It is a peculiar distinction in the world of playwrights: Works written by men are often called plays. But works written by women are often categorized as “women’s plays.”
“There is a notion in the canon, when men write plays, they speak to the entire human condition, and plays written by women speak to women,” said actress Kathleen Chalfant, a 1993 Tony Award nominee for best actress in a play for her role in “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”
Even plays written by men that are “particularly masculine and talk about issues particular to men, are never called ‘men’s plays,’ ” she added.
On Wednesday, to draw attention to the issue of gender bias in American theater, Chalfant and two other actors will read from works by notable female American playwrights in a program titled “History Matters/Back to the Future.” The reading is sponsored by the Women and Theatre Program of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University.
Chalfant will be joined onstage by Maryann Plunkett, a 1987 Tony Award winner for best actress in a musical for “Me and My Girl,” and Tamara Tunie, an actress and Tony Award winner for producing 2007’s “Spring Awakening.” Joan Vail Thorne, a librettist, playwright and stage director, will direct.
The program will include scenes and monologues from nine works, including “The Old Maid,” adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel by 1935 Pulitzer Prize winner Zoë Akins; “In the Summer House” (1953), the only play by novelist Jane Bowles; and “Trouble in Mind” (1955) by pioneering African American playwright Alice Childress.
“They are all American playwrights. If one were to do the great forgotten playwrights of history, it would be a larger pantheon of women,” said Maya E. Roth, chair of the Department of Performing Arts at Georgetown University. “I’m confident the question will percolate, ‘Why don’t I know more of these playwrights?’ ”
While Thorne hopes the reading, presented in conjunction with the Women and Theatre Program’s annual conference, will highlight the issue of gender bias in theaters nationwide, she said the Washington region is “doing quite well with women playwrights.”
“The only reason we are doing the event in D.C. is because we are hooking up with a panel” at the conference being held at Georgetown, she said. “We thought the place to begin some activities toward gaining more respect for women’s playwrights is in universities, syllabi and anthologies.”
The impetus for this event “grew out of my awareness of the possibility that the current disparity between the production of men’s and women’s plays might have something to do with the terrible neglect of the illustrious women playwrights of the past,” Thorne said. “The scenes selected for the reading were chosen from plays that should occupy a significant place in the consciousness of all informed theater persons but have been largely forgotten.”
Each playwright chosen for the reading was “a well-respected and widely produced playwright in her moment,” Roth said. “But our ears have forgotten their names because they haven’t been kept active in the repertory and anthologies.”
The reading is a response to a surge of calls for parity for women in the theater, which was described in 1989 by scholar Lynda Hart in “Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre,” as “the last bastion of male hegemony in the literary arts.”
In 2009, Emily Sands, a Princeton economics student, raised a storm with a study that demonstrated significant bias in theater productions: Only 17 percent of the works on and off Broadway and in regional theaters were written by women.
Sands found that even though plays and musicals written by women sold 16 percent more tickets a week and were 18 percent more profitable than other shows, producers did not extend the run time longer than less-profitable shows written by men.
Sands called female playwrights “discouraged workers.”
The report garnered huge reaction from playwrights and audiences. “A theater that is missing the work of women is missing half the story, half the canon, half the life of our time,” playwright Marsha Norman said. “That is the situation we have now.”
In 2009, two former presidents of the Women and Theatre Program, Jill Dolan and Sarah Warner, organized a panel entitled “The Glass Proscenium,” at which they argued that the disparity between plays written by women and plays written by men hasn’t changed since the turn of the century. During the 1908-09 Broadway season, 12.8 percent of the plays were written by women. More than a century later, the percentage of plays written by women is nearly the same, at 12.6 percent.
“Incremental bias over time leads to significant bias,” Roth said. “This is about democratic principles. We are looking at the discrepancy between men and women playwrights and trying to shift it in pure numbers.”
But that success, Roth argues, “creates the public misimpression that women playwrights enjoy equal access” and “tends to vault a small fraction to celebrity.” As an example, she cited Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and was picked up by theaters across the country. “Likewise,” she said, “Sara Ruhl’s ‘The Clean House’ filled what many theaters call ‘the women’s slot,’ following its 2005 Pulitzer nomination.”
Jen-Scott Mobley, vice president of the Women in Theatre Program, said that “even though I think we have made a lot of progress — like with Lynn Nottage winning the Pulitzer for ‘Ruined’ — we are still not seeing parity.” She added that the program would like to see “if not parity, a fair representation of female playwrights from our history.”
Mobley believes that one reason women’s plays are not well-represented in anthologies is that women approach storytelling differently. “You will see that in literature as well,” she said. “Look at Virginia Woolf,” whose narratives were nonlinear. “Women tend to expand on what a playwright is.”
And therein lies the rub. “By not giving women playwrights an opportunity,” Mobley said, “we are excluding not just women, but advances in the field and art of what a play is, and how it can be written and performed.”
7:30 p.m., Aug. 1 at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center, 37th and O Streets NW, 202-687-3838. Free.