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?

Several women I spoke to for this article complained about the persistent "boy genius" syndrome. They argue that talented young men--playwrights, directors, anyone who might be credited with a certain Orson Welles-like precocity--are more likely to be mentored, championed, and groomed for leadership positions. And so they rise through the theater ranks faster than women. (Dowling founded the educational company at Dublin's redoubtable Abbey Theatre at age 21 and was installed as the Abbey's artistic director at age 29.) If this is part of the "hiring in one's own image" tendency cited by Stangl, play selection might follow a similar pattern. In an amusing example of the phenomenon, Irishman Dowling has staged to date twice as many plays (16.4 percent) by Irish-born playwrights than by women from anywhere and everywhere.

As more women obtain powerful positions in the theater, one would think that a leveling would ensue, but it ain't necessarily so. "The sad fact is that just to have a woman in charge doesn't necessarily mean a theater is going to do plays by women," says Suzanne Bennett, artistic associate of New York's Women's Project Theatre. She cites Carey Perloff's mostly male programming at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater as an example. "That's a phenomenon that has yet to be studied and looked at. Whether it's fear, whether it's a kind of blindness, I don't know."

Sharon Ott is the artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theater, which like Chicago's Goodman Theatre and San Francisco's Magic Theatre has been a pacesetter at pushing regional theaters toward gender parity. Since 1996, Seattle Rep has produced plays by women 32.7 percent of the time on its two major stages. Speaking during a break from a Romeo and Juliet rehearsal, Ott says she isn't deliberate about producing female playwrights but she assumes she's more responsive to female writers than many of her male counterparts. She sometimes hears harrumphing from season ticket holders about her fondness for "women's plays," even when the plays have male protagonists and avoid gender politics.

Dramaturg and critic Alexis Greene heard this complaint and several others in compiling Women Who Write Plays: Interviews with American Dramatists. The book features interviews with 23 female playwrights including Lynne Alvarez, Pearl Cleage, Cheryl West, and Wakako Yamauchi. "A lot of the women I spoke with," says Greene, "believe that somehow artistic directors--especially, with all due respect to Mr. Dowling, an artistic director of his generation--might think men write universal plays but women tend not to. They think that artistic directors see them coming and think 'oh dear, is this going to be a "women's play," and am I going to get in trouble because there's going to be a political agenda in this play?'. Somehow when David Mamet writes a play, even if there is a political agenda there, it's considered more universal. But if Connie Congdon writes a similar play it's going to be labeled feminist, political, and scary."

Not only do female playwrights face the men-are-universal/women-are-specific prejudice, but those who break the rules of composition are often dismissed as incompetent. In the summary of the New York State Council on the Arts' three-year study of the status of women in theater, critic Jonathan Kalb argued that an adventurous play by Beth Henley will get a different response from one by John Guare. "A man challenges received ideas of form...[and] he is seen as taking a risk," he wrote, whereas risk-taking women are "treated as though they don't know what they are doing."

Not only are female playwrights hurt by neglect, but patrons of both sexes are cheated too. "We really think that the record of our culture can only be true if it represents the voices of all the people in it," says Kahlo. "Otherwise, it's just an expression of a certain privileged group."

Presumably for some audience members the sex of the playwright goes as unnoticed as the sex of the lighting design assistant. But as Georgia O'Keeffe noted, "There is something unexplored about a woman that only a woman can explore," something exciting about seeing your story told accurately, authentically.

"A big reason I became a playwright is, I was sick of how my gender was being portrayed," says locally based playwright Carson Kreitzer. "Little girls learn how to be women from art and culture. I think it's really important to tell stories of strong women, and the people I write tend to be outcasts. Having narratives of surviving being cast out from conventionality and from what you know is very important for girls."

This last point is particularly relevant to the gender argument considering the busloads of school kids the Guthrie welcomes each year for weekday matinees (in 2001-02, the Guthrie sold schools 70,138 highly discounted theater tickets). Don't Twin Cities high school girls--whose first experience with professional theater is likely to be at the Guthrie--deserve to see plays written from a woman's perspective?

 

The manliness of the Guthrie's programming seems particularly salient, but the problem goes well beyond the record of one theater. Many of the nation's leading regional theaters, such as New Haven, Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre (18.2 percent plays by women since '96) and Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival (14.5 percent), are only marginally more inclusive than the Guthrie. The Women's Project Theatre conducts an annual survey of productions by theaters belonging to the Theatre Communications Group, a national organization for professional nonprofit theaters. In the 2002-03 season, just 16.9 percent of 2007 productions at 357 theaters had a woman on the writing team (the percentage jumps to 22 percent if you include adaptations by women of male authors). And only 22.6 percent were directed by a woman. As if this weren't bad enough, 37.8 percent of the surveyed theaters are producing no plays at all by women this season.

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