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.

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."

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.

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.

"I remember watching people turn off Dale Street and come down Iglehart toward the theater one afternoon, and I started counting," Bellamy recalls. "It had never occurred to me to think about male-female. And I'd see one, two, three women...a man...one woman, two women...a man...and it became obvious that women were making men come to the theater. Oh yeah, these guys are in there with Walkmen on, listening to the ball game." This casual demographic survey, combined with the arrival of a crop of exciting female playwrights, led Bellamy and Co. to turn from a kind of macho haven into something decidedly more coed.

As for Dowling, he's working with Louise Erdrich to adapt some of her novels for the stage. He says that he expects the Guthrie to be able to stage more women's work if its proposed new building is approved. The Guthrie is in the middle of a massive fundraising campaign to erect a proposed Mississippi River complex, with a 1,100-seat thrust stage, a 700-seat proscenium, and a 250-seat studio. If the new location gets the green light, by 2005 the theater will indeed have more opportunities to present female playwrights--and even fewer excuses not to.

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