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?

If one is looking for a villain in this tale, 54-year-old Joe Dowling doesn't play the part very well. When we sit down for an interview in his office, he's self-effacing and as casual as his green corduroys. He readily admits that his record in the female-representation department is less than sparkling. "A lot of people sort of look at us and throw stones," he says. "And they're right to. I don't object to criticism, I don't object to the kind of inquiry [City Pages] is making, which is absolutely valid and right. Hands up," he says, raising his arms like a bank robber. "Caught. We don't do enough women. Yes. But I think the evidence is that we are shifting in the right direction."

For the current season, Dowling made a deliberate effort to examine women's issues from two different eras, through Churchill's Top Girls and George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. That one of the plays is by a dead white man isn't of key importance to Dowling. "Mrs. Warren is a play written by a man who probably was more feminist than many of the women writing at the time," he says, adding that in his estimation the play is "far better written than many of those by women who were writing at the time.

"So do I say, well, I'll pick a lesser play than a Shaw--because I'm back now in the early 20th century--or do I pick a play which actually in my view talks directly about the role of women in the early 20th century, and then balance that with Caryl Churchill's play [from 1982] in the Lab? I'm not suggesting that that's enough, but I'm saying that those two examples within our current season are addressing some of the issues that I believe are real to women in our audience, who may or may not care if it's written by a woman."

Dowling insists that he doesn't judge plays differently based on the gender of the author. He comes back to the challenges presented by the size and design of the main stage, recalling that many of Garland Wright's attempts to introduce new or little-known playwrights on the main stage were commercial failures. What's more, Dowling thinks that many plays by contemporary female playwrights are better suited to a proscenium stage; introspective, interior dramas in particular can fall apart on the Guthrie's open expanse.

Dowling hints at some female-driven projects in the planning stages--he'll formally announce them two weeks later-- and he points to Dixon's efforts to foster new writing talent. Playwright Lisa D'Amour, whose work has been premiered in the Twin Cities, and who is currently teaching and working in Austin, Texas, says that she's "cautiously hopeful" about the future for female writers at the Guthrie. Like Kreitzer, she's enthusiastic about Dixon's efforts to commission and help develop new playwrights (such as her). And she's encouraged by the balanced gender makeup of those writers (11 women of 22 playwrights commissioned since 2000). "Some of this is long-term work," says Dixon, "We're planting seeds."

The Guthrie's defense that it's a classical theater with a limiting thrust stage might have been more convincing a few decades ago, but it's not a very persuasive argument today. Unless you wish to fully embrace the current, liberal usage of the term "classic," the Guthrie these days is only half a classical theater, as Dowling has shifted its programming to an even split of classic and modern works. Of the 61 plays produced since Dowling came to town, 30 were written after 1970. Yet despite the profusion of female playwrights in recent decades, only five of 30 shows were by women--a surprisingly low 16.7 percent. That last stat, it should be noted, is in keeping with the national average, and similar to that of some of the leading smaller theaters in town. Of the past 30 Jungle Theater productions, for example, only four (13.4 percent) were penned by women. Over the past five seasons, Park Square has programmed six of 32 plays with a woman on the writing team (18.8 percent).

As for the thrust stage, it hasn't stopped the Guthrie from putting on closed-in dramas by Edward Albee or Arthur Miller. In fact, most of the plays the theater produces were written with a proscenium in mind. One could argue from another angle that if the thrust stage wields such a powerful influence on programming, why isn't it being used anymore for the Greek plays? Like Shakespeare, these classics are perfect for a thrust, yet one hasn't been seen at the flagship in more than a decade.

"Women have to rise up in arms and complain and pressure," says the Guerrilla Girls' Kahlo. "If we just sit there and be good girls, no one's ever going to change anything and they'll come up with even more elaborate and silly reasons."

 

A few times while preparing this story, I was overcome with what might be called Hypocrisy Anxiety, the sometimes crippling fear often felt by us imperfect left-leaning malcontents. A perusal of the City Pages masthead, for example, will show that this paper could do better with gender representation.

Yet on some level the Guthrie's record is so gaudily bad as to be almost a mystery; as the coming season hints, it just wouldn't be that hard to do better. Proof that real change in this area is possible, even with a man at the helm, can be found by looking at the transformation of Penumbra Theatre's programming over the past 10 years or so. "We had a reputation for being a male-dominated company, and there was a lot of testosterone around," admits Penumbra's artistic director, Lou Bellamy. That pattern began to markedly change in the mid-'90s. Since the 1995-96 season, counting the Christmas show Black Nativity once in the man-made category, 13 of 26 productions (the magic 50 percent) have been scripted by women.

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