A Woman's Work is Never Done

Women make up well more than half of the Guthrie's audience, but less than 10 percent of its produced playwrights. Is this a tragedy or a farce?

There are a number of theater companies in town that would kill to attract 300 people to a play over a three-week run. Impressively, the Guthrie can get about that many through the door to hear Joe Dowling essentially read a press release. On a Monday night. During dinner. With the country on the very brink of war. The crowd of subscribers has come to hear the Guthrie's artistic director talk about his upcoming staging of Chekhov's Three Sisters and the theater's freshly announced 2003-04 season. They greet the announcement of each upcoming production enthusiastically, sometimes with sounds of approval or excitement.

Dowling is wearing what I believe a well-versed clothier would call a "bold, abstract" necktie--a colorful dotted number that suggests "olives" without coming right out and saying it. Despite the splash of color, though, he looks a bit somber, maybe because it's a gloomy day on a number of levels, maybe because the city's budget crisis has made the public-funding component of the Guthrie on the River project a major challenge. I don't know, maybe it's just that he's standing in front of a seriously bold and abstract Kandinsky reproduction from the Six Degrees of Separation set, and you'd need to don a clown suit not to look a bit somber in comparison.

But he perks up when he's off the script and talking about the plays for the theater's 40th anniversary season. It is a promising lineup, and in at least one respect, a refreshing one: The season will offer a few plays that were more or less written by women, including a dramatic version of Barbara Ehrenreich's minimum-wage memoir Nickel and Dimed. Might not seem like a big deal, but the Guthrie's record at producing female playwrights has been so lousy that a quartet of female-influenced plays in a 10-show season--one a man's adaptation of a 200-year-old Jane Austen novel, another a woman's adaptation of A Christmas Carol--feels like some sort of victory for feminist theater.

Since Joe Dowling took over as the Guthrie Theater's artistic director in 1995, programming has become more culturally diverse than in the theater's stuffier, Eurocentric past. But women, the same group responsible for the majority of the theater's ticket sales, still can't get their authorial voice onstage to save their lives. Over the course of nine seasons and 70 plays (excluding tours, and counting A Christmas Carol once), the Guthrie has selected just seven plays written or co-written by women. Including the coming season, that's 10 percent--low even for a medium that's perhaps surpassed only by classical music in the patriarchal high-art sweepstakes.

It might seem odd, comic even, to measure artistic intent by percentage points, especially considering the notorious mathematical ineptitude of artistic types. These numbers, though, paint a revealing and dismaying picture of a leading cultural institution that has chosen neither to lead nor to truly reflect the culture. To put the statistics in perspective, the old-boy-driven Bush cabinet is 20 percent women; the U.S. Senate, 14 percent. The Guthrie's "primary task," according to its own mission statement, "is to celebrate, through theatrical performances, the common humanity binding us all together." Sounds great, but how "binding" can this effort be if a nearly all-male pep squad leads the celebration year after year?

What are the implications of underrepresentation for audiences and artists? And how does a contemporary, humanist, nonprofit organization with an annual budget of more than $18 million--the largest regional theater in the country--defend such perversely unequal programming? When I present these statistics to Wendy Knox, the artistic director of Frank Theatre who guest-directed Aristophanes' Lysistrata at the Guthrie Lab in 1999, she's exasperated but not particularly surprised. In place of a political or analytical response, she settles on something appropriately pithy: "It's crap!"

 

From the theater's founding in 1963 through the 1973-74 season, the Guthrie produced no works by female playwrights--an impressive feat to pull off during the country's great feminist awakening. In the mid-'70s, Emily Mann was among the writers staged at the short-lived Guthrie 2 second stage, and in '75, the theater inaugurated a perennial run of A Christmas Carol, commissioning the adaptation (still in use) by Barbara Field. Field went on to write several adaptations for the theater, including Camille and Frankenstein: Playing with Fire, inspired by the Mary Shelley novel. In the '80s, male writers continued to dominate seasons, but there were notable exceptions, including works by Marsha Norman, Nelly Sachs, Susan Cooper, and Mary Chase.

During Garland Wright's tenure (1986-1995), 6.9 percent of the Guthrie's productions were written or co-written by women. In the same period, female directors helmed 14.9 percent of its productions, a percentage that has inched up to 15.6 percent under Dowling, 13.5 percent on the main stage (with each production of A Christmas Carol included), and 20 percent at the Lab. Dowling, then, is technically accurate when he says that the theater is "shifting in the right direction." But it's doing so at a leisurely pace comparable to, say, the United States' switch to the metric system.

All of the female-penned plays to reach the stage in the Dowling era have been modern, or at least post-Watergate, creations. Playing on the 1,300-seat main stage were Field's adaptation of A Christmas Carol (counted, like James Maxwell's Jane Austen adaptation, as a male-female split), Lillian Garrett-Groag's The Magic Fire, and Rita Dove's The Darker Face of the Earth. *CHKSuzan-Lori Parks's In the Blood, and Caryl Churchill's Top Girls (opening May 16) are it for the 300-seat Guthrie Lab.

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