The New York Times posed this question on April 29 when the Tony nominations were announced. It’s a problem that’s getting long in the tooth; for years we’ve known that over 60 percent of the ticket buyers and “butts in seats” are women, and yet less than 20 percent of the stories staged are written, directed, or designed by them. Hmm.
As a member of WomenStageTheWorld, an advocacy project of the League of Professional Theatre Women, we believe an important first step is to create awareness. We’re asking theater decision-makers and audiences to consider the question: Who wrote, directed and designed this show? Maybe the lack of gender equity in theater is not part of a systemic conspiracy to deprive talented women of their place in the mix. Maybe the larger truth is that neither decision-makers nor audience members are sensitized to the issue. What we’ve got is a blind spot that demands…a parade!
Inspired by the marches that changed the conversation for women’s suffrage and civil rights, we’re planning our second annual Gender Equality Parade in the heart of Times Square on May 8. We’ll step off at 6 pm and wend our way through the Theatre District, distributing leaflets and singing our anthem, newly minted by lyricist, composer, and League member, Sheilah Rae. Some of us will be dressed as theater women from our past who have inspired us—Aphra Behn, Margot Jones, Rachel Crothers, Hallie Flanagan, Dorothy Parker and Lady Gregory—among many others.
I’ll be decked out as Susan Glaspell who won the Pulitzer in 1931 for Alison’s House. Considered O’Neill’s peer (indeed she gave him his start at the Provincetown Players she founded with her husband), her work is rarely mounted and the history books have lost track of her. Her short play, Trifles, is what remains of an impressive career innovating the form and pioneering the small theater movement.
Indeed, where are the women?
Last year, we followed up the Parade with regional dial-ins to understand the issues across the country. With a couple dozen women in a conversation, we dug a little deeper and identified roots of the gender equality problem:
- A paradox of two theater worlds in which women flourish in the festival/low pay/no pay space and find it hard to move their work forward to a more prestigious venue.
- Institutional structures that are self-reinforcing—artistic directors and literary managers play it safe with known quantities and graduates of well-known programs.
- Women may not be building their “brand” or building the key relationships with the same velocity as their male peers.
We asked: what concrete actions will make a big difference?
Build awareness, educate and create consequences, reaching decision makers, theater subscribers, and the theater-going public. Many described how theater seasons changed once the AD was made aware of an all male season. The Equality Parade is all about building awareness.
Form alliances, large and small, and push for impact. “How can we connect with a larger movement?” asked one participant.
Create ready resources to support theaters that want to do the right thing and don’t know how. We need to be ready to answer the obvious next question from theatres—“can you help us do a better job?”
Foster access. “Can we find a way to talk directly to producers?” asked one participant.
Develop and execute an influence strategy with the theater power structure. “Women are not a ‘protected class’ when it comes to NEA grants,” said one woman, pointing out how institutional structures need to be calibrated if gender parity is to become a reality.
Amplify and celebrate theatres making good choices.
Use the power of the pocketbook with theatres having a track record of gender disparity. Ideas here included reaching out to theater boards and finding ways to educate the subscription base about the issue.
Showcase the talent of theater women and the production challenge in visible, influential ways. From media coverage to expert panels, women need to be seen in positions of authority in the arts.
Promote blind submissions. Just as symphony orchestras have changed the gender mix on stage, we need to create a national movement towards blind submissions at all levels.
Cultivate a new generation of critics. If theatre is 65 percent supported through ticket sales and butts in seats by women, where are the women critics?
Mentor and coach. Begin addressing the next generation by coaching young women and coach each other to “lean in” to market ourselves and build our brands.
So, if it all begins with building awareness, maybe you can join us in Times Square on May 8 or host a gender equality event in your neck of the woods?
Let’s continue to keep this conversation alive and work together to raise awareness, confront the blind spot and celebrate progress wherever we see it. (Speaking of celebrating, one example is the upcoming Lilly Awards honoring visionary theater women on June 2, founded by Marsha Norman, Theresa Rebeck, and Julia Jordan in 2010.) Maybe someday soon, when we ask “where are the women,” the answer will not only be “at the box office and in the seats” but also as the storytellers creating magic at a theater near you.