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Equity in Theatre

What exactly does it mean and what would it take to actually have it?

This piece continues a partnership between HowlRound and the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW). In 2012, LPTW launched its journal WITOnline, and in 2015, it will become a searchable resource for the field, building a women's history of theatre through in-depth profiles, interviews, and articles. Find all WITOnline-HowlRound content here.

The April 2015 Toronto Equity in Theatre Symposium and International Summit on Gender Parity in Theatre assessed the state of gender equity in theatre and then brainstormed what can be done to move equity forward quickly and effectively. For me, as a participant in Day One and a coordinator of Day Two, it became very clear that although we do not all mean the same things by equity or parity—either in theory or in practice—the threads that string our experiences together have many resonant colors and patterns. We also know that by whatever criteria we determine gender parity in theatre, we don’t have it yet.

The questions of how we define our goals and how we take effective action to get there were the primary focuses of both the first day’s symposium for more than one hundred people, primarily Canadian theatre artists, and the second day’s more intimate roundtable and plenary session for less than twenty-five participants, predominantly American theatre artists. I attended as Co-President of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition and as a representative of a few of the Coalition member and affiliate organizations, including the League of Professional Theatre Women (where I serve on the board, currently as VP of Programming), and the National Theatre Conference.

Many questions were raised over two days of personal stories and much passionate discussion. Is equity in theatre about telling women’s stories? If so, will more women playwrights solve the problem? Or is equity also about which women’s stories are told, and how they are honed and illuminated during each step of the development and production process? If equity is about jobs for women, is it primarily about jobs for the actors, the creative staff, or the technical crew? Will equity in any one of these areas suffice, or does it need to be achieved in all of them? Is it enough if women have half or more of all the creative and production positions, if most of those are primarily in alternative and non- or lower-paying venues?


Is equity in theatre about telling women’s stories? If so, will more women playwrights solve the problem? Or is equity also about which women’s stories are told, and how they are honed and illuminated during each step of the development and production process?


The EIT Symposium was coordinated by Rebecca Burton of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, the host of the symposium at the Theatre Centre in Toronto and creator of the Equity in Theatre (EIT) initiative. The opening and closing of the day were livestreamed by HowlRound TV.

The current state of affairs was outlined with a panel presentation as well as collective and small group discussions, and numerous approaches were explored for making true and effective change. One of the most critical changes identified was to put the history of women in theatre and women’s plays into the classroom so that the next generation of theatre artists would be learning about—and working on—plays by women at every educational level. Also identified was the need for opportunities for women to experiment, fail, and grow, working their way up through the ranks through apprenticeships, mentorships, and assistantships. We reviewed study after study that show that in colleges and professional programs, women participate in numbers equal to or greater than men, but every step up the ladder a greater percentage of women fall off. Women are under-represented in virtually all disciplines, women are primarily employed in the lowest-paying jobs and theatres, and, worst of all, employment for women in theatre has been either stagnant or even regressive in recent years.

We moved to discussion of theatre audiences and critics. Female critics are necessary to parity in critical analysis as male critics see theatre through their implicit biases. Keira Loughran director/choreographer, clarified concepts: "Bias and discrimination are not the same. We are all biased. We have to discover our own biases." But we can only discover our biases if we are open to looking at ourselves and admitting that we have them. Djanet Sears, acclaimed Canadian playwright and director, addressed bias: "No artistic director will admit to a bias, except towards 'excellence'. It's a cultural blind spot."

Another set of important topics addressed outreach to nontraditional audiences and young people through alternative spaces and new modes of advertising, engaging communities and community theatres in new and nontraditional work, and continuing to explore theatrical forms. People need to see their lives and their world onstage, so models of storytelling need to change—both whose stories we tell, and how we tell them. One speaker equated classic play structure with male orgasm, building to one climax, and suggested that we need to encourage other dramatic structures, including those that follow a circular, multiple-orgasm structure.

It is critical that we put plans into action. "We are models of excellence in equity and diversity,” said Michelle Decottignies, a multi-disciplinary artist, “and we need to shift from advocacy to activism, make demands." Another participant claimed that we already are in the business of social engineering, and that we should make a nutritional label-like rating scale for plays or theatrical seasons. Intersectionality and the need for interdependence was discussed, analyzing inclusiveness for all who are disenfranchised. We need to join forces with women in other disciplines and art forms, women’s organizations in other fields, and other groups addressing discrimination. It is critical that we not put one form of bias “ahead” of others in priority, since that approach continues to foster bias itself.

Culturally-specific theatres was a recurrent theme. Marilo Nunez, long time Artistic Director of Alameda Theatre Company, questioned whether she had done more harm than good by creating a culturally-specific company. Alameda had given voice and opportunities to so many artists but had it kept them marginalized? When participants moved to reassure her about the importance of her work, she reaffirmed that culturally-specific work is not a simple black-and-white, yes-or-no issue, but is about understanding that every effort has unintended consequences, and that progress is not linear. Even a list like that provided by The Kilroys can both celebrate and marginalize if the selected plays are treated as “other” or if those plays are considered the only plays by women worth supporting.

The day concluded with the familiar topic of women supporting other women—how often women in producing positions can be afraid to promote women-centric work and women artists, and how frequently there is one single woman on collaborative artistic teams. The special need to celebrate and support the challenge of collaboration for women in the arts is a major reason the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition presents a Collaboration Award for Women Working with Women every two years. The 2015 Award event will be Sunday, October 25, 2015 at the SVA Beatrice Theatre on West 23rd Street in New York City, and livestreamed on HowlRound TV.

Many women looking at the camera
Day 2 participants: Sitting: Alexandra Meda and Sophia Romma. First Row: Margaret Lamarre, Abigail Vega, Maria Nieto, Jennie Egerdie, Rebecca Burton, Shellen Lubin, Peggy Chane, Alice Tuan, and Yvette Heyliger. Second Row: Patrick J. O’Neill, Lesleh Donaldson, Michelle MacArthur, Sheila Sky, Christine Young, Julie Hennrikus, Martha Richards, Valerie Weak, Cole Alvis, and Jennie Webb. Photo by Laine Zisman Newman.

Martha Richards of California’s WomenArts and I coordinated the second day’s more intimate roundtable. The Playwrights Guild of Canada hosted our discussion on the differences between Canadian and American theatre and how we might work together. WomenArts funded the presence of many of the illustrious participants from across the United States. This second day’s agenda was to share current initiatives and to brainstorm ideas for individual and collective action. We hoped that each participant would leave with one action to move the issue of equity in theatre forward.

We reflected on the topics of the prior day with a specific lens on how the US and Canada are both similar and different, from the perspective of those who have been working on these issues for a long time and take the long view on progress and possibilities. The Canadians provided the perspective of a country that had much more recently broken their bonds as a British colony. This seemed to be reflected in the Canadians’ belief that women are just recently finally being heard in their efforts to stand up for their fair share of theatrical work and voice, while the American women felt like they had been making sporadic but continual progress over a long period of time.

All participants were fierce advocates for theatre, for women, and for women in theatre and in the arts. We were all moved by Jennie Webb’s statement about considering "energy conservation and sustainability in arts advocacy." Burning out on the unpaid work in our lives as women, as artists, and as arts advocates is one of the greatest dangers we all face. We fed off each other’s energy and passion and shared the accomplishments we have all been able to achieve.

Martha Richards continually tried to raise our expectations and demands in terms of fundraising, encouraging us to explore private funding. She made the point that it might be easier to approach individuals for money through direct contact than filling out grant application after grant application. She challenged everyone to consider what it would mean collectively to ask for five million dollars, and how we could best use that kind of money to make the biggest impact.

"Pushing on the decision-makers can really make a difference," said Christine Young of Works by Women in San Francisco, an initiative modeled after Ludovica Villar-Hauser’s Works by Women in New York, which celebrates women playwrights, directors, designers, performers, and producers. I responded with a comment that another participant had made on the first day about their theatre’s decision-making: it is phone calls and letters from ticket buyers and subscribers that have the greatest impact.

Sophia Romma, from the International Centre for Women Playwrights, talked about their 50/50 Applause Awards that recognize theatre companies that produce seasons where at least 50 percent of the plays are by women. Sophia is also the Co-Chair of the International Committee of the League of Professional Theatre Women, which encourages international collaboration among women theatre artists and presents the LPTW Gilder/Coigney International Award every few years.

Sheila Sky, from the Associated Designers of Canada, told a fascinating recent story about lighting, sound, and set designers being paid more than costume designers even though their jobs were shorter-term and they could take more jobs each year. The ADC concluded that the primary reason for the pay disparity was that more of the costume designers were female, as opposed to the other designers, who were primarily male. The ADC was successfully able to negotiate a contract for designers where the standard compensation for other designers actually became lower to raise costume designer salaries. Although many were surprised, the male designers agreed to the new contract, because they recognized that it was fair.

Yvette Heyliger created an online petition to request the White House to tie government grant awards to demonstration of parity in theatre recipients. The petition didn’t achieve the benchmark of 100,000 signatures within one month to receive an official response from the White House, but did receive signatures from all over the country. She will apply lessons from this initial petition effort to attempt again next year.

I presented from the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition, the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW), and the National Theatre Conference. The Coalition was started by LPTW over twenty years ago to collaborate with all the unions, guilds, and associations in both theatre and other arts and media forms to affect the representation of women at every level. The Coalition has two Signature Events: the Collaboration Award for Women Working with Women, and VintAge, that celebrates the voice and vision of older women in the arts. The Coalition works with its member organizations to move projects and ideas forward. For example, WomenArts recently passed the creation and distribution of their monthly Theatre and Film/Video Funding Newsletters to the Coalition, and the Coalition has been able to continue to enhance them. The current versions are #StageOpps and #ScreenOpps, with submission opportunities for multiple disciplines in each genre.

Despite interest expressed from the American theatrical unions and guilds which are members of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition (DG, SDC, and AEA), they were unable to attend the Toronto meetings. In the future, we all hope to include them in this discussion.

The National Theatre Conference has been encouraging its membership—many who are artistic directors of regional and university theatres—to participate in its Women Playwrights Initiative which has asked theatres to dedicate one full production slot each year to a female playwright. The initiative is attempting to expand its expectations to greater numbers each year, additional women playwrights (historical and contemporary), and directors and designers as well.

Alexandra Meda of Teatro Luna reported that they have shifted their focus from “what do we want and need?” to “what can we offer?” She expressed how important it is to get the people in power to understand how they benefit from greater diversity in representation in theatres, in plays, and in the stories told. Valerie Weak of the Counting Actors Project quoted from playwright/performer Lily Tung Crystal at the Theatre Bay Area Conference: “It’s not diversity casting, it’s reality casting!” I reflected that, “historically, nothing really changes until those with privilege recognize the disbenefit of that privilege."

Planned breakout sessions were abandoned in favor of continuing the intense and engaging group discussion. Group consensus was that one of the most important things that we can do is get together again. The Women in the Arts & Media Coalition is planning to work with WomenArts, the League of Professional Theatre Women, and Equity in Theatre (Canada) to hold a New York City summit and public event on Thursday, December 3, 2015 for just that purpose.

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Thoughts from the curators

An examination of theatremaking as a collaboration between HowlRound and the League of Professional Theatre Women.

League of Professional Women in Theatre 


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Shellen - thank you for writing such a thorough account of the incredibly rich and fruitful EIT Symposium and subsequent roundtable. You captured the essence of the many wonderful ideas, strategies and perspectives that were shared. I look forward to many future conversations!

Would love to hear about any other gender parity efforts nationwide. We're now planning the December 3, 2015 all-day summit and evening public forum. Please write here about your own or others' efforts to illuminate or alter the landscape.