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?

A partial but controversial explanation for these stats is the Guthrie's legacy as a classical theater and its continued commitment to the standard repertory, an increasingly rare stance among regional theaters of its stature. The Guthrie, after all, was built for the classics, Shakespeare in particular. Its famous thrust stage--designed by the recently deceased Tanya Moisewitsch--imitates the platform stage of the Elizabethan and Restoration era and is ideal for epic and large-scale work.

"A classical theater has greater challenges than a theater producing new work, in terms of works by women," says the Guthrie's literary manager, Michael Bigelow Dixon. "You can't go back and change history, and if things were not equal in the past, and there was discrimination against women in terms of opportunity, then a theater that's dedicated to exploring and keeping alive that canon can't go back and change the body of that canon."

True, until recently the volume of plays by women has been light compared with those by men. If some pioneering woman in ancient Greece was pitching her scripts to the archon of the Great Dionysia, her work hasn't survived. And there's no female Shakespeare (of course, Shakespeare is incomparable in all sorts of ways), and in the conventional critical analysis, there was no female Goethe, Chekhov, O'Neill, or Brecht either.

"They always say there have never been great women artists," says the provocateur known as Frida Kahlo of the Guerrilla Girls, the New York-based group that seeks to expose the underrepresentation of women in high art and pop culture. "But in fact there always have been. You just have to look around to find them because the rules were always set to keep them out."

Elaine Partnow wrote The Female Dramatist: Profiles of Women Playwrights from the Middle Ages to Contemporary Times in an effort to open the gates for some of those female artists long kept out of the classical pantheon. "The thing I find over and over again at the regional theaters," says Partnow, "is that when they start pulling up the old chestnuts, they never pull up the women's plays. My own belief is that men generally are the educators who create the standard anthologies that are used in theater-arts programs in universities; the women are just left out. They're just not there, so people don't think about them."

In 1994, the Guthrie staged Aphra Behn's late-17th-century comedy The Rover, partly because it's a very funny play, and partly because of the feminism-inspired drive to exhume women's classics. According to Dowling, though, staging little-known pieces from the distant past is a risky commercial proposition for a 1,300-seat theater. (The Rover ranked near the middle in terms of ticket sales for the '94-'95 season). "If I were running a 200- or 300-seat theater, I would have a very different program," he says. The flaw in this argument, though, is that Dowling does run a 300-seat theater, the Guthrie Lab, and its record with respect to gender representation is only minimally better (12 percent, compared with 8.9 percent on the main stage).

When Behn was working, and for most of the time before the modern feminist era, female playwrights were about as novel as male wet nurses. The number of female playwrights has steadily risen since the '70s, but women writers today face many of the same obstacles as their forerunners. Despite the recent critical and popular success of playwrights such as Suzan-Lori Parks, Paula Vogel, Yasmina Reza, Rebecca Gilman, Margaret Edson, Eve Ensler, and Becky Mode, women remain scarce on Broadway and at regional theaters, the term used to describe the nation's major and artistically guided nonprofit stages. Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, Reza's Art, and Ensler's The Vagina Monologues have been among the most widely produced plays of the past four or five years, but mainly at small theaters with correspondingly small budgets.

Major theaters apparently still see plays by women as commercially risky, notwithstanding the recently proven salability of female-penned plays and the fact that women constitute about 60 percent of the theatergoing public. When women's plays are presented by regional theaters, they're often relegated to the second or third stage, or programmed during low-priority festivals. (Can we look forward to "Sisterhood Is Theatrical: Readings of Female Playwrights," held every Saturday in July in the Guthrie boiler room at 9:30 a.m.?)

Underrepresentation at regional theaters such as the Guthrie perpetuates historic inequities in the proverbial vicious circle: The major theaters argue that they can't take chances on female playwrights because no one's ever heard of them; no one's ever heard of female playwrights because the big, career-making theaters don't take chances on them.

 

It's a strange situation when an arts powerhouse in a historically progressive community makes George W. Bush look like a crusader for equality. "There's a weird dichotomy in that even though the theater is populated with people who, more than average, lean to the left politically...those statistics are probably worse than they are in the corporate world," says Eye of the Storm Theatre's Casey Stangl, who will guest-direct Top Girls at the Lab. "The simple fact is that there are still many, many more men than women in decision-making positions both artistically and managerially. I don't think there's any agenda, and I know from speaking to Joe that he has a commitment to [producing more women]. But at the same time, people hire in their image. It's not about keeping people down; it's way subtler than that and way more insidious."

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