The second Women's Voices Theater Festival begins its two-month ripple of 24 new plays across Washington stages this month, and what has happened in terms of equality since the 2015 festival is . . . not much. And outside in the larger culture, there's a #MeToo riot going on.
The festival is one of the great good deeds in the American theater right now, a full city push to get past the usual lip service of readings and panels. The idea is basic: Let's actually produce new works by women! The imbalance remains appalling: In the reputedly progressive hothouse of U.S. theater, female writers get less than a quarter of the new productions — a mere 22 percent, according the slap-in-the-face three-year Dramatists Guild-Lilly Awards survey released in 2015.
So for at least two months, Washington will put its money where it ought to be fully half the time. And that gesture of solidarity puts the District ahead of most of the country.
Yet Washington itself still lags, even among the major companies that generated the festival. The latest local demographic survey by D.C. playwrights and Woolly Mammoth Theatre staffers Gwydion Suilebhan and Olivia Haller finds scripts by women getting only 32 percent of the pie last season, a slow climb from the lowly 21 percent five years ago. And while Washington's non-Equity theaters boast 50-50 gender parity in its directing ranks this season, Equity theaters still give two-thirds of the gigs to men.
In New York, Broadway's 32-show season of 20 plays and 12 musicals includes only five projects by women, with six women directors.
"You've got to have the opportunities to work," says writer Theresa Rebeck (of off-Broadway's recent glass-ceiling comedy "What We're Up Against" and NBC's "Smash"), who is directing her updated version of the Restoration comedy "The Way of the World" at the Folger Theatre. "Or your work just doesn't get any better."
The #MeToo factor is inescapable, even though the plays were written well before the Harvey Weinstein scandal triggered an anti-harassment wave that has swamped dozens of public figures.
As these two social justice movements converge, several writers being produced by the festival's seven originating companies — Arena, Ford's, Round House, Shakespeare, Signature, Studio and Woolly Mammoth Theatre — offered comments on art, discrimination and #MeToo.
"4,380 Nights," Signature Theatre
The statistics about the number of plays written by women that actually get produced here in D.C., nationally and internationally speak for themselves. The numbers are even more grim for women of color. Which means we're being silenced, whether explicitly or implicitly. So, yes, by all means, let's continue shining a light on powerful new work by these exceptional playwrights, devisors and playmakers who all identify as women. (As a side note, our queer, gender-non-conforming, nonbinary, trans and two-spirit relations continue to remain underrepresented in the works produced. Here is hoping that in the future more attention will be paid to these important voices.)
Many of these plays have been in the works for years and years, and yet here we are producing them in a historical moment when thousands of people are breaking their silence and demanding justice for past wrongs. It's hard not to read some of that narrative onto the festival.
But what I hope audiences will see and more fully understand is that women playwrights aren't solely interested in or limited to "women's" issues. We don't only talk about sexism, though certainly some of us do — and that work is so needed! If we want to talk about indigenous sovereignty, immigrant families and the pressure of assimilation, or the ongoing operation of the detention facility at Guantanamo; well, good, we're doing it. Limits, ceilings, boundaries, borders be damned!
It's especially an honor, and frankly a breath of fresh air, to me personally that so many of the women I stand alongside this year are incredible women of color. What a beautiful ray of hope for the D.C. theater community and for all of the American theater!
"Jefferson's Garden," Ford's Theatre
Interviewed at the Kennedy Center, where "Jefferson's Garden" is being rehearsed.
What the #MeToo moment is besides sexual harassment is the end of women being quiet. And that is almost more important — that is, the ability and the right of women to speak up about what's happened to them or what they think in general, without being told to shut up. I hope that's what lasts forever.
Also, the right to think about things normally, without having to filter them, without having to please or be self-conscious. There have been no rules. Women are constantly in a situation where they don't know what the rules are, because somehow normal rules of courtesy or respect don't apply to them. But they think they do. The ability to live in the same rules, which is supposed to be that you can be yourself, you can speak, have an opinion, look for truth: that's what matters.
How might this atmosphere influence audiences during "Jefferson's Garden"?
I'm trying to understand the moment. There isn't just #MeToo. There's Black Lives Matter. There's the president. There is the uncovering of black history, and the new museum [the National Museum of African American History and Culture] down the road. My play is about a young white man and a black woman seeking freedom. But the minute you mention Jefferson, there's also Sally Hemings, who has a relatively small part in my play. It's about James, her brother. So I hope it resonates. But I don't know what people are going to bring.
"Handbagged," Round House Theatre
Speaking by phone from Nottingham, England.
I think something really has changed: We have stopped putting up with it in some fundamental way, vocally and publicly putting up with it. I feel like we're cresting. I am really optimistic that it will be lasting and positive in the workplace, in the entertainment industry and globally. It's an ongoing change. The MeToo campaign has sped it up.
Is #MeToo intense in Britain?
Absolutely. The mighty have fallen in the U.K. as well. In politics and in the entertainment industry, men who have been behaving badly have been called up on it.
Will this greater cultural wave impact how people will view this festival?
I think it will. Rather than feeling embattled, I'm feeling a great sense of celebration of what we've achieved and what we're intending to achieve. A festival could be a very good moment to celebrate this.
"Noura," Shakespeare Theatre Company
Interviewed at Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Hall.
It's like a fire — a really necessary fire.
Why was it lit by the Harvey Weinstein scandal?
It's because Trump is president. Women are now demanding with their voices, not just speaking. And the demand is dismantling things.
What everybody's aware of is that they didn't demand, previously. Without the demand, somebody who can say he grabs women's p------ can become president. So we were all complicit in that. And I had to describe that to my 6-year-old son. My son says, "Mommy, he grabs women's private parts; how is he president?" Because everything you tell young children is how to behave, what's appropriate. So even a 6-year-old knows this is wildly inappropriate. . . .
If you let it slide, it's going to go on and on and on. If you don't demand, then it's completely acceptable.
The Cosby scandal happened before Weinstein, before Trump.
Cosby didn't cause hundreds of thousands of women to come out into the streets. It's been slow going because there hasn't been an impetus to make a change. So suddenly some things shift in America and everyone wakes up and goes, "How did we get here?" And a bunch of people go, "We've been saying. We've been saying."
Mary Kathryn Nagle
"Sovereignty," Arena Stage
Sexual assault is not about sex; it's about power. And the incredibly high rates of male-perpetrated sexual assault against women in the United States reflects an imbalance of power.
The recent avalanche of women sharing their stories publicly reflects a shift in this imbalance. The beginning of a reckoning.
But we will never fully reconcile sexual violence in this country until women can share their stories of survival within our institutions that create and promote culture — and that means on the American stage and in Hollywood.
Today, as a result of this shift, we live in a country where a woman's story of survival is a sound bite on NPR, a headline on Fox News, but hardly ever the subject of a full-length play produced on an American stage.
The Women's Voices Theater Festival has created an incredible opportunity for women playwrights to share their stories. To be clear, not every play written by a woman deals with sexual assault. But so many do. Because as a woman living in the United States, it is an experience that is nearly impossible to escape.
We need this festival now more than ever.