EXCERPTS FROM THE PLAY GUIDE
Below is an article originially published in a 2009 issue American Theatre Magazine by Marsha Norman, included the play guide for The Revolutionists.
Discussing the status of women in the theatre feels a little like debating global warming. I mean, why are we still having this discussion? According to the NYSCA report, 83 percent of produced plays are written by men. And nobody doubts that the North Pole is melting, we see it on the news. These are both looming disasters produced by lazy behavior that nobody bothered to stop. End of discussion. What we have to do in both cases is commit to change before it is too late.
Last spring, one of [my] former students, Julia Jordan, instigated a new study of women writers in the theatre, carried out by Princeton researcher Emily Sands. One of the most horrifying facts to emerge from this study was that women have a better chance of reaching production if they write about men than if they write about themselves. This past season, theatres around the country did six plays by men for every one by a woman, and a lot of theatres did no work by women at all, and haven’t for years.
Why does the American theatre ignore its women writers? No other developed nation does this. American fiction and poetry don’t do this. The list of top American novelists, poets and short story writers is easily half women, and reflects all races and creeds. The problem is not that women can’t write. And it’s not audiences, either—they like plays by women. Plays about women have won seven of the last ten Pulitzer Prizes. And plays by women make money too. Plays by women sell on average 3,538 more seats per week than do those written by men.
Let’s look at the major players in this situation and see who’s saying what. At the very least, we can figure out what role each of us has to play in turning it around.
One of the most disturbing findings of the Sands study was that literary departments can be reluctant to champion plays by women because they fear their artistic directors won’t choose those plays, and that will make the department look bad. The study also found that women artistic directors had the same fear, and thus failed to credit a work by a woman writer as having as much economic value as the same play with a man’s name attached.
We have to stop letting staff and patrons fiddle with plays; literary managers need to stop second-guessing their audiences and their artistic directors. They need to adopt a gender-blind process for discovering and discussing new work. And they need to do this now.
Okay, they’re in a tough spot, too. They tell you that they have their boards of directors to satisfy, so they have to look for hits. And as for gender equity—they throw their hands in the air and say, “Women don’t send us their plays.” This one just kills me. Nobody sends out their plays any more; plays come to theatres from agents, directors and actors, all of whom can be asked for plays by women.
The truth is, artistic directors are too tired to look for any plays they don’t already know. But these plays are not locked away in drawers; all you have to do is ask for them. Artistic Directors, stop saying you can’t find great plays by women. Call the agents, call New Dramatists, call the Dramatists Guild, call the teachers. Call us.
Funders, Donors and Patrons
What do they have to do with this, you ask? They don’t write plays; they don’t pick plays. But funders have failed virtually across the board to ascertain whether the theatres they support are presenting the work of women and people of color.
A few years back there were virtually no plays by writers of color on our stages. That is now unacceptable. The resulting work of women of color has been especially notable. But the number of women writers produced in America has remained virtually the same for a century. ...What is this cultural agreement that more than 80 percent of plays should be by white men, and everyone else can share the remaining 20?
If we need rules to give women equal access to American stages, then the NEA and all the big funders should impose these regulations on us until these numbers improve. The Endowment must take the lead here.
Donors are another big player in the absence of women on the American stage. Women buy 70 percent of theatre tickets sold, and make up 60 percent of the audience. But year after year, they are mainly offered plays written by men.
The Writers Themselves
This brings us to the final group that has been blamed for the under-representation of women in the theatre—the playwrights themselves. Women’s plays are boring, people say. They have too much talk and there’s no event. They choose “soft” subjects and aren’t aggressive enough about promoting themselves and their work.
The problem is—and I say this having seen what feels like thousands of them—plays by men are not more violent or more active or smarter or raunchier or more tragic or more anything than plays by women. But plays by men are expected to be better even before they are seen, even before they are read—even, yes, before they are written. This is bias, pure and simple. Women’s plays are written by women, that is all.
This is not to say that men and women know the same stories. And this is the final argument for more plays by women on American stages: We need to hear all the American stories, not half of them. If American theatres want to produce the best work, they will have to find a way through our own cultural issues in order to grant equal status to the words and work of women.
A theatre that is missing the work of women, is missing half the story, half the canon, half the life of our time. That is the situation we have now.
As women writers, we must demand the best of ourselves. We must travel and learn and listen. And then we must claim our place on the American stage. We have to be more aggressive in this regard and help each other more than we have, and not just side with the boys because we expect them to win.
Finally, communities must insist that critics be removed who prove they cannot judge the work of women without snide condescension and dismissive ire. We need more women critics, and we need them to write without the expectation that a woman’s work will be less significant than that of a man. And when they like a piece by a woman, they need to write without the fear that they themselves will be found lacking for admiring the work of a woman.
In her book Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun says: “Power consists to a large extent in deciding what stories will be told.” That’s the challenge here. We have to commit to telling all the stories of this country. We need to make some new rules for ourselves, and do our jobs fairly. We need to see what they actually are when we read them. We should’ve done this a long time ago. But we can do it now. We can even up these numbers and then we will never ever have to read or write this article again.
And then we can get to work on the climate.