Given the raw data, you would think that every day in the theater would be a women’s festival.
But the fact is, few days are, relatively speaking. Even in the oh-so-enlightened dramatic universe of 2015, the representation of material by women on America’s stages is staggeringly meager.
And if that is not an argument for Washington theater’s pivotal, attention-grabbing event of the fall — the Women’s Voices Theater Festival — then no case for such a platform might ever be adequately made.
The notion that a theater town the size of Washington felt it necessary to dream up such an ambitious undertaking — the presentation of 51 new plays and musicals by women, by dozens of companies, over the span of just two months — should not be taken as a prideful turning point for the American theater. That the nation puts onstage, on average, one play by a woman for every four by male writers is disturbing, if you reflect on how discouraging to a young female dramatist the percentages must seem. And considering that women far outpace men in the buying and filling of seats in the nation’s theaters (by more than 2-to-1 on Broadway alone), the statistics rise to the level of shameful.
We know that the retrograde attitude toward opportunity for female playwrights and directors is replicated for women in many other lines of work, in and out of the arts. But the lack of urgency over the disparity is especially irksome in a field such as the theater, which has long fancied itself the artistic refuge for those denied a rightful voice in the culture.
So ingrained is the practice of programming without a sensitivity to those whose careers are being fostered that it takes a public outcry to wrest out of the establishment the smallest concession. Take, for instance, the recent brouhaha over the announcement of the 2015-2016 season of plays by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Thanks to its high-profile presence on Broadway, where it has its own theater, and its highly laudable commitment to original work, MTC is among the most important purveyors of new plays in the land.
The roster unveiled by Artistic Director Lynne Meadow last month included seven plays in its Broadway and off-Broadway spaces — all by men. Several of these are playwrights with well-earned national reputations and long-standing ties to MTC: Sam Shepard, John Patrick Shanley, David Lindsay-Abaire and Richard Greenberg. With plays by three less well-known men chosen for the three remaining slots, making it a 100 percent male-written season, social media erupted with scorn. Meadow, apologetically in response, added an eighth play, by a British woman, Penelope Skinner. It came across, though, as a rather empty gesture.
The issue of equal treatment is far from blood-stirring for everyone: Many theater consumers, men and women alike, have articulated a gender-blind philosophy in their ticket-buying habits. “Just as long as it’s good,” they say. Other skeptics have expressed the view that a women’s festival is patronizing, or that compressing too much into such a short period is self-defeating; will the plays cannibalize the likely patrons of the festival, they ask, thereby giving fuel to an idea that plays by women are a tough sell?
But if the status quo is not continually challenged, how can the patterns be changed? The buck-passing suggestion that perhaps there are just not that many worthy pieces by women waiting for production really doesn’t wash anymore, especially with the founding of organizations such as the Kilroys. The Los Angeles-based group publishes an annual juried list of dozens of plays by female and transgender playwrights, recommended for production by an informal panel of theater experts and practitioners.
As the Manhattan Theatre Club dust-up indicates, resolving the widespread disparities is not up to a single theater company. It’s a problem for the entire theater community to grapple with. And that’s why the Women’s Voices Theater Festival has an important role to play. Here’s an entire city’s worth of theaters saying that more attention must be paid. An effort of this scope represents a huge leap of faith, for sure, and, one can only hope, a highly entertaining one.
The festival offerings over the next several weeks will occupy virtually every playhouse in and around town. Here are just a few of the entries that sound intriguing:
● “Women Laughing Alone With Salad.” Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s contribution is a comedy of up-to-the-minute sexual ferocity by Sheila Callaghan (2009’s “Fever/Dream”), revolving around the hopes and desires of three women in the life of a character named Guy. Through Oct. 4.
● “Queens Girl in the World.” Theater J offers the premiere of an autobiographical play by Caleen Sinnette Jennings about a black girl in the early 1960s who is introduced to New York Jewish culture after she’s sent to a progressive school in Greenwich Village. Wednesday, Sept. 16-Oct. 11.
● “Animal.” The psychic disruption in the life of a young woman who seems to have it all is the focus of this new play at Studio Theatre by up-and-coming British dramatist Clare Lizzimore. Sept. 30-Oct. 25.
● “The Guard.” Ford’s Theatre unveils Jessica Dickey’s time-traveling drama about the art of creation, set in motion when an art museum guard makes the taboo move of touching a painting by Rembrandt. Sept. 25-Oct. 18.
● “Cake Off.” Think of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, with show tunes. Signature Theatre weighs in with this world-premiere musical, based on Sheri Wilner’s satirical play. Wilner collaborates here with Julia Jordan (“Murder Ballad”) and Adam Gwon (“Ordinary Days”). Sept. 29-Nov. 22.
● “Salomé.” Two years ago, director/adapter Yael Farber came to town with “Mies Julie,” her racially and sexually charged South African spin on Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” For her return to Shakespeare Theatre Company, she opens the Bible to the story of the dancing princess who demanded the head of John the Baptist. Oct. 6-Nov. 8.
Update: Artistic Director Lynne Meadow says the selection of Penelope Skinner’s play as part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2015-16 season was in fact in the works before social media erupted over the disclosure of all the other plays in MTC’s season. The seven previously disclosed plays, including all of MTC’s season, are by men. However, Skinner’s play was only announced publicly after the outcry on Twitter.