Let’s call this drama: Many Women Playwrights in Search of a Stage. Because if you write plays and have the wrong chromosomes, you’re in for a lot of frustration in New York.
- It’s a travesty that more women aren’t produced, especially in New York.
- It’s ludicrous that more plays with female protagonists aren’t produced. Every time I write a play like The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (which calls for an all-male cast), I’m drawn to write a play about women in counterbalance. It’s a personal and emotional decision, not a social one, and I can’t expect anyone else to stick to the same standards, but at base, the idea is that “women’s” stories (whatever that means to you) are just as vital as the same old male stories we hear all the time.
- All that said, and this is my major major major bone to pick with the whole discussion: this isn’t just a question of men vs. women. People of color, male or female, are drastically underrepresented on the stage. Period. And take it further: all we see on a great many stages, especially on the New York stage, is an educated (often highly educated) white moneyed male’s view of the world.
The Bloomberg article cites Oskar Eustis (for whom I have a lot of respect–I think he’s doing a great job at The Public) as saying (and I’m quoting the article here, not him): people tend to associate with those they’re comfortable with; among artistic directors that often means male playwrights they’ve worked with before. This is true, for sure. John Patrick Shanley can get a new musical done because of his track record. A new John Guare play is going to programmed into a major company’s season — and it should. Theaters cultivate relationships with playwrights, not just plays, and that’s a good thing for the health of the art form.
Look at the new writers being cultivated and produced throughout the city (and the country): they’re young. They’re white. They’re men. They’re straight. They’re of a certain economic class. They’re products of the big schools. And look: I like a lot of their work. I know some of these guys, and I dig them as people. I’m not begrudging anyone their success.
But there are great playwrights out there, female and African-American and Asian and Latino and gay and lesbian and so on and so on, and theaters have relationships with them, and are even developing some of their work, but that work is not being produced. Punto. There’s something else at play here. Yes, artistic directors tend to associate with people they feel comfortable with, but that comfort doesn’t just come from having worked with a writer before. People tend to feel comfortable with people who look like them, speak like them, share some kind of cultural background with them. Punto.
There’s a lot at work here, and a quota system doesn’t fix the problem. Here are some things that will help:
- More women and people of color in decision-making and decision-shaping positions (not just Artistic Directors, but all throughout the administrative side);
- Willingness from Artistic Directors to trust the instincts and value the opinions of these folks in the decision-making/season-planning process;
- Willingness from Artistic Directors to produce seasons that reflect the make-up of the United States (and New York City), not just their current audiences. The audience myth is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you program shows that appeal to a particular audience, of course they’ll be the only audience that shows up;
- Break away from the slot system: everyone can’t do their “Black” play in February. It’s bad business, for one thing. It’s offensive, for another. It doesn’t build sustained new audiences, for a third.
- Develop new audiences. Really. Aggressively go out and build new audiences. Cultivate relationships with communities, with young people, with folks that don’t traditionally go to the theater all that often. Find out what they like. Find out what they need. Work with them. Theater should be a populist art form. Populist does not mean dumbed down. It does not mean a lowering of standards. It means doing work that actually matters to someone, that impacts them. I walk out of 50% of shows saying some variation of “that was fine, but why should I care?” If you’re asking people to pay five-to-ten times as much as they’d pay for a movie ticket, you better be giving them a reason to care.
This went on way longer than I planned. I’m sure we’ll come back to it.