Washington theaters care enough about gender parity when it comes to choosing plays that they have created two citywide festivals since 2015 championing women’s scripts. So why are only about 40 percent of this season’s shows at the top theaters written by women? Two views of the situation: 1. Forty percent is not 50 percent, the fairness benchmark that’s been foregrounded locally by the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and nationally by efforts such as the Kilroys’ annual list of unproduced scripts by women and trans writers, just in case producers claim they can’t find anything good. “We can always do better,” says Seema Sueko, Arena Stage deputy artistic director. 2. But forty percent — if that’s the region’s final figure, which won’t be accurately tallied for months — is major progress. That would mark the best Washington has ever done, and that’s without the following wind of a festival this season.
That 40 percent figure is a rough early snapshot, based on only what the top 11 troupes have slated. The slice of plays by women was a mere 21 percent when playwright Gwydion Suilebhan tallied the offerings of the 2012-2013 season. Last year, the percentage of plays written by women reached 35 percent. The high-water mark for gender parity: just over 38 percent in 2015-2016, the first year of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. (The data come from Suilebhan’s website.)
The upside of the festivals is that they make you raise an eyebrow at the city’s sluggish start this fall. Bess Wohl’s just-closed “Small Mouth Sounds” at Round House Theatre is the only show by a woman to open the season at any of the seven originating theaters, a list that includes Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Signature Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Of the originators, only Studio is 50-50 for the season. Woolly appears to be better than that, with five of its eight titles claiming at least partial writing credit by women. But Suilebhan — in his capacity as a demographer, not in his day job as Woolly’s director of brand and marketing — cuts it so precisely that ensemble pieces such as Second City’s “She the People” (coming in December) don’t count.
With such multi-creator works, Suilebhan and his co-analyst, theater artist Olivia Haller, can’t be exact about authorship.
“Because we can’t, we leave it out,” he says.
There are other ways a rough look can be deceptive. Three of Theater J’s four shows are by women — except that Mona Golabeck’s “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” actually has a script by Hershey Felder, based on a book Golabeck co-wrote about her mother’s true story escaping Nazi Germany. Golabeck, a classical pianist, tells her family history and performs the demanding music live. It’s a women’s-voices show if ever there was one, despite the male adapter.
Still, 40 percent seems like a safe gender parity estimate, until Suilebhan gets data from all of the city’s Equity and non-Equity theaters. Even that, says Theater J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, is a partial view, and tallying only writers is “problematic.”
What about directors, administrators, staff, board members? “I think we should be seeking change in all those areas as quickly as we can,” Immerwahr says.
Four of Arena’s nine shows have female authors, but Sueko invokes the broader industry watch phrase of equity, diversity and inclusion in pointing out that 77 percent of the writers are female or people of color, and that six of the season’s nine directors are women or men of color. Regarding staffing, area leadership still skews heavily male, but three major area companies searched for new artistic directors this year, and two hired women: Maria Manuela Goyanes has already stepped in at Woolly Mammoth, and Stephanie Ybarra is easing in at Baltimore’s Center Stage. The third hire, London director Simon Godwin, takes over at the Shakespeare Theatre Company next August.
Regarding artistic development, Mosaic Theater recently announced a $100,000 commissioning project for scripts by women. Half of Mosaic’s eight plays this season are at least partly by women, the first time the four-year-old troupe has reached that benchmark. Half of the directors are African American, which was deliberate.
“As with all these goals,” says Mosaic artistic director Ari Roth, “if you are intentional about it, you can achieve it.”
Last spring, Round House announced a 30-play commissioning program for new works by women and writers of color. Two of Round House’s five subscription shows this season are by women, yet Round House is a repeat winner of the International Center for Women Playwrights’ 50-50 Award, a prize for parity. Artistic Director Ryan Rilette says that for the past two years, the company has concentrated on making sure at least 50 percent of its artists are female.
“That has meant that if I do ‘Oslo,’ which is a male-heavy play, the mandate for me is to find more female designers than I have worked with in the past,” Rilette says. (“Oslo” is the 2017 Tony Award-winning drama by J.T. Rogers, about the Oslo peace accords, which Round House will stage in the spring.) Gender and race are front of mind as the company recruits not only writers and actors, but also technicians and crew. “We have been finding people we didn’t know about who are amazing,” Rilette says.
So playwrights are only the tip of an iceberg drifting in a better direction — and more plays will emerge next month, led by “How I Learned to Drive” at Round House (the first of four Paula Vogel plays around town); Anna Zeigler’s Title IX drama “Actually,” at Theater J; and Molly Smith Metzler’s parenting comedy “Cry It Out” at Studio.
“The culture is saying, ‘We’re not listening to women enough,’ and I think theaters are responding,” Suilebhan says. He adds, “I don’t think any of us should rest until it’s been averaging 50 percent for a while.”