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Women Playwrights Organize in NYC

Noted playwrights Julia Jordan, Sarah Schulman and Anna Zigler organized a Town Hall Meeting held Monday, Oct 27th, 2008 at New Dramatists in New York City between 150 or so women playwrights and prominent theatre leaders, including Neil Pepe, Oskar Eustis, Sarah Benson, Carole Rothman, Tim Sanford and Jerry Patch.

For more information, visit their group Female Playwrights on Facebook (external link: free but must join to view).  Read Jordan's full opening remarks, below (posted with permission).

Julia Jordan's Speech, Town Hall Meeting, NYC

In 1983 Mel Gussow wrote a piece for the New York Times called WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS; NEW VOICES IN THE THEATER. In it, he said there was, “A wave of adventurous young women playwrights - a proliferation that is the most encouraging and auspicious aspect of the current American theater.” The article went on to also applaud the work being done by female directors and producers to bring more plays by women to the stage, notably Lynne Meadow and Carole Rothman, who is with us tonight. I want to take a moment to personally thank ALL of you for coming and helping us take on this issue once again.

Thirty years ago, only 7% of plays on national non-profit stages were written by women. Currently that number is around 17%. A rise of around 3.3% a decade. At that rate, if it continues, we will reach parity in just under another hundred years. But I argue, that as the numbers have stayed stuck at 17% for the best part of this decade, the 10% jump is primarily attributable to the efforts of the playwrights, producers, theaters and directors that Mel Gussow wrote about in 1983. And this is why we have all come here tonight, to increase the numbers again. But another 10% will not be enough.

One hundred years ago, in 1908-1909, according to Internet Broadway Database, nearly 13% of new straight plays on New York stages were by women. Since then, the women’s movement happened. Women are now educated at the same rate and level as men. They have self-determination. And by every measure we can identify, graduate degrees - fellowships - awards for plays on the page, women are pursuing careers as playwrights in the same number as men. Women’s plays, according to Theater Communications Group, make up 35% of the most successful plays of the past ten years, more than double the percentage at which they are produced. Women are succeeding as professional playwrights on every level except in numbers of productions.

We are all aware that such disparities exist in other professions and disciplines. What we might not be aware of, are some of the measures that have been taken in other fields to rectify the situation.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, in a response to a discrimination suit, most major U. S. orchestras began auditioning new members blind. Screens were used to hide the identity of the musicians, and sometimes they went so far as to roll out carpets to muffle the click of women’s heels that would give away their gender. Many orchestras have achieved parity, largely due to the screens, and maintain it by continuing to use blind auditions today.

Another example: Studies of, not by, but of, The American Psychology Association and the Swedish Medical Research Council, have found that both men and women in those organizations rated the quality of men’s work higher than that of women when they were aware of the gender of the person being evaluated, but not when the gender was unknown.

Similarly, the American Economic Review, after conducting their own two year study, has instituted its own blind policy on all submitted papers.

I think it would be far flung to suggest that any of the groups just mentioned harbored any particular hatred or conscious prejudice against women, especially because women themselves were found to devalue women’s work as much as men did. This devaluing is clearly a widespread phenomenon that affects all countries and professions. What claim could we possibly make that theater and the selection of plays for production remains unaffected? This is our corner of the world. Orchestras, psychologists and economists have attempted and succeeded at cleaning up their corners, and today we have come together to identify and implement ways to clean up ours.

Individual theaters could consider an internal blind review of the unsolicited scripts they receive. But obviously, playwrights read and workshop their plays in the public sphere. And we do want more than just plays to be produced, we want playwrights to be produced. We want relationships with theaters to be honored. We need a solution that respects the need for theaters to discriminate based on mission, aesthetics and their artistic hearts while minimizing, to the best of our abilities, the biases based on other factors that are human and present in all of us.

It has amazed me, when discussing this issue, how quickly and often, talk turns to factors other than prejudice that could be driving down the percentage of women’s plays. There is talk of history and a male cannon that crowds the stages and creates a greater appearance of inequality than is actually the case, women’s supposed lack of aggressiveness or productivity, the idea that women are receptive to male stories( as they have been taught all their lives to appreciate them,) but that men are resistant to the stories of women. I’ve heard that things are improving. That, of the new writers coming up, there’s a larger percentage of exciting female writers. And there may be a grain of truth in all these arguments. But as the astronaut Sally Ride said, when asked about reasons other than bias that kept women from participating in the sciences… And I paraphrase…

If you come across a person lying on the street with an elephant sitting on their chest, you could ask if they have a heart condition or asthma, as both do cause breathing problems. But first, you should get the elephant off their chest.

That said, I have crunched a few figures so that we can kick these questions completely to the curb and focus on the elephant. Because this year’s figures are particularly bad, I have looked at the past three years’ production histories of twenty major NY, NJ and CT non-profit theaters. And by the way, collectively the 20 theaters actually had a better record of producing women’s work than any national average that I could find in print.

Still, the percentage of total female writers produced is just over 19%.

To control for history and a predominantly male cannon, I removed all plays by deceased writers, increasing the figure to just under 21%. So it is fair to say, the historical cannon is not a large factor in the appearance of low percentages.

To address the question of whether there was change on the horizon, and younger female writers were receiving more productions, I counted the un-established writers, or writers without general name recognition. The percentage of those women, compared to those men, was lower, just under 19%. So though new women writers may be exciting particular theaters, they are not yet any closer to reaching parity in production with their male counterparts, than writers of an older guard.

Regarding the possibility of women having lower productivity, which in all fields has been linked to childbirth … In the study of orchestras and in another of U. S. college professors, the difference between the amount of leaves taken by male and females was NOT statistically significant. They took the same amount of time off. I do not think it is a stretch to suggest that for every woman who stops writing plays to have a child, there is a man who stops to write a screenplay, work on a tv show or, in this day and age, help raise children himself.

To assess whether women were as aggressive as men at getting their plays produced, I asked the agents. The ones who were willing to give me such figures estimated their clients to be 30% female. Yet theaters are reporting that 40% of their submissions are from women. So agented or not, women are either HIGHLY productive, or aggressive in pursuing their careers.

And as for the idea that women were more likely to be receptive to male stories than vice versa, and that therefore women - the largest block of ticket buyers by every estimate- buy tickets to male shows, shows they believe their husbands will enjoy… This commonly voiced idea in the business is one I myself held until recently. According to TCG, of the top two most successful plays of each of the past ten years, out of 24 plays (there were some ties), 14 had female protagonists, only 7 had male protagonists, and the remaining three plays were true ensemble works. So, in this day and age, there’s no evidence that women buy tickets primarily to shows about the male experience to somehow appease their husbands. In fact, in the last ten years, it seems that they were more likely to buy tickets to shows about women, no matter which gender they happen to be written by. And because the numbers are so large for plays about the female experience, I think it’s fair to assume that men are buying tickets to them in large numbers as well. In fact, if you look closely at the TCG list, it is clear that men and women are interested enough in each others stories, that much of the list is comprised of both genders writing about the other.

Before I leave statistics behind altogether, as I do believe we all understand what they show, (no matter how they are crunched and no matter how we frame them), I have to throw one more out. In the past three years, in the theaters I looked at, there have been only 5 revivals of plays by living women writers as compared to 34 by men, that’s 12.8%. In the spirit of our gathering here, which is to find concrete methods for changing the overall statistics, the inclusion of women in the new cannon is of the utmost importance. The whole point of this attempt is to not repeat the past. Attention must be paid to the women who were produced to acclaim in the recent past. And work that was given less notice because of prejudice in the past needs to be revisited and presented again. We can easily start by going back and looking at the produced and, frankly, unproduced plays that the Susan Smith Blackburn award lists, an award based on nominations of the best plays by women in English speaking world, and judged by leading professionals.

We must also include female directors in this effort, as their statistics are virtually identical to that of playwrights and actresses, who we all know face a paucity of roles. Their fate is inextricably linked to that of female playwrights, in numbers and substance. Writers of color are also part of everything we discuss here tonight. But women cut across all racial lines, all class lines, they write in all aesthetics, and we have so much power in our numbers that we have the responsibility to lead.

Andre Bishop said, when announcing Lincoln Center’s new space, “Opportunities create artists. And it is essential that institutional theaters provide as many intelligent opportunities as possible because that is how theater artists grow – in production.” Women are creating their own production opportunities with organizations such as The Women’s Project, New Georges and WET, all of whom have representatives here tonight. We want they same opportunities that are afforded men to grow as artists on all the stages that our tax dollars support.

I want to thank our panelists again for coming here to work with us tonight. We all want the theater to reflect humanity, which is its over arching mission, a humanity that is divided between two genders. It is only a question of how to achieve that. I suggest that tonight we look at the system by which scripts find their way to the highest levels of consideration and find ways to control or compensate for bias. There is no talent deficit to deal with. No training deficit. There is no reason why, if we work with concerted effort, and by that I do mean in concert with each other- actors- directors, writers - literary managers - artistic directors - audiences – boards – donors - journalists and, yes, critics… With all of our efforts the playing field can be leveled, and when that happens, the plays on our stages will resemble the population of our country.

The International Centre for Women Playwrights is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting women playwrights around the world.    

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