Forty-four Washington theater companies announced Thursday that each will produce a world-premiere play by a female dramatist in the fall of 2015, one of the more audacious and ambitious responses by an American city to the gender gap in high-profile jobs in the arts.
The Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, encompassing virtually every large, midsize and fledgling theater company in and around the city, is being billed as a landmark event in the effort to put new plays by female playwrights onstage. Its organizers acknowledge that it won’t permanently rewrite the statistics showing that in this country, about four plays by men get produced professionally for every one by a woman. But the festival does throw down a gauntlet, in the cause of striking a more equitable gender balance — especially given that surveys show that women make up as much as two-thirds of the theatergoing audience across the nation.
“There are a lot of conversations around the country about how women are not as represented as they need to be,” said Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage and festival co-organizer with Eric Schaeffer, Signature Theatre’s artistic director. “This really is an opportunity to showcase a variety of female voices. People are talking about musicals, one-person plays, devised theater pieces, simple storytelling shows, dramas, comedies.”
Many say the breadth of the festival makes it one of a kind. “I’ve not heard of a city doing something this galvanizing,” said Julie Crosby, artistic director of the New York-based Women’s Project Theater, the country’s oldest company devoted to the work of female playwrights and directors. Especially meaningful, she added, is the potential such a wide-ranging festival has to launch an untested writer’s career, because “the first production is the hardest thing for a playwright to get.”
The festival is the most far-reaching collaboration among the region’s theaters since 2007’s “Shakespeare in Washington” festival, which incorporated six months of events by 40 theater, dance, film and music groups. This new event will be launched Sept. 14, 2015, and run over the following eight weeks or so, according to Schaeffer, who dreamed up the women’s festival over brunch at his house with six other artistic directors: Smith, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael Kahn, Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s Howard Shalwitz, Studio Theatre’s David Muse, Ford’s Theatre’s Paul Tetreault and Round House Theatre’s Ryan Rilette.
“One of the things we talked about was: How do we find ways to work together?” Rilette said. “Ultimately, the idea of a festival of some sort was the thing that excited all of us. Given the amount of discussion going on on the national level, we decided that for us to all do a world premiere by a woman would not only be exciting locally, but also hopefully to the theatrical community nationally.”
The details of scheduling, like almost everything else, will be left to each company. “The ground rules are pretty simple,” Schaeffer said. “Everyone needs to present a new play, musical or adaptation by a woman, produced in September and October 2015.”
The companies that have signed on range from those of the aforementioned artistic directors to other established troupes such as Forum Theatre, MetroStage, Synetic Theater, Olney Theatre Center and Imagination Stage, to newer groups such as Flying V, Pointless Theatre, Dog & Pony DC and No Rules Theatre. One organization that has yet to commit to the festival is the Kennedy Center, which is soon to begin its transition to a new president, Deborah F. Rutter.
Half the theaters have identified for Schaeffer and Smith the playwright whose work they will unveil: Signature, for instance, will host the debut of a yet-to-be-named piece by Heidi Thomas, a British dramatist who is also working with Schaeffer on a revised stage version of the 1958 movie musical “Gigi,” which will start at the Kennedy Center. Shakespeare Theatre Company will work with Yael Farber — the director-adapter of “Mies Julie,” based on August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” which recently visited Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre — on a new production. Others are in earlier phases of decision-making.
“We haven’t made an official commitment as to who the playwright will be,” said Rebecca Ende, managing director of Theater J. “For us, though, it’s really not a difference in programming. We’ve produced a lot of local [female] playwrights as part of our Locally Grown festival.” Theater J began that initiative in 2010 with commissions to five area playwrights.
One is hard-pressed to account for why the barriers to more work on the stage by women seem so formidable. “If I had the answer to that question, I would have already put this theater out of business,” said Crosby, whose Women’s Project Theater this winter and spring is producing three plays written and directed by women. Certainly, a lot of the richest contemporary playwriting is by women, from such widely produced dramatists as Annie Baker, Amy Herzog and Sarah Ruhl, as well as recent Pulitzer Prize winners such as Quiara Alegría Hudes, Lynn Nottage and Suzan-Lori Parks. The most-talked-about original musical of the season, “Fun Home,” which ended an acclaimed run earlier this month at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, has a book, score and lyrics by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori and is based on a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel.
Despite the strength of these voices, a wide gap remains. A study by Gwydion Suilebhan, the D.C. region’s representative for the Dramatists Guild of America, found that 21 percent of the plays presented in Washington in the 2012-13 season were by women; the figure was 27 percent for the current season. (A few others were composed together by men and women.)
Compare that with surveys finding that women made up 61 percent of the Washington theater audience in 2000 and, for the Broadway audience during the 2012-13 season, a whopping 68 percent, according to the Broadway League, a trade organization.
The opportunity gap might come down to the sorts of networks in the theater world that also exist in other industries. Jacqueline E. Lawton, a Washington-based playwright whose work has been produced locally — her drama “The Hampton Years” received a world premiere at Theater J last June — said that a recent observation on the subject of connections and power by a male business executive seemed to her to apply to the arts: People in charge “tend to hire who they are most comfortable with in their most relaxed moments.”
As Smith noted, the ranks of women at the top of major theater companies across the country remain thin. “There are only five or six,” she said. This is one of several interlocking factors in the impression that choosing plays is something of a closed system. Elissa Goetschius, a former Woolly Mammoth staffer appointed last year as artistic director of Baltimore’s Strand Theater, says the jammed pipeline applies as much to women who want to direct as act for the stage.
“Artistic directors need to turn around to the people coming up behind them and say, ‘Come in,’ ” Goetschius said.
This certainly could become the motto of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. In a theatrical venture of this scale, a lot is on the line. Ticket buyers tend to be wary of plays and musicals they’ve never heard of, and some anxiety is already being expressed over the scheduling of 44 world premieres all at the same time — and how the marketability of the work of these writers might be affected.
Still, the festival’s potential is generating a lot more excitement than trepidation. “If there is a chance to celebrate all these female voices,” Lawton said, “the ricochet effect, I hope, is long-lasting.”