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Gender Parity in Theatre

An Exploration of How Change Happens and Where We Go From Here

This week on HowlRound, we continue the conversation on gender parity which has been gaining momentum this year through studies, articles, forums, one-on-one discussions, and seasons and festivals focused on women. As Co-President of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition and VP of Programming for the League of Professional Theatre Women, I have the pleasure of working with, coordinating, contributing to, and raising awareness about many of these local, national, and international efforts. This series explores what needs to happen right now—in this precipitous moment—in order to profoundly, permanently expand the theatrical community's views and visions of women, both onstage and in every aspect of production.

A brainstorm sheet
Afta Erban at the EIT Symposium in Toronto in April 2015.

In order to get work by women (and by “work” I don’t just mean plays by women, I mean the work of writers, directors, designers, producers, stage managers, technicians, staff, marketing, and all involved in creating a production), we need, first, to “create relevance” for our mission.

Why do we need to create relevance, you might ask? Aren’t women relevant? In fact, marginalized populations can only be seen as relevant if they themselves are seen, and women have been invisible for far too long. Now, you might balk at that notion—women are everywhere, dressing up everything, with their come-on faces and their scantily-clad bodies—but what I’m saying is that women—women’s perspectives, women’s voices, real women not posing for others but speaking their own truths (not one same truth, of course, for there are as many truths as there are women)—have been invisible, in plain sight, far too much for far too long. You can come up with exceptions? Of course you can. That’s what makes it so clearly true, the smattering of exceptions.

Recognition of the Issue
This is the way that recognition of the issue—which is usually step one—has been sidelined by those who want to feel that they’ve addressed the problem but don’t actually want to address it. They say it’s already been addressed, solved, and resolved. They say that now it’s a merit-based system, and anyone who isn’t entering and moving up the pipeline doesn’t have merit. They say that women have other priorities, choosing families and personal lives over their work. They say that to give voice to artists who don’t meet their standards would be minimizing the quality of the work they offer the world.

[W]hen you have diversity in the decision-making process, you don’t just make things to please yourself, and you are forced to become more aware of how others experience what you have created, supported, and produced.

But that argument is filled with fallacies. First of all, art doesn’t have rigid mathematical standards, and neither does talent or creativity. Secondly, all works of art are a risk—otherwise, they’ve been done already. Thirdly, there are so many subtle and unconscious factors that go into the decision-making process. Therefore, it is in large part about who is making the decisions, and how they have unconsciously structured what they call their “standards.” If it is predominantly middle- to upper-middle-class white men who make the decisions and whose perspectives have been validated over and over again, that is what our standard will be. That is why there is automatically inherent value in opening up the bubble of who makes the decisions as to whose work, whose perspective, whose vision is considered to have value. This is being discovered now in tech companies and in product-making corporations, in recorded and live art forms of all kinds: when you have diversity in the decision-making process, you don’t just make things to please yourself, and you are forced to become more aware of how others experience what you have created, supported, and produced.

Of course, theatre itself is always having to reassert and reprove its relevance. Every generation or two, the theatre is declared dead, but somehow it always finds its footing, adapts, and continues. And we who live, breathe, and die for the theatre know why: there is no recorded art form that can contain the magic, the intimacy, and the vulnerability of live performance. And yet, it is not one thing; theatre is always evolving. Theatre must always adapt—both commercially, where it has to contend with social and commercial forces, and noncommercially, where it must adapt to changes in ways of thinking about both form and content.

(Re)creating Relevance
For women, creating relevance is further complicated by the fact that we are caught in a Catch-22, one that works too well for the status quo and very much against us: that is, every quality that we need to be considered female, feminine, womanly, beautiful, nice, lovable, and so on, are the very qualities that are ineffective when trying to deal with systems that are not accommodating to us, advocating for ourselves, and often the very act of creating art itself, which can be messy and not “pretty” at all—we may be better trained for collaboration, but we are often not as adept at standing our ground or crying out, and often perceived negatively if we do so.

As Rebecca Traister quoted Gloria Steinem in her book Big Girls Don’t Cry about the 2008 presidential election, “It’s always been okay for women to sing the blues, just not so good for us to win. We all know deep in our hearts if we want to be loved we have to lose.” Traister concludes in her book—about “the often maddening path of progress”—that it is “moving forward despite or in reaction to setbacks, sometimes in circles, sometimes in great leaps; occasionally—terrifyingly—falling backward.”

And we have often fallen far backwards. There have been periods when women’s voices have been heard, acclaimed, and then once again been marginalized and set aside after death. Time and time again, great—even renowned—women playwrights (and artists of all kinds) have not been revived, included in repertories and collections, or studied in schools and colleges. So each new generation we have to rediscover that, yes, women can do this, too, even if you can’t find a record of anyone who did it before.

Silent and Invisible No More
I believe that we are in the middle of a huge leap now, and that it will not be so easy for it to be marginalized or written out of the history and the literature in the future. What is the difference now? The internet, and everything that the worldwide web has brought along with it—not just collective action, but collective action that can be broadcast country-wide—even worldwide—instantaneously; that can be archived, and is, and is therefore eminently accessible. When I was a young student of theatre, music, and dance, I used to go to the Lincoln Center Library and spend days up in their deep records exploring histories of shows and artists who interested me (it’s still one of the most incredible places on earth to spend time learning the history of the performing arts in this country). Now much of that information is available in seconds online for anyone of any age who cares to spend some time searching for it. We cannot be written out so easily. And so, we cannot be written off so easily.

Even in theatre, where everything is so live and personal, and, therefore, limited in size, the awareness of accomplishment is no longer as limited as it once was. The lack of representation is also immediately apparent—as witnessed by all the studies on diversity and their widespread dissemination and discussion in cyberspace (see the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition’s Studies page for links to all the studies of gender parity worldwide in the arts and media). What have we discovered from all these studies and examinations now available online instantaneously and worldwide? We have discovered that in schools—that is, in training—and in unpaid and underpaid developmental work, the numbers of women equal if not surpass those of men. But every step up the ladder of responsibility, of budget, and of visibility itself, women drop off. Saddest of all, they are given fewer chances to work big and fail and learn from their failures, and move on and work big again, the way men do all the time.

It has long been said that people hire people who are like them, who feel like them, who they want to have a beer with, and so those same men in positions of power will often pick younger men similar to them when choosing who to hire and mentor. But I take it further. I say they pick people who don’t challenge their notion about themselves. But if their self-view is perpetually challenged anyway—by social media, by the world at large, and most important by patrons of their theatre, by their customers—exposing the limited, narrow, patriarchal flaws in their selection process, as someone who is unfair, who does not have vision and courage, then it will become in their best interests to expand. If change only happens when those with power and privilege recognize the disbenefit of that privilege, it is in this very equation that change can now happen on a grand scale—when those with power can no longer see themselves as good, strong, right, fair people if they maintain their severely limited perspective.

“Jail No Bail” was the name for a huge change in tactics for the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties. Instead of having the movement cover the costs of bailing out protesters, a large financial burden, those arrested did the jail time (sometimes ugly, hard time), putting the burden of the cost on the state (and the shame, if they were exposed and had any shame). We have always strived for empathy, and although they may seem like polar opposite tactics—Jail No Bail and striving for empathy—there is actually a way that they are fundamentally related. Jail No Bail forces the oppressor to feel the pain, and feeling the pain—any pain—opens the floodgate to feeling itself, which then actually allows one to discover empathy. How many politicians have changed their positions on gay rights in the past few years because they had a family member who they now knew was gay and found (surprise, surprise) that they still loved and respected and believed their loved one should have civil rights in society? Those of us who live in empathy may get frustrated by such a narrow and limited rationale for social justice, but it is effective. And if we’re going to use this precipitous moment in time to make a huge irreversible leap, it is critical that we recognize and utilize what is effective.

How many men have daughters who are paid less than their sons, who are given lesser opportunity, who are not mentored and supported in the same way? How many men are trying to live more balanced lives, spend more time with their kids and focused on their family, but are finding that the roadblocks that their wife faces makes it harder for them, too? How many gay men are now having marriages and families and caring for them and spending time with them, therefore learning more about the world that women have always been more inclined to write about and that they claimed was inferior source material? How many are then learning what women have been struggling with for a long time, trying to have and love a family and take care of them, and also have and love their work and do that, too? Isn't it ironic that this also makes both caretaking and the work/family balance less marginalized as source material?

Art opens up the possibility that there is not one right answer with all other answers being wrong, that things are not all good or all bad, that there may be other ways of seeing and experiencing all things, that the world and its inhabitants are complex and never completely knowable, and that that is okay.

How Change Percolates, Brews, and Boils Over
They say that there are three ways to change minds—persuasion, inducement, and coercion. Art itself has always had the ability to inspire change in a completely different way—emotionally, abstractly, often even subconsciously. Art opens up the possibility that there is not one right answer with all other answers being wrong, that things are not all good or all bad, that there may be other ways of seeing and experiencing all things, that the world and its inhabitants are complex and never completely knowable, and that that is okay.

Efforts have been percolating across the nation and beyond. There are going to be blog posts all this week about some of those efforts by some of the people who have been leading them. (There is a list of a number of them with links at the end of this article.) And, of course, there are also many individual efforts of artists, advocates, and theatre companies, trying to make a difference. There are awards trying to note some of the most valuable work being done by women, but even that does not necessarily recognize women who haven’t worked within certain structures or been made visible by those structures.

A number of these individuals and organizations are meeting in New York on December 3 sponsored by the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition (of which I am Co-President) and WomenArts (helmed by Martha Richards) to figure out where we are right now in this precipitous moment and what we can do to catapult this entire operation to the next level.

Back when the Coalition was formed, there was only so much connection that mail and phone calls and in-person events could make happen, but now we are a part of a collective movement that is getting stronger all the time and more incessantly visible. Actually, that is our only hope. That is essential. It’s beyond essential; it’s actually critical. How else do we build a new theatre audience? How do we get younger people into theatres, or bring theatre to them in the spaces they already inhabit? How do we bring people of diverse backgrounds and belief systems into the theatrical realm if we do not reflect them? How can the theatre stay alive, if we don’t expect and get greater diversity in whose stories are told and how we tell them? Everyone wants to feel seen, recognized, known, and seeing stories played out that reflect you and your world honor that feeling. When your story is marginalized, you feel disregarded yourself, as if you yourself have no value or importance. As Kerry Washington said at the 2015 Academy Awards, “Having your story told as a woman, as a person of color, as a lesbian, or as a trans person, or as any member of any disenfranchised community is sadly often still a radical idea. There is so much power in storytelling, and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling, in inclusive representations.” As I wrote for the script of the 2015 Collaboration Awards of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition just a few weeks ago, “We believe that expanding whose voices are heard and what images are seen can change the world.”


Some of the organizations working on gender parity in the theatre:
50/50 in 2020 (online) advocating for 50/50 representation by women in all areas of theatre
365 Women a Year (online)+ writing women back into history through plays about them
Age and Gender Equity in the Arts (AGE) advancing age and gender equality for women in the performing arts

The Counting Actors Project (Bay Area, CA) counting female representation in acting roles
Equity in Theatre Initiative (Canada) a Coalition of Canadian unions, guilds, & organizations
Good to Go Festival (NY) promoting works by women that have already been developed
Guerrilla Girls on Tour (USA)
History Matters Back to the Future (USA) promoting women's plays of the past
International Centre for Women Playwrights (online)+ 5050 Award to theatres with parity
LA Female Playwrights Initiative (CA)+ promoting female playwrights & directors in LA
League of Professional Theatre Women (NY/USA) ** advocating for professional theatre women
The Kilroys (online) listing yearly top available new plays by women
The Lilly Awards (NY) yearly awards for women in the theatre industry
National Theatre Conference (USA)+ Women Playwrights Initiative—committing to produce more plays by women in member’s seasons (primarily regional theatres and universities)
On Her Shoulders (NY) presenting neglected plays by important historical women playwrights
Stagesource Gender Parity Task Force (Boston)
Waking the Feminists (Ireland)
WomenArts (Bay Area, CA)+ SWAN Day—events throughout March, particularly the last Saturday in March, promoting women’s work worldwide
Women in the Arts & Media Coalition (NY/USA)
Works by Women (NY)+ supporting productions with at least 50 percent female creative team
Works by Women San Francisco (Bay Area, CA)

** founding member organization of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition
+affiliate member organizations of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition

Thoughts from the curator

A discussion and response to the call for better gender parity in theatre.

Gender Parity


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I really appreciate this article and the list of organizations working towards gender parity in theatre. When I lived in Columbia, MO, our theatre company, Independent Actors Theatre, started the short Women's Play Festival in 2008. The festival's focus was women's work in theatre from playwright to director to stage manager to festival director (along with several women actors). Currently, the festival is on hiatus with hopes of returning in 2017. I have to believe that there are other smaller festivals going on in the US outside of major cities. It would be great to be able to add smaller non-profit theatre companies or academic theatre departments to this list of organizations.

There are so many happening this year, in and out of major cities. Theatre companies and theatre departments are well worth collecting, as are organizations that have a component focused on women and/or theatre. This list is projects that are specifically focused on some aspect of gender parity in theatre.

Shellen thanks for kicking this off and for mentioning Counting Actors Project and Works by Women San Francisco!!