Women Stage the World: Discussion Highlights from Regional Calls
Women Stage the World is an advocacy project of The League of Professional Theatre Women. On June 11th, we led an Equality Parade through the Theatre District calling for gender equity for women theatre artists. Costumed as the great theatre women that preceded us – Lady Gregory, Dorothy Parker, Rachel Crothers, Susan Glaspell (etc.) – we spread the word to over 1000 theatre-goers and were roundly endorsed for our efforts.
As a follow up, we conducted five calls on June 12 and 13, each with a regional focus – Northeast, South, Midwest (2), and West. The conversations were lively, engaging and provocative. Hosts and participants are listed in the appendix.
The goal of the calls was to get a readout from a national sample of theatre women on:
• Current State – What’s Working/Not?
• Where Can We Make A Difference?
• What Are Our Next Steps?
We confirmed that the issue of gender parity for theatre women is national and that our colleagues across the country have responded with various measures of resilience, independence (I’m starting my own theatre!), and resignation. Institutional barriers, lack of theatre-goer awareness and personal habits of not “leaning in” as much as our male colleagues were among the primary obstacles identified.
A paradox of two theatre worlds: one that is made up of resourced productions
at well regarded theatres, mostly populated by men and one that is made up of feeder festivals and workshops with strong representation by theatre women. “It’s not an open system,” said one woman, “where the festivals lead to actual productions because decision-makers are not watching our work.” Women are flourishing in the low pay/no pay/self-produced theatre world.
The safe bets of mostly-male Artistic Directors and Literary Managers – If a playwright is not a known quantity or from a venerable institution (Yale, e.g.), it is harder and to some, next to impossible, to be considered for a resourced production. “We see the same set of recycled individuals as playwrights and directors” said one woman who acknowledged that the behind the scenes roles of designers, stage managers seemed more accessible for women.
Institutional structures are self-reinforcing, unfriendly to women. “The same thing that is going on for Wall St is going on in the theatre world,” said one participant who talked about the bloated salaries of Artistic Directors ($600k + annual bonus of $300 for one well-regarded regional theatre in the Midwest who had a recent season with no works by women) who invest in the status quo to protect their position. The perceived risk of showcasing work by women writers and directors means more of the same “recycled” safe bets. Another key role is theatre critic, a space almost exclusively male. The irony of men reviewing works by women, with audiences and ticket buyers a female majority, was identified as a “cross-cultural” barrier. “We need to do more and know more about how to approach Literary Managers and Artistic Directors to make them aware.”
A general lack of awareness about the gender disparity issue for the theatre-going public, theatre boards and artistic decision-makers. Some theatres, even when approached with hard data, denied the facts: “not at my theatre” was a response from one artistic director. There was a collective sense that the public is not tuned in to the issue and that boards don’t hold artistic leadership accountable because the issue is not on their radar screen.
Women may not be building their “brand” or building the key relationships with the same velocity as their male peers. “Person to person, we may not be as great at marketing,” said one participant. We need to do more to “build our brand” as directors and writers, getting more savvy at marketing and getting buzz for our work.
Glimmers of hope and positive signs were identified including:
• A growing solidarity and activism among theatre women, supporting each other’s work. “It helps so much when we encourage each other.”
• Some well-regarded theatres that have a history of showcasing women writers and directors in their seasons, e.g., Playwrights Horizons.
• Other theatres, once made aware of their glaringly male rosters at the top, have adapted future seasons to include more women writers and directors.
• Visible, attention-getting recognition such as the Lillys and the Applause Awards from the International Center for Women Playwrights.
• Media coverage including a NY Times article profiling women directors. (Click HERE to see recent NY Times coverage on the topic including a shout out from Jonathan Franzen and a letter to the editor from WSTW’s Jenny Lyn Bader.)
Where Can We Make a Difference?
Build awareness, educate and create consequences, reaching decision makers, theatre subscribers and the theatre-going public. Many described how theatre seasons changed once the AD was made aware of an all male season. “It has to be felt in the pocketbook” said one participant. Another asked, “what’s the financial incentive to change?” Some talked of the need to refine and vet the production data, building an unassailable case for change. For example, some theatres get tax breaks of one kind or another and yet have no track record with theatre women. “These situations need to be called out,” said one participant.
Form alliances, large and small, and push for impact. Many women talked about the formal and informal networks they’re part of that support and advance their work. “How can we connect with a larger movement?” asked one participant. A class action suit by women against the Directors Guild was referenced as something that is getting attention and might be worth learning more about. LAFPI and SF Works by Women along with Women Stage the World are examples of locally grown initiatives that can be leveraged to magnify impact through sharing website links, scaling successful interventions and multiplying outreach to constituents.
Create ready resources to support theatres that want to do the right thing and don’t know how. Ideas here included a list of playwrights and directors theatres could access and a gender parity toolkit, now underway in San Francisco.
There was an understanding that once awareness is created, we need to be ready to answer the obvious next question from theatres – “can you help us do a better job?”
Foster access. Women described a scenario where their work, often produced in the homegrown festivals burgeoning with female talent, never gets exposed to producers and artistic directors – deciders – who can advance their work. “Can we find a way to talk directly to producers?” asked one participant.
Develop and execute an influence strategy with the theatre power structure. Ideas here include William Ivey Long, the new chair of the American Theatre Wing, Stephen Schwartz, president of the Dramatists Guild, influential theatre executives/producers and the NEA. “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. Across the board, women weighed in that this can be very powerful way to sustain such practices by theatres and can be persuasive to other theatres especially when it translates to increased subscriptions and box office.
Use the power of the pocketbook with theatres having a track record of gender disparity. Ideas here included reaching out to theatre boards and finding ways to educate the subscription base about the issue.
Showcase the talent of theatre 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. One idea was identifying a high profile woman to be a spokesperson for the cause, gaining media attention and rapidly building awareness.
Promote blind submissions. Blind submissions have become more prevalent at the lower echelons. 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% supported through ticket sales and butts in seats by women, where are the women critics?
Call out disparities, discrepancies and same old status quo; Amplify fresh thinking. “Lazy, unimaginative” thinking impedes gender-neutral casting. Disparities in pay for men vs. women need to be broadcast. Where theatre leaders make alternative choices, let’s celebrate, encouraging more decision makers to let go of the known and take a chance.
Claim our strengths as women artists. “Don’t act like the guys,” said one woman director and theatre founder. “Women are excellently suited to the director role…we don’t need to wear leather to be effective!”
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.
All participants were energized by the conversation and expressed interest in finding ways to continue to build our network across geography so we can learn from each other, support shared strategies and create collective impact.
Specific next steps include:
_ Sharing these notes with call participants and circulating them to like-minded interest groups.
_ Zeroing in on one or two national strategies that we can collectively support such as a letter writing campaign to recalcitrant theatres and an influence strategy with theatre power players.
_ Continuing to build a national movement linking action groups and like-minded individuals across the country.
_ Exploring ways to make information and exchange readily available through existing websites (HowlRound, e.g.) and/or something yet to be defined.
_ Sharing resources and toolkits for local application – e.g., the blueprint for our Women Stage the World parade, the Gender Parity Toolkit from San Francisco, etc.
_ Planning a next call for September/October.
_ Explore interest in a Lean In virtual book club focusing on what we can do as individuals to create more opportunities for theatre women.