A Racial Reckoning Is Underway in Theater. Where Is the Gender Reckoning?
I would ultimately bounce back to the theater, hoping to find a home, scrounging around off-off-Broadway, doing 10-minute one-acts for Naked Angels or the 24 Hour Plays, while the guys I started out with — friends such as the playwrights Doug Wright, David Auburn and Robbie Baitz, the directors Chris Ashley, Michael Mayer and Michael Greif — moved on to Broadway. Then the guys in the generation behind me were moving into that club as well. It was impossible to miss what was going on.
The whole thing was hideous, and the brutal hostility was unapologetic. When female playwrights and directors pushed for accountability from producers as to why women were all but shut out of production opportunities, the discussion was dispiriting. It was something to do with comfort level. Boys just like to hang out with other boys. Girls should stick with the girls. Besides, women were included as actresses, weren’t they?
A lot of female playwrights and directors stuck to it, climbing that steep hill and finally moving our work into production, only to then find we were all but shut outof awards seasons. I know, who cares about awards — aside from everybody? So in 2010 we came up with our own award, the Lillys, only to hear one of the most prominent and respected male artistic directors in New York sneer to me, “What is this, the sour grapes award?”
In 2009, some suggested the humble goal for representation of women’s voices on our stages as “50/50 by 2020” — the theory being women are 50 percent of the human race and women buy most of the tickets. A prominent white male producer responded, “I don’t like the word ‘quotas.’” So 50/50 by 2020 is a quota? It doesn’t matter; we didn’t make it anyway.
The numbers were always incredibly important because they proved what all of us knew and had to keep explaining to men in power who just didn’t believe the facts we were all living with. In the 2007-08 theater season, when I had my first play produced on Broadway, I was the sole woman to have a new play produced there. That year, only about 12 percent of the new plays produced in major off-Broadway theaters in New York City were by women, even less than the 17 percent figure in a 2002 New York State Council on the Arts report, which looked at nonprofit theater stages across the country.
Then in the early 2010s, two of the founders of the Lillys, Julia Jordan and Marsha Norman, began The Count, a project that collects data on whose work is being produced onstage. We had made enough noise; there was one year when the percentage of new plays by women presented on major off-Broadway New York City stages was as high as 38 percent. That fell back quickly and averaged about 20 percent for the years 2011-14, according to the first report of The Count. Three years later, the second Count report put it at 29 percent, and the latest installment had it at 31 percent, before the pandemic hit and closed all the theaters.
Then there’s this: Only four women have ever won the Tony Award for best play. They are: Frances Goodrich, a co-author of “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1956); Lucienne Hill, the translator of “Becket” (1961); Wendy Wasserstein, “The Heidi Chronicles”(1989); and Yasmina Reza, who won twice, for “Art”(1998) and “God of Carnage”(2009). The history of the Tonys — supposedly the reflection of the best of the American theater — is in fact a history of the male American theater.