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Women Making Musical Theatre

Institutions Hold the Power to Effect Change

Last summer, I wrote a post for the Lilly Awards Blog about the huge gender gap in who’s winning the big money awards for emerging musical theatre writers. The article was written in the same vein as The Lilly’s/Dramatist Guild Fund’s The Count, stating the numbers and drawing a few conclusions about the data. White cisgender men are receiving a disproportionately high amount of funding early in their careers, which undoubtedly impacts the “pipeline” of who gets produced.

When I wrote that piece, I addressed the notion that women musical theatre writers don’t exist. We do. One of the many responses I received to the piece was that we may exist, but we don’t apply for opportunities. In this essay, I’m going to address that claim—ask some of the questions it raises and look at how we can use that information to come up with concrete solutions to the parity problem in supporting emerging musical theatre writers.

As in the other piece, I want to acknowledge that my focus is on women emerging musical theatre writers, but that many of these concepts apply to all emerging musical theatre writers from underrepresented groups, though the specifics vary. I also want to acknowledge that within the demographic of “women writers,” women of color, queer, and trans women are even further disenfranchised. The scope of this piece cannot address every group individually, but the solutions posed include methods for lifting up all voices. 

If the issue is purely that women are not applying [for musical theatre funding opportunities], and the contention is that having more women apply would solve the problem, then the existing percentage of women recipients would more consistently mirror the existing percentage of women applicants. It doesn’t.

It’s important to note that when talking about gender parity in writing for the theatre, most of the conversation focuses on plays. Musicals get lumped in, and we assume the same solutions will impact both media once implemented. I don’t believe that’s true. Musical theatre is a related but different medium from playwriting. The path to production is different. The financing is different. The means of exposure are different. We need to be talking about musicals separately, and specifically, and that’s what this piece is doing.

What’s exciting is that it is clear that many institutions want more diverse applicants once they join this conversation and acknowledge that their numbers are nowhere near parity. What’s frustrating is that they then often put the onus of diversifying their applicants on artists. The reasoning seems to be that if women aren’t applying, the simple solution is to just tell them to apply. Often, in my experience, that includes asking women who are applying to tell our colleagues that they should apply. As if our colleagues are not applying because they don’t know about the opportunities. I believe that’s a red herring, a suggestion that deflects responsibility. If institutions are serious about solving the parity problem in musical theatre the onus must be on them, not on the artists. Underrepresented artists know about these opportunities, if they’re not applying it’s because there are barriers to entry.

I understand asking the folks who select the recipients of these awards and opportunities to do more is a challenge. I have read many submissions of new musicals from the literary “side of the table.” I recognize that the way submissions are considered and the particulars around submission procedures are often related to how woefully understaffed literary departments are (I have been that one person who has to sift through 150 submissions in a couple of weeks). However, if we’re serious about solving this problem, something has to give.

Before discussing what I understand to be the reasons why women and other underrepresented artists may not be applying to these awards (and offer some solutions), I would like to unpack the “they don’t apply” claim. In response to my piece last year, the literary manager at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center tweeted that only one-third of the applicants for the National Music Theater Conference were women compared to half of the applicants for the National Playwrights Conference. These numbers help clarify the problem. I appreciate this transparency, and believe that if more institutions were transparent in their demographics it might be easier to solve this problem. However, that said, only one out of the nine writers selected for the following year’s Conference was a woman. So, the application rate was 33 percent and the selection rate was 11 percent. The numbers I presented last year of women applying versus women being selected suggest that this discrepancy is not isolated to one organization (or to one year). The fact that the percentage of women applying is lower than the percentage of men applying doesn’t absolve institutions of their demographics problem. If the issue is purely that women are not applying, and the contention is that having more women apply would solve the problem, then the existing percentage of women recipients would more consistently mirror the existing percentage of women applicants. It doesn’t. Even when women apply, we are disproportionately not selected—which, by the way, is the reason many women say they don’t apply.

EllaRose Chary in a recording studio
EllaRose Chary and a collaborator recording studio demos. Photo courtesy of EllaRose Chary.

How Hard Is It to Apply for Musical Theatre Awards?
If women and other underrepresented writers aren’t willing to put in the effort, then perhaps we deserve to be underrepresented. If women playwrights are applying in equal measure to their male counterparts, perhaps the problem is with musical theatre writers and not the system. And, this contention is why we have to look at musical theatre separately and specifically. Musical theatre submissions require demos. Demos are expensive to make and require specified knowledge and equipment—which also costs money to have access to. The same reason that women and other underrepresented writers disproportionately need the money from these awards to stay in the industry is the same reason that these demographics of writers are less able to apply for the awards. Musical theatre submissions are an investment. It doesn’t make financial sense, especially for people with statistically less access to financial resources, to make that investment when the return rate is so stacked against them. Again, suggesting that the low numbers of women winning is the fault of artists because they don’t apply deflects responsibility from the institutions that have the power to effect change.

As with all problems, there are large scale and smaller scale solutions. But there are practices institutions could put in place fairly easily to be more inclusive to women and underrepresented groups without spending additional money or hiring more staff to make the submission process more equitable. Some of these solutions might require extra work—but my question is how much is it worth to these institutions to broaden demographics? Organizations are asking us to do more work by encouraging us to tell our colleagues to apply; I’m asking them to do more work, as well. Here are my top five small scale solutions for immediately making the submission process more equitable:

1)Accept videos of songs.
Making nice audio demos requires money, time, and expertise. Every submission says that composer demos are acceptable, that you need not submit something of higher quality. And everybody in musical theatre knows that nicer demos are the only real way to be considered. Because of how the pipeline for musical theatre works, early career and emerging musical theatre writers tend to have more video samples of their work than demo recordings. Concert series at venues around New York City and on college campuses are often video recorded and put online at little or no cost to the artists. Stripping audio from these videos and using them as a demo doesn’t really work—the quality is poor and it doesn’t “read” as well as listening with the video. However, the videos are usually emerging artists’ strongest work samples.

2)Prioritize applications from underrepresented artists.
If processes have a first cut, organizations can demonstrate a commitment to underrepresented artists by deciding that all artists of those demographics make that cut—or, if this is too much, limit it to all artists of those demographics who have been through a professional training program such as the NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program (NYU GMTWP), the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, or the Dramatists Guild Fellowship.

This practice would not only allow organizations to get to know these artists’ work better, it would also be encouraging to the artists because they would know their work was being seriously considered. If organizations make a commitment to encouraging applications from underrepresented artists, more of those artists will feel it’s worth the time and money to apply. I suspect that many folks running musical theatre institutions are uncomfortable with the current administration’s position on eliminating affirmative action, and would argue in favor of that policy as it stands for higher education. If that’s the case, then why are these same folks averse to employing similar practices in musical theatre submissions?

3)Waive application fees for underrepresented artists.
If institutions really want to encourage more applicants, this is a way to do it. Asian women make 85 cents on the dollar of white men; white women make eighty cents, black women make sixty-six cents and Latina women make fifty-four cents to the dollar of white men. Application fees mean it literally costs women more to apply for these opportunities. Or, eliminate application fees all together, as the Dramatists Guild recommends.

If the winner pool has a demographics problem, then the reading pool will have a demographics problem, and this will perpetuate underrepresentation…Data shows that more diverse readers will lead to more diverse recipients.

4)Examine the demographics of the reading committee.
Much has been written, including on HowlRound, about the inherent bias in script reading, even in a blind process. Often, the first readers for these processes are previous winners. If the winner pool has a demographics problem, then the reading pool will have a demographics problem, and this will perpetuate underrepresentation. Similarly, musical theatre at large has a demographics problem. It takes conscious effort to diversify the reading pool. Data shows that more diverse readers will lead to more diverse recipients. Beyond that, the selection processes that I’ve been involved with as a reader have several cuts. The final selection is made from a group of twenty or so very talented people. Before prizes are given out, organizations that really want to solve this problem, should look at the demographics of the selectees. If those selectees are all white men, and the organization does not believe that only white men are good at writing musicals, go back to the pool of twenty. Weight recipients for demographics. If the pool of twenty is all white men, consider what steps could have been taken earlier in the process to avoid getting to that point.

5)Engage with the communities that women and other underrepresented writers are working in.
Just because folks can’t make it past the mainstream gatekeepers or find institutional enfranchisement through traditional avenues does not mean that these artists don’t exist. National Asian Arts Project has an annual festival of new musicals. Musical Theatre Factory has emerging writers’ groups for writers of color and for women and trans writers. The Lilly Awards Foundation includes many women musical theatre writers. This summer there were multiple concerts featuring emerging women songwriters at New York Musical Festival and 54 Below. Videos from those concerts are easily accessible on YouTube. Seeking out artists in these and similar arenas and inviting them to apply is a great way to initially bolster applications in the short term; improving recipient demographics based on improved application demographics will bolster applications in the long term.

The myth that women, queer, trans, and POC musical theatre writers don’t exist is continually being busted, but the question of how to then flow resources to and enfranchise these demographics in a landscape that is not set up to overcome institutional bias of this nature is complex. My piece last year was meant to state a fact. Acknowledge a problem that I rarely hear acknowledged publicly. This piece is meant to start a conversation about solutions to that problem. I’m excited to share my thoughts on HowlRound because it is a forum for members of the theatre community to engage in these kinds of conversations. Musical theatre is a powerful vehicle for telling stories and building community and we are in a political moment where those things are as necessary as ever. Part of building that community is taking deliberate steps to lift up voices that are traditionally marginalized in both musical theatre and the culture at large. So. Women musical theatre writers exist. We apply for things (and there are ways to make it easier for us to apply). We are not inherently worse at writing musicals than our male counterparts. Yet, we are continually underfunded and underrepresented. What next?

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This article is so insightful! I think it is so important to continue this conversation with theater administration to spark a change in this trend. Women and other underrepresented groups of people need to have equal opportunities to have their works read and shared with the world. These barriers to success are real and I completely agree with some of your ideas for breaking down those barriers. Thank you for such a great topic and thought-provoking information!

Thank you for this. I think point #4 is key. Even in situations where the reading is done "blind" (not that I am aware of any award that does this), the unconscious biases of the reading committee will show through. A concerted effort to diversify these committees would make great strides towards a more diverse musical theatre.

Thanks, Kevin. The Kleban is definitely done "blind" and there are a few others where you submit without any identifying info. But, most industry people I speak to acknowledge that the MT world is so small that it's hard for anything to be truly blind. Which, I think is another difference from playwriting...

The NAMT (National Alliance for Musical Theatre) festival has a blind process, and works hard to diversify representation of the selection committee at all stages of the process, pulling not only from the membership, but also previous festival participants (artists). Every year, we review the procedures and this year is no different, as we are not quite there yet. While we have not shared the gender or color of the writers until the final round, that is an area we can examine, and make a deliberate effort to take those factors into consideration earlier in the selection process.

I'm a woman who directs, produces, and creates new musicals. I agree about removing the onus from artists, but I was also thinking the other day about ways that higher level, established artists themselves could effect more change to open up the field. This is not the same but a related issue to your concerns about the power structure of applications / competitions for funding - but is another issue in terms of creating access. Wouldn't it be great if -- whenever an established artist brings on an "assistant" -- they could pledge to bring in someone who is not of their same demographic? I find that most often people bring in assistants that look like themselves except younger. These working relationships create access to inner circles of creative teams. If every man directing, choreographing, designing, writing, producing on Broadway (or elsewhere) invited a woman or POC to assist them, I think it would shift the dynamics of who is in the room immediately. And then women wouldn't be the only ones bringing in women to assist (as is often the case, even at the smaller levels of theater). We could just call it the ASSIST DIVERSITY initiative...

As a woman writing musical theater, I see this article as essential. First, it is so gratifying to see it stated that our needs are different from the needs of playwrights, especially monetarily with readings (which often require a music director plus band) and demos. Application fees are an added burden. Also, for many years I did not apply to many awards and I'm sure not seeing many women win them was part of it. I regularly look at the genders of the winners and note how many men win compared to women. When one has to work a day job and has very limited time to write, it's hard to see the point of carving out time to fill out an application when one needs that time for actual writing. The more that women see that it's worth it to apply, the more women will apply. Artists are examining organizations and who they are supporting, and knowing that organizations are truly interested in diversifying the people they support makes a difference. Finally, when women (and all musical theater writers) can submit with videos instead of demos, readers and organizations will see the best of writers' work. Thank you for writing this article.

The major monetary awards do not accept video links in lieu of demos (some still actually require you to submit on CD....). To be clear, I don't advocate for videos INSTEAD of demos, I think either should be considered an acceptable way to share a song. Some awards/opportunities evaluate a whole musical and I do understand the rationale for reading and listening simultaneously - however, a lot of awards are NOT this, they evaluate solely on songs or you can submit songs and libretto separately. In these cases I think you should be able to submit a demo or video for consideration and they should be counted equally.