Risking Innovation Day 2: The Glass Proscenium

Now that I’ve recovered from NYC induced sensory overload, I figure it’s high time I gave you a full wrap up.  Let’s revisit Day 2, previously shared only in nutshell form.

The Glass Proscenium: The Current State of Women in Professional Theatre.

As I wrote in my last post, Holy Panel! The women included (forgive me if I miss anyone, I’m pulling this list directly from the conference schedule): Natka Bianchini (U. of Maryland-College Park), Jill Dolan (Princeton), Sara Warner (Cornell), Leigh Fondakowski (Tectonic Theatre Project), Nadine George-Graves (UCSD), Julia Jordan (freelance playwright/director), Sarah Lambert (Tectonic Theatre Project), Esther Kim Lee (U of Ill, Urbana-Champaign), Lisa Merrill (Hofstra), Priscilla Page (New WORLD Theatre/Umass Amherst), Sheri Wilner (freelance playwright).

Before I re-cap, I went and double-checked the meaning of “glass ceiling.” Looks like it was originally coined by Wall Street 20-odd years ago. It, as I remembered correctly, refers to the “unofficial” and “invisible” policies and non-policies that prevent women from gaining top positions, climbing career ladders, and receiving equitable wages. Since then, the phrase has been modified to fit various sub-cultures and minorities. The term “Glass Proscenium” does, indeed, seem fitting in a theatrical setting.

We started out by getting to hear Emily Sand’s recent thesis presented by her. This was well received, as expected, and I, personally, was thankful for it. I’m not an economist so when I went to read her thesis and look at the slides (when the original NYTimes articles covered the story) I felt a little lost in the numbers. I also had questions about the inherent flaws within arts studies due to the nature of judging art itself. This answered a few questions for me and opened the floor to some interesting comments from panelists.

First of all, there are two beginning theories accounting for WHY fewer plays written by women are produced: Human Capitol (Fewer plays are written in the first place and submitted to theatres.) and Discrimination (Gender bias prevents the production of plays written by women). Second, she used doollee.com to find some basic statistics about playwrights, gender, and the gender of characters in plays. According to Sand’s findings, women are more likely to write about women and they make up for it by writing about fewer characters. First of all, the stats at Doollee are far from a complete picture of women playwrights (which she admitted as a potential flaw) and secondly, to assert that they “make up for it” by writing plays with fewer characters is placing an assumption on choice. That’s probably grounds for yet another study.

Sands sent out 4 different scripts–and here’s what I was most curious about–written by established playwrights of both genders. My original thought when I read the study was “women and men write different plays; how does she account for that artistic factor?” It was nice to hear that she did. She included an unpublished script by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Lynn Nottage, who is a woman and black. The rest you can glean from articles: they were sent out with fake names to 250 theatres along with 18 questions concerning economic viability, audience likeability, artistic quality, etc. The results included clear stats that plays perceived to have been written by women, although considered equally artistic, were deemed as “lower overall quality” and with “poor economic prospects.”

There is no qualitative or quantitative evidence that audiences prefer plays written by men, but apparently artistic decision-makers are making that assumption. She continued to posit that scripts with male protagonists did far better than scripts with female protagonists. And she concluded with the poorly received quip “You may be better off trying to disguise your gender.” A well-placed line that hit home all to well and felt like salt poured into our existing scratch marks.

Esther Kim Lee responded:

She’s been taking informal surveys from women playwrights and of 51 submissions was able to use 49 playwrights to gather some additional information. Aged mostly 36-45, only one had a play produced on Broadway. Their success has an “upside version of what we perceive as success,” most plays had been produced at colleges and local community theatres with the least number being produced off-Broadway. Which led into self-perceived questions about how certain items had affected their careers as playwrights: 45% said gender, 38% race, and ethnicity was even higher than gender (sorry, no percentage was provided). She interpreted these findings to suggest that these playwrights were interested in finding a community in which to create their art.

She continued to ask about the importance of various items, of which she shared a few: the gender identity of the audience was the least important, 60% said the diversity of audience is important, 50% said a Broadway production is not important to them. Finally, 65% said it is not advantageous to be a minority when writing about which she shared many quotes which followed along the lines of it initially giving them an advantage based on being trendy but “when the novelty wears off” the Artistic Directors lose interest.

When these 49 women were asked to look at Emily Sand’s study, the responses were two-fold: 1 – “I’m not surprised” and 2 – “I’m not interested in mainstream Broadway productions.”

Here’s where I should interject and note that Sand’s study includes another part about economic impact. Because it is virtually impossible to get a hold of economic impact data from regional and small theatres which are by nature and definition non-profit, she included an economic impact study of Broadway. So, the ability of women playwrights to create revenue was based on Broadway productions. This is important to remember because it meant raising the question, “What IS the measure of success for women playwrights?”

Priscilla Page responded next:

She did even more informal questioning, gathering entirely qualitative anecdotes and opinions from women on FaceBook. She raised the initial doubt concerning using Broadway as a basis for measuring success. The doubt as o the effectiveness of Doollee.com as an accurate stats tool. As an example of success, Lynn Nottage just won the Pulitzer Prize for Ruined, and yet it continues to run on off-Broadway not Broadway. Furthermore, her company, New WORLD Theatre which produces 60% women-led projects just had its funding pulled.

Julia Jordan chimed in:

Plays about war and rape written by men are on Broadway, why shouldn’t Ruined go to Broadway?

Based on Sand’s Study: if these are the numbers here in NYC [with women’s plays on Broadway bringing in MORE money in LESS amount of time] why wouldn’t you think they match up elsewhere?

“Women are submitting to theatres that produce them.” So it’s impossible to determine whether there are fewer submissions by women at theatres because they don’t bother submitting to places that don’t produce them. [That last sentence is mine, not Jordan’s.] Agents only want to represent writers who make money, so they are unwilling to represent women playwrights which means they can’t get produced or published. [Furthermore, I just discovered from a colleague that most regional theatres no longer accept scripts that are not represented by an agent. So, if an agent won’t take you on because women aren’t produced, you can’t get produced to convince an agent to take you on. Self-perpetuating circle.]

Plus some TCG facts I didn’t know: Of the most successful plays in the past 10 years, 70% have female leads AND 70% of Pulitzer Prize winners have female leads.

Nadine George-Graves came next:

“This leads to many questions…tend to dance around speculating about reasons..” How about we cut to the chase and say, “This is what’s happening. What do you think?” This statement came with a collective chuckle of relief. Personally, I felt like we’d been doing a lot of dancing and not much action-taking. Action-taking beings with frank dialogue. She suggested we combine personal data and hunches to make “provocative statements that aren’t polite.”

She continued to suggest: Let’s look at history and see what’s happened in the past? Male playwrights can make the excuse that they “don’t write women well” but we can’t make that excuse and chose to write more about men anyways. As an historical example she noted that the first black professional baseball players had to be better than their white counterparts to be taken seriously. On Broadway, there’s still an “old boys network” and women don’t benefit from mentorship opportunities because of this. And the word she repeated the most? Hegemony. Hegemony. Hegemony.

Finally, she asked us, What are NEW avenues of intervention. Ah Ha! Here’s that Innovation theme finally cropping up.

Sarah Lambert continued the success discussion:

Is it “making a living”? And yet, how many playwrights actually make a living at writing plays? What are the stats on how many men versus women are making this playwriting a living? And how many of them are “independently wealthy”?

Sheri Wilner changed the focus:

She referred to an ad by a now defunct theatre company that invited women to bring their female friends along for a free ticket, which allowed their male friends to “opt-out” of women-centered plays. Is this a good thing for production, or detrimental to allow men to get out of watching women on stage?

Personally, I’m not sure this really applies. Considering we had already visited the fact that 70% of the most successful plays in the past ten years had female leads which means male audience certainly are watching women on stage instead of “opting out.”

Here’s where we finally started to head towards action…

Lisa Merrill suggested:

Let’s look at unconventional places that account women in history. Women have not been recorded in history due to its being considered non-essential. We need to find their stories in gossip, letters, and journals.

How internalized is sexism and gender bias: The assumption of the universality of the male story.

She is “inspired by groups who raise questions.” like “How do we get invested in working against our own interests?” [She’s referring to the above statements about self-perpetuating circles of catering to agents and assumption-laden producers and artistic directors.]

Susan Zeitler continued the action refrain:

Can we look at youth data? Since we know we have it?

And “How do we develop these young audiences to not replicate our current adult gender issues?”

Julia Jordan chimed in again: “Women are prophesizing that people will be discriminatory to protect their economic self-interest.”

Jill Dolan:

Finally, we get a response to the NYTimes coverage of Sand’s thesis which picked up on the anomaly that it appears as if female artistic directors are more likely to turn away plays written by women. She points out that they included this fact and expounded it into a “women hate women” theory: it’s all our fault that we don’t produce ourselves. When, in fact, most regional theatres are NOT headed by women. The artistic decisions are being made by men so this media statement does not hold its own when looking at the theatre industry as a whole.

[Don’t worry, folks. Almost done. Yes, this 90min discussion was long, fact-filled and very powerful. My post does not do its dialogue justice.]

“How can we keep it visible to people?” Continue the discussion so it doesn’t fall by the wayside and then is “found” again in five years…as if gender bias in theatre is a new problem that’s never been tackled before. Cultural presumptions about gender, race, etc still exist even with new national dialogue thanks in majority to the respective races of Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama.

How can we generate more stories?

“We have to work on all sorts of levels to make ideology change.”

Priscilla Page:

“We are responsible” for adding our work to history and “documenting oneself.”

The Panel stated:

We guess 80% of the people at this conference are women.

————-

As you can see, the discussion ended up focusing on Playwrights, but their challenge is our challenge. In fact, our challenge is not just one of theatre. Just today, the NYTimes put out another article on women, this time about women in military service. We started this fight a long time ago and we’re not there yet. We are far further along than when my mother was 30 and when her mother was 30, but how much farther can we get by the time my daughter is 30? What will the gender landscape be in 27 years?

And, where can you find all those female playwrights?

Your first job is to search locally. Just ask. Start conversations and find out for yourself. Welcome your doors to writers who are not represented by agents. Make a concerted effort (goal, even) to create a season that is made up equally of male and female playwrights.

For a list of emerging playwrights, you can check out the archive for the Jane Chambers Award run by the Women in Theatre Program.

Next Up:

  • Writing About Theatre Practice
  • Risking Theatre for the Very Young “Art, Education or Experimentation?”
  • Risking Innovation in Directing Training: A Presentation of Manifestos on the Academy’s Approach to Training Directors for the Future
  • Enhancing Teaching and Learning through Theatre: Support for Model Programs; Research Findings; and Collaborative Opportunties

 

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