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How to Build Gender Parity Initiatives and Influence Theater

The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a grassroots advocacy group of women and men whose mission is to promote female theater artists in LA and beyond. We’ve been around for two and a half years now, and we want to encourage others to start initiatives in their own theater communities to promote female artists. Every month, LA FPI gets inquiries: “How did you do it? What are the steps?” The beauty of an initiative is that you can tailor it to your own area and resources; you don’t need a grant or a venue or a budget. You can start now.

Our Launch

LA FPI began, informally, in September 2009, when playwright Jennie Webb and I decided to do something. We knew there were hundreds of women playwrights in Los Angeles who, like us, were inspired by the 2008 calls for more gender parity coming from New York theater artists; we were impressed by statistics that told a disappointing story for women writers in New York theaters—Theresa Rebeck’s Guardian op-ed cited a 12.6% production rate for female playwrights on New York stages in 2008. Our many friends and colleagues in the LA theater scene expressed concern about the problem. But no one knew quite what to do—perhaps arrange a community-wide symposium? But would that really help? Is a dialogue enough to make it better? And shouldn’t we define it? What are the stats for LA, anyway? Should we wait until someone releases data specifically for Southern California before we act?

By the time Jennie and I had lunch together in 2009, it was clear to both of us that no one was going to gather the stats for Los Angeles. We’d have to find a way to get them ourselves. We also knew that we needed to somehow liaise with everyone who cared about this issue in Southern California. We wanted to hear from the theater community and beyond. We wanted to co-create remedies as part of a vibrant, robust, collaborative theater scene—a community we both love.

Step One:

Define Goals. Gather Your Team.
In November 2009, Jennie and I begged actor/writer/artistic director Ella Martin to head up a study of women playwrights in Los Angeles, covering the first decade of the twenty-first century. And we asked her to do it for free because we had no money! Much to our joy, Ella said yes. She embarked on a fourteen-month process to research the SoCal stats and more; Ella’s process involved over one hundred volunteers (female playwrights and others), several theater organizations, Survey Monkey, and twenty local theaters. Ella evolved the idea of the study well beyond what we’d imagined; she coordinated with the LA STAGE Alliance, who generously shared their ticket data from 2002 to 2010 (as related to female playwrights), so we could have an unbiased statistic as a starting point for the first decade of the twenty-first century. The number of female-authored plays from 2002 to 2010 in LA was 20% of all productions. Then, Ella created case studies of LA women playwrights and of specific theaters, with fascinating results; the official LA FPI study was completed in 2011.

We’d have to find a way to get them ourselves. We also knew that we needed to somehow liaise with everyone who cared about this issue in Southern California. We wanted to hear from the theater community and beyond. We wanted to co-create remedies as part of a vibrant, robust, collaborative theater scene—a community we both love.

Badge for the Female Playwright's Initiative.
The logo for the LA Female Playwrights Initiative.
Photo by LA Female Playwrights Initiative.

In the meantime, Jennie and I launched a temporary web page and began to spread the word. Jennie and I explored how LA FPI could potentially work. We didn’t want to start a theater company. We wanted to be a true theater advocacy collective, with equality among all artists, and no single leader. We crafted language about being a nexus between theaters and groups already in existence. We wanted to initiate discussion and action. We hesitated to use the word membership to refer to those who would join; instead, we all became instigators. We wanted to foster respect for women dramatists, and that respect began with how we treated each other as theater artists. We aspired to support all involved to be able to maintain or accelerate their careers as playwrights.

Step Two:

Have an Open First Meeting.
By the end of 2009, Jennie, Ella, and I had formalized some basic objectives to accomplish, and in January 2010, we issued an invitation to the LA theater community via the web for an open meeting in March 2010 to explore the problem. (All are welcome!) Our motto: Take positive action. The space for this meeting, as with all our meetings, was generously donated to us by Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon; subsequent LA FPI meetings have been held at Theatricum, The Victory Theatre in Burbank, Atwater Crossing, Rogue Machine, and a church on the west side.

Even though it was stormy on that March day, many women and men braved the weather for the first LA FPI meeting at Theatricum. In a cold, crowded room, we took turns voicing our concerns and opinions. From that wellspring of community, the LA FPI “calls to action” were born.

Step Three:

Create and Launch Initiatives for Change.
We polled the group who met with us in the March 2010 gathering. We asked what they wanted to do to change things; we prepared a checklist, based on some of our ideas. We also included lots of blank space for new categories and fresh suggestions.

Here are twelve key calls to action created by LA FPI theater artists from 2010 through 2012. You can tailor any of them to fit your own community. You could start with one or two of them and create the rest based on your own ideas, needs, and creativity:

1. A Study/Stats. Gather information: what are the playwriting gender parity ratios in your region? Find out. For us, this step was already in process when we began, thanks to Ella.

You can calculate the female dramatists to male dramatists ratio in your area based on season announcements if there’s no easy way to gather ticket-purchasing history. If it’s too hard to start with a decade of data, like we did, just begin with stats for this year as a base point. This year, we also started tracking female directors in SoCal LORT theaters... Consider keeping a tally of the parity rate for other female theater artists in your area.

2. A Logo with a Message. Spreading the word with a logo on websites and programs raises visibility. Our logo says: We actively support the goals of the LA Female Playwrights Initiative, to ensure that women playwrights are fairly represented on stages in the greater Los Angeles area. We encouraged anyone in the area to put it on personal and professional websites and theater programs. This evolved into a branding scheme: LA FPI badges, that function as business cards or mini-flyers, and are spread by our instigators.

3. A Website. After the first meeting, playwright Katherine James volunteered to sponsor an LA FPI website; Jennie Webb became the Website Content Editor. Because SoCal is such a huge area, geographically, we needed a strong web presence to broaden our reach.

4. A Blog. A super-talented group of award-winning women dramatists volunteered to blog for LA FPI; the eleven-member blog committee rotates several cycles a year. Each blogger takes a week at a time. In 2011, playwright Larry Dean Harris, the SoCal Dramatists Guild rep who’s been so supportive of us, became our first male guest blogger. This year, we’ve added occasional guest bloggers to feature more voices. Robin Byrd is the Blog Editor, and the current regular roster includes: Jessica Abrams, Tiffany Antone, Erica Bennett, Nancy Beverly, Robin Byrd, Diane Grant, Kitty Felde, Jen Huszcza, Cindy Marie Jenkins, Analyn Revilla, and Cynthia Wands.

5. Women at Work Page. If you want to support shows authored by women in LA, where would you look? No one curated such a list. So we did. We built a Women at Work Page on the website; playwright Laurel Moje Wetzork volunteered to maintain it. So far, we’re the only ones in SoCal who publish such a list. Information is submitted voluntarily by participating theaters.

6. Podcasts about Women Playwrights. Playwright Alyson Mead creates podcasts of conversations with inspiring, successful female dramatists working in SoCal. These are featured on our site, available to all for free. Interviews with successful female playwrights help to instruct and to inspire.

7. A Female-Based New Works Reading Series for Writers and Directors. Director Sabina Ptasznik started a reading program called Tactical Reads, designed to pair women playwrights with female directors; LA FPI supports Tactical Reads. The most recent event was in September 2012.

8. Social Media Outreach. Writer-director-storyteller Cindy Marie Jenkins volunteered to run social media initiatives for LA FPI, including lining up guest tweeters to showcase more voices (female writer-performers or female writer-directors). Another social media initiative co-created by Cindy and me: the hashtag #ShareAScene as a way for all playwrights on Twitter to share their work, in much the same way novelists do with #SampleSunday. (Cindy also produces a monthly program online that regularly features female artists and discussions about issues such as the Bechdel Test.)

9. Exploring Collaborative/Crossover Partnerships. So far, volunteers from LA FPI have partnered with the Hollywood Fringe Festival to promote female artists (2011 and 2012). Tactical Reads is a collaborative partnership. We are about to launch a new collaboration with the Bitch Pack, the feminist advocacy group for fair representation of women in movies, with a focus on writing. We’re also going to explore online outreach with a group of women playwrights from outside the US.

10. Meet-ups. Modeled after the 50/50 in 2020 meet-ups in New York, to ensure that female-authored shows are financially supported by groups of women, we also have frequent meet-ups to see shows by women in the LA area.

11. Bimonthly E-blasts. LA FPI sends out e-blasts twice a month, prepared by volunteers, edited by Jennie Webb. These usually feature news from our playwrights, calls to action, and submission opportunities, culled from various free playwriting websites. Our e-mails are highly anticipated because they contain information on playwright opportunities.

12. Gatherings/Networking Opportunities. We have at least four LA FPI meetings a year. Sometimes we meet before a show or a reading. The last networking event I attended was in late June; it was a fun hour of socializing before the first Tactical Reads events. There was no agenda, just a fun meet and greet. In the past, we have had more formal agendas for our meetings, too. Both can work. But no matter how you do it, it’s important to get together.

13. Say Yes to All Panels. We try, at LA FPI, to never pass up a panel invitation. We jump at any chance to discuss the issue of gender parity in playwriting or theater as a whole. Various LA FPI playwright-volunteers have spoken on panels at the Dramatists Guild (both regional and national), TCG, the Hollywood Fringe Festival, the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, and other places. We also try to attend events where there will be panels on the topic of gender parity in theater.

Step Four:

Maintain Momentum and Define Your Own Terms for Success.
We’re still firing on all cylinders at LA FPI. Some initiatives have fallen by the wayside. And whenever we track the stats each year, it’s disappointing if there aren’t more female-authored LORT shows in our area than the year before. The percentage continues to hover just above or below 20%.

But we’re convinced that more opportunities for women playwrights have come about due to LA FPI. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests this. In 2012, a playwright credits getting two productions in Italy due to an LA FPI outreach effort. A playwright with a brand-new play is now paired with a director due to a collaborative partnership. A playwright gets a production at an LA theater that hasn’t produced a female playwright for fifteen years. A published anthology is suggested for our playwright-bloggers. And more: an uptick in entrepreneurial endeavors by some of our members, like producing one’s own movie, or self-publishing a book.

We maintain our momentum because of our love of the theater and because we’re against discrimination. Period.

Imagine what could happen if there was a Female Playwrights Initiative in every theater community. Imagine a changed theatrical landscape where gender parity is finally achieved because we took the initiative, we collaborated, and we made new opportunities for women in our field.

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We had some discussions of gender parity last year initiated by Woman's Will, our beloved local all-female Shakespeare troupe. The facilitator left the area to get her MFA and it didn't continue.
Fontana mentioned "Yeah, I Said Feminist. A Theatre salon." The Facebook group is here: http://on.fb.me/Rnifwm
We also have several theatre groups that emphasize or specialize in producing women's work, including All Terrain Theatre and 3Girls Theatre.

This is great Laura. You have always been such a clear thinker and visionary. I'm happen to read this. Yes, I can imagine a changed theatrical landscape - thanks for the step by step! I'm clapping in the North Bay!

We have started "Yeah, I said Feminist. A Theater Salon." in San Francisco. Our second salon is this Sunday. We have 200 members. We are gonna be using this as major inspiration. Thank you So Cal!

Thank you for sharing all the steps. These details along with your passion and inclusivity fuels us all to continue the good work of gender parity. San Francisco applauds you!!

Yes! FINALLY! Thank you for doing all this work to provide a model for others whoa re ready to do the same thing. It's getting better—I started an all-female Shakespeare company about 15 years ago because there just weren't any good roles being written for women, and that has changed. And our company as well as others like it have proved definitively that there are large audiences for shows written and acted mostly by women even (and that if those shows are about universal human issues as opposed to, say, menopause, men will flock to those shows as well as donate to the companies that produce them). No more excuses, producers—audiences and money will come, so if you're not producing plays by and featuring women for a huge portion of your season, then you're either sexist or you're just not trying.

Hey, cool! Everybody who has commented so far is from the San Francisco Bay Area. Here in this gloriously diverse liberal community, where there's lots of great progressive stuff going on, we still find theater companies whose current seasons feature no women playwrights. The response when challenged: gosh, we're sorry, there just weren't any available.