Who is Keeping Count?
At the end of April, Michele Willens in The Atlantic noted that only two plays on Broadway in the 2013-14 season were written by female playwrights, both dead: Sophie Treadwell and Lorraine Hansberry.
This February, a new study was released to The Wrap about statistics for women playwrights and directors working on Broadway last year, based on information in the Internet Broadway Database. For the 2012-13 season, women playwrights only wrote 10.7 percent of the shows on Broadway. Grim news indeed.
And yet, in terms of “the glass ceiling” for women playwrights, a commonly referenced statistic is that “about 22 percent” of all current productions are female-authored nationally. Here are just three recent examples of the use of that common “22%” figure: in Broadway World Los Angeles; the Council of Urban Professionals website about The Women’s Project in New York; and a prominent D.C. theater critic on Twitter. Where does this 22 percent figure, as a comprehensive marker, come from? To the best of my knowledge, there is no national study about gender parity and women playwrights in America. And that’s too bad.
There are some important gender-related university theater and entertainment studies ongoing, to be sure, but not about playwriting. There’s the Women’s Leadership in Residential Theaters study, cosponsored by A.C.T. and Wellesley. The Geena Davis Institute in partnership with Dr. Stacy Smith and her team at the University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism, promote studies of gender issues in family entertainment, including the status of women writers. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego Stage University has many reports about women working in the entertainment industry behind-the-scenes and on-screen, but not in theater.
Where is our official university study in the American theater for female scribes? It seems so odd that the actual percentages should remain a perpetually unsolved mystery, with our twenty-first century love of big data. Is there really no institution in 2014 that will sponsor an ongoing annual study of American women playwrights working in theater seasons around the country (and directors, producers, designers, for that matter)? It is nice that Theatre Communications Group draws some attention to the issue each year by publishing an “Annual Top Ten Most-Produced Plays” list, noting the gender of the playwrights included on the list. But even that list has its critics, in terms of overall accuracy related to gender representation, as any shows by dead classical writers such as Shakespeare and those with holiday themes are omitted from the tallies. Having an accurate measure of the current situation is crucial as we strive for improvement in inclusion and diversity; how else will we judge if we're truly making improvements? By what standards will we measure if we’re getting any closer to 50/50 parity?
Instead of “22 percent,” another figure that comes up often is that “17 percent” of theater seasons are female-authored. Patricia Waters, editor of The Omaha Herald, wrote about The Women Playwrights Initiative of the National Theater Conference in Fall 2011. Waters’ article says that at a regional level, women get only 17 percent of the productions. In England, research by the Sphinx Theatre Company in 2010 showed that females were: “35% of actors, 17% of writers, 23% of directors, 52% of the population.” In London, playwright Sam Hall runs “17Percent”, an organization and blog to promote female playwrights.
Seventeen percent, by the way, is the same percentage for productions by female playwrights as listed in American Theatre in the 1994-95 season rundown, according to the famous 2002 Susan Jonas/Suzanne Bennett report, prepared for the New York State Council and titled, “Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement.” The 1994-95 theatre season: that was twenty years ago.
But even 17 percent is optimistic for U.K. female playwrights, according to researcher Maggie Gale, who reported, at a 2013 National Theatre conference in London, that women are really produced only in the 8 percent—12 percent range, and that it’s gotten worse in the past hundred years for them, not better. In southern California last year, volunteers from the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, counting only the local League of Resident Theater (LORT) seasons, found that merely 16 percent productions were female-authored in 2012-13.
In 2013, I tried to get accurate figures about women playwrights working in New York, at levels other than Broadway. I was unable to find this information, because no organization was funded to count it; it entails investigating about 2,000 productions each year—a huge task.
There are some heroic individual theater data counters across the world, keeping track of statistics in their own communities because they care deeply about demographics and theater. They include Niall Tangney in Sydney, Australia; Gwydion Suilebhan in Washington, D.C., with Patricia Connelly and David Mitchell Robinson; and Valerie Weak’s Counting Actors Project, which includes playwrights, in San Francisco. Patrick Gabridge wrote about the numbers in New England on his blog. I found a recent blog post online by Lois Dawson about counting gender representation for playwrights and directors in the Vancouver, Canada, theater season; Dawson was inspired to count in Vancouver by “The Summit” discussion at Arena Stage earlier this year.
But what if there were a way to fund some sort of new national study, to formalize a precise methodology of what shows/seasons to count and when, and get an accurate assessment of what the gender equity percentages for women playwrights in the United States really are in 2014?
If we can’t find an institution or university that will fund this (which seems a shame), is there a DIY way to organize an all-inclusive study that includes every region of the country? Can we pool our resources and do this? Or will we remain stuck, repeating statistics based on best guesses or decades-old data, sort of like “the American Myth of the Female Playwright Production Percentage”?
In Sweden, five years of ongoing monitoring related to gender parity in the performing arts brought female playwriting participation up to 46 percent by 2011. Isn’t it time we get started here in the U.S.? 2020 is only six years away, if we’re still striving for 50/50 by then.