts and for this reason and for box office they are placed on our larger stages. As a result, to achieve anything approximating parity and authorial diversity during a season at these kind of theaters, the pressure is on new work to achieve these goals of equity, and to do so in more financially frugal ways that more often live on our smaller stages. Through this dynamic, year after year, a new myth is perpetuated: that work by women, by artists of color are innately smaller in scale and box office appeal etc. when this is the opposite of fact or truth.
At the TCG session, I fear one or more of my colleagues thought I was labeling work by women as risky, when in fact I was trying to unpack the ways that exact misperception gets self-perpetuated through season planning that privileges the dead-white-guy classic for the subscriber class and forces new work to carry the torch for all levels of inclusion and diversity. Can't fix that now, but my ultimate point -- and why Ilana's comment here is so fricken brilliant -- is that parity within the regional world will be immensely difficult to achieve if we cannot come together as a field -- through co-production, through regional partnerships, through collective agreements -- to elevate past work by women to match the awareness and visibility of Shakespeare, Miller, Simon, Mamet, Shepard etc. It would be a watershed moment if, say, ten theaters all agreed to produce Churchill's "Top Girls", or Howe's "Art of Dining", or Hansberry's "Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window", or Louise Page's "Real Estate", or name your favorite CLASSIC play by Irene Fornes, Migdalia Cruz, Susan Yankowitz, Judith Thompson, Kathleen Tolan, Connie Congdon, Wendy Wasserstein, Alice Childress, (please add your inspiring playwright here) -- and if these theaters pool resources like the Kilroys did to cross-promote, to demand national attention, to ask WHY WERE THESE WOMEN WRITERS DISCRIMINATED AGAINST IN THE PAST AND WHO WILL GIVE US MONEY TO FIX THE BALANCE -- because not only would a successful campaign like this address a past wrong, it could liberate artistic leaders when programming new work, which in turn would expand opportunity -- in number, in aesthetic, in scale -- for today's extraordinary playwrights (women and men).
Thank you to Joy and all the Kilroys for this amazing tool! For those who'd like to see the data collection of the Counting Actors project Joy mentions, here's a link to the most recent monthly post: http://worksbywomensf.wordp...
And here's a suggestion on the 'small actions anyone can take' front for actors. If and when you're asked to do an audition with two monologues, make sure one of those monologues is by a female playwright.
During a recent panel discussion a (male) playwright was asked how he seems to get so many productions. He said it was in part because he sends out about TWO HUNDRED plays per year. The playwright asking the question was shocked, as she said she sends out only a handful per year.
Quite an important point. But if you look simply at the production statistics, all you'd see is a tremendous disparity between plays written by the man that were produced and those written by the woman that were produced. Proving once again the old saying: "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics."
I know a TON of women writers (myself included) who send out easily OVER two hundred scripts every year (not counting what our agents are sending out). So I'm not exactly sure what the point you are trying to make is.
Good article, some good points. But some additional questions come to mind (that I don't have the answer to but maybe you all do):
1) How many plays are written each year by men, how many by women? (If far more are written by men then the fact that more men's are produced might not seem quite as unfair.)
2) What is the percentage of plays produced each year compared to the number written?
I suspect when looking at this things this way the parity issue will no longer seem the paramount issue. ("Gee, men got one tenth of one percent of their plays produced, but women only got half that!")
3) Have any blind studies been done to support the underlying notion that the (percieved) quality of plays written by men is the same as those written by women? (Wouldn't be that hard -- a group of artistic directors read a whole bunch of plays without knowing who wrote them.)
4) Given that (as noted), women make up well over half of the audience for theater, the (hard) question has to be asked if women prefer plays written by men. (After all, it's already been established that even theaters that have women artistic directors tend to have seaons that are dominated by plays written by men.)
5) Consider the possibility that it has nothing to do with gender, but simply fame. That is, just as people tend to (alas) go to plays (and movies) based on how many famous celebrities are in them, they also tend to want to see plays by famous playwrights. And since men have been been writing plays (at least produced ones) far longer than women, it stands to reason that most famous playwrights would be men.
How often Shakespeare is produced is perhaps the best example of this. He is famous, so he gets produced. Why? Because theaters know a lot of people will come to see a play by Shakespeare, whereas they probably won't if the play is by an unknown writer -- regardless of gender.
The bottom line is I think women, in their anger, really aren't seeing straight on this issue. The primary issue isn't gender, but fame. People (and, dare I say, especially women) prefer to see TV, film, and theater with famous people. Especially famous men.
I wish this wasn't the case -- I wish all theaters looked at plays blind, instead of giving preference to those written by famous (and, next, well-established) authors. But that will likely never happen because audiences will be much more likely to come to a play by a famous writer than an unknown.
I thus strongly suggest that instead of being so obsessed by the fact that a slightly larger percentage of plays written by males are produced (like I said, I suspect it is probably only a tenth of a percent at best), work instead on creating a system -- and society -- that isn't so obsessed with celebrity, but instead values merit in whatever form (male or female, famous or unknown) it comes in.
The study "Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater" published by Emily Glassberg Sands in 2009 helps to address some of your questions above. Garnering national attention in the press, and among industry leaders, her methodologies revealed evidence of gender bias. I encourage you to explore the study and the dialogue that followed. http://graphics8.nytimes.co...
The book Outrages Fortune by Todd London and Ben Pesner, featured a study that surveyed playwrights. The study found that, "when separated by gender, male and female playwrights report no significant difference in number of plays produced."
If I recall correctly, "Outrageous Fortune" DID find differences between male and female playwrights in the prominence of their productions. For example, the dearth of female-written plays on Broadway/ winning Tonys has been well-noted. http://www.nytimes.com/room...
Yes, you're right there is a discussion about level of production. It concludes: “Though male and female playwrights at the same career stage report the same average income, the average career stage for men is significantly more advanced than that of women.”
This make sense in thinking about your link regarding the lack of plays by women on Broadway, since almost all plays produced on Broadway are by older (later career) playwrights. Older female playwrights are still sorely underrepresented. Hopefully that will change. And hopefully right away.
On the bright side, the fact that there is parity for the number of productions (according to the TCG Outrageous Fortune study), points to the likelihood that early career female playwrights are getting produced more regularly than early career male playwrights. This must be what's making up for the lack of plays produced by older (later career) female playwrights.
I would love to see a study of the gender breakdown of productions in mainstages vs. second stages.
The Unknown Playwright said, above: "And since men have been been writing plays (at least produced ones) far longer than women, it stands to reason that most famous playwrights would be men."
I'm sorry, but with respect, this is simply not true that men have been playwrights far longer than women, and so *that's* why men are more famous. It is a commonly held belief, but is not supported by fact.
Regarding whether women have been writing plays, historically: I could send you to countless resources to offer you proof, but frankly, this should not require "proof" other than that human beings innately tell stories. I do not think it's remotely possible that in all the history of the Western theatre, dudes were somehow chromosomally predisposed to telling those stories in a multiplicity of character voices, enacted in the body. Rather, it is far more likely that human beings opt into the desire to (and the act of) telling of stories within a theatrical genre in approximately similar numbers, but the history of governmental and cultural power structures often erases the work of women from the canon.
So, if we take as truth that women and men have, for centuries, both been writing plays, then why else might fame fall to men? Especially in the historical record? It's about who defines the canon.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Ok, you still want proof? Here's an INCOMPLETE list of female playwrights in England, between the mid 1500s to the mid 1800s. Just England. And this isn't even everything.
•Jane Lumley (1537–1578): first translator of Euripides into English
•Mary Sidney Herbert (1561–1621): translated one play
•Elizabeth Cary (1585–1639): wrote the first original play in English by a woman
•Mary Wroth (1587–1652): primarily a poet; one drama extant
•Jane Cavendish (1620/21–1669): co-authored a pastoral masque with her sister, Elizabeth Egerton
•Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673): author of closet dramas
•Elizabeth Egerton (1626–1663): co-authored a pastoral masque with her sister, Jane Cavendish
•Katherine Philips (1631–1664): mainly a poet; author of two plays (one unfinished)
•Aphra Behn (1640–1689): highly successful playwright
•Elizabeth Polwheele (ca. 1651-ca. 1691): two plays extant
•Anne Finch (1661–1720): primarily a poet; author of verse dramas
•Frances Boothby (fl. 1669–1670): author of the first original play by a woman to be produced in London
•Delarivier Manley (1663 or ca. 1670-1724): successful playwright
•Mary Pix (1666–1709): successful playwright
•Susannah Centlivre (ca. 1667-1723): highly successful playwright
•Mary Davys (1674–1732): novelist; produced one play; had another published
•Penelope Aubin (ca. 1679–ca. 1731): primarily a novelist; had one play produced
•Catherine Trotter (1679–1749): successful playwright
•Jane Wiseman (fl. ca. 1682–1717): author of one successfully produced play
•Mary Wortley Montagu (ca. 1689-1762): wrote primarily in other genres
•Eliza Haywood (1693–1756): successful as a playwright; wrote primarily in other genres
•Catherine Clive (1711–1785): highly successful actress; wrote farces with some success
•Charlotte Charke (1713–1760): playwright/actress/manager
•Charlotte Lennox (1720–1804): wrote primarily in other genres; two plays (one an adaptation)
•Frances Brooke (1723–1789): primarily a novelist; successful with comic opera
•Frances Sheridan (1724–1766): successful playwright
•Elizabeth Griffith (ca. 1727-1793): successful playwright
•Charlotte Lennox (ca. 1727-1804): limited success as playwright; primarily a novelist
•Dorothea Celesia (bap. 1738, d. 1790): translated Voltaire's Tancrède
•Hannah Cowley (1743–1809): successful playwright and poet
•Hannah More (1745–1833): successful as a playwright; published in many genres
•Mary Bowes (1749–1800): published one play
•Charlotte Turner Smith (1749–1806): novelist and poet; one comedy attributed to her
•Elizabeth Craven (1750–1828): limited success as a writer of light plays
•Sophia Lee (1750–1824): successful playwright.
•Frances Burney (1752–1840): primarily a novelist; author of several plays, only one of which was produced in her lifetime
•Elizabeth Inchbald (1753–1821): successful playwright
•Ann Yearsley (ca. 1753-1806): primarily a poet; produced and published one play
•Hannah Brand (1754–1821): productions largely unsuccessful; published her plays
•Harriet Lee (1757–1851): successful playwright
•Mary Robinson (1757–1800): wrote primarily in other genres; one play produced
•Jane West (1758–1852): wrote primarily in other genres; her plays enjoyed limited success
•Anne Plumptre (1760–1818): wrote primarily in other genres; translated dramas
•Elizabeth Kemble (1761–1836): mainly known for acting
•Mariana Starke (1761/2–1838): author of four plays, not all produced; mainly a travel writer
•Joanna Baillie (1762–1851): prolific playwright
•Barbarina Brand (1768–1854): author of four published plays, one produced
•Frances Burney (1776–1828): published two tragedies, never produced
•Jane Porter (1776–1850): two plays; limited success
•Jane Scott (ca. 1779-1839): prolific author of stage pieces; theatrical manager; performer
•Mary Russell Mitford (1787–1855): some success as a playwright
•Felicia Hemans (1793–1835): primarily a poet; wrote some verse drama
•Catherine Gore (1799–1861): eleven plays produced
•Catherine Crowe (1800–1876): primarily a writer of fiction; wrote two plays, one of which was produced
•Elizabeth Polack (active 1830-1838): author of five plays, three of which survive
First, Hooray Ilana for such a thorough response! Also, I just finished compiling some data on how Shakespeare (and other dead male playwrights) figure into the parity discussion. Results and commentary here: http://brazenhussyrant.blog...
Hello. I'm glad you asked about research--it's a good question. The Sands study is the only one I know of that particularly targets theater: our field doesn't receive much attention from scientists.
The persistence of unconscious bias against women, however, has been exhaustively proven in any number of arenas through hundreds of studies over decades. Here's one example of many: http://www.nytimes.com/2012...
I suggest you familiarize yourself with this body of research. There have also been analogous findings demonstrating the same dynamics at play in perceptions about people of color. One good resource is BLINDSPOT: THE HIDDEN BIASES OF GOOD PEOPLE, an excellent popular science book that distills the findings from sixteen years of research at Harvard University's Project Implicit. I also recommend The Perception Institute: www.perception.org. (Isaac Butler of the blog Parabasis works there.) These are just a couple of the many resources easily found through google. The work has been done, it is easily accessible, and it will inform your opinion on this subject.
Basically, what researchers have found that our exposure to stereotypes and images about different groups unconsciously informs the way we perceive them. For example, exposure to the stereotype that women are prone to emotional volatility might unconsciously incline one to interpret their actions as resulting from irrational anger, rather than the long and careful analysis of a body of evidence. http://www.affective-scienc...
Oh, and though the field of theater is underresearched, it is a well-established fact that when orchestras switched to blind auditions, the percentage of women they hired skyrocketed. http://www.nber.org/papers/...
classic Man'splainingfrom Rebecca Solnit's essay Men Explain Things To Me. the generosity of the responders to this is admirable. i can't summon it.
To the question of how many plays are being written by men and women in a given year:Submissions to the National Playwrights Conference (which exceeds 1,000 plays each years) is consistently made up of near-equal numbers of men and women. For the 2014 selection process, 56% of applicants identified as male, 42% identified as female. (1% identified as transgender and 1% chose not to answer).
We see less equality in our National Music Theater Conference submissions- closer to two thirds male, one third female.
I am pleased to report that the writers who will undergo developmental workshop processes within NMTC and NPC during the 2014 summer are equal number men and women.