Tag Archives: Ruined

Women Attend More Theatre Than Men: Why Not More Roles?

by Lauren Gunderson

"El Nogalar" at the Fountain Theatre.

It appears that in many major theaters across the country, men’s roles out number women’s by half. One out of every three roles go to women. (An informal survey of 10 theatrical seasons from across the country that I did put women in only 35% of the total roles). This means that men’s stories out number women’s by the same amount.

Those of us noticing this could be considered big old whiners if it weren’t for some solid business-y sounding facts:

  • Women buy 70% of theater tickets sold
  • Women make up 60%-70% of its audience (see here and here)
  • On Broadway, shows written by women (who statistically write more female roles than men) actually pull in more at the box office than plays by men

In any other market the majority of consumers would significantly define the product or experience. Why not theater?

Raushanah Simmons in "In the Red and Brown Water"

I will disclaim right away that this is not about women playwrights, though plays by women represent less than 20% of the works on and off-Broadway and in regional theaters (and also in the UK, as The Guardian illuminates). I consider August: Osage County and In The Red And Brown Water plays about women though men wrote both.

This is about modern theater telling its predominantly female audiences that the human experience deserving of dramatic imagination is still the male one. In TV, this might be a top-down insistence. In politics or business we see it all the time. But in theater?

Sean Daniels, Artist-At-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement at Geva Theater, says:

“In addition to it being inconceivable in 2012 to not program any female playwrights (or really any year past 1913), it’s also just bad business. Just from a business model, look at Menopause: The Musical. Though we may take it to task for not hitting all of Aristotle’s Six Elements, it’s a show that looked at who the main people buying tickets were, and allowed them to see themselves on stage — thus making millions and not only preaching and loving the choir, but getting tons of new patrons into the theater.”

But what would it be like if this were more common? What if American theater equally reflected and projected its own audience (at least 60% women) and their audience’s wallets (which are in their purses) in their season choices?

Estelle Parsons on Broadway in "August: Osage County"

Theaters might make more money. A friend and artistic leader at a major regional theater remarked on the marked success of Molly Smith Metzler’s plays Elemeno Pea, a play about sisters. Or what about Tracy Letts runaway hit August: Osage County (a play with incredible parts for women including three sisters), or Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, or Margaret Edson’s Wit, or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt or Steve Yockey’s Bellwether (with seven parts for women)?

Cate Blanchett in "Streetcar Named Desire".

We wouldn’t lose our classics. Shakespeare’s plays are notoriously under-femmed, but not all of them are. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night or wacky Midsummer. Or re-imagine the Bard for us. I saw a truly fresh and powerful production of Julius Caesar at Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year in which Caesar was unapologetically played by a woman (it might have been the best show I saw all year, including my own). I didn’t think “Oh look at that woman playing a man’s part.” I thought, “Oh my god she’s channeling Benazir Bhutto.”

Ibsen also gave us stunning women’s stories. So did Shaw, Chekov, Williams, Miller. And don’t forget the female playwrights of those same eras. Complex parts for more than one token women are there for the planning.

We might inspire new classics. I’m not telling playwrights what to write.Wait. Hell yes I am. And I’m hoping they get commissions to do so. Please write those complex and shocking and profound parts for our great female actors. Lead roles, supporting roles, lots of roles. Imagine writing for Stockard Channing or Viola Davis or Amy Morton or Meryl Streep. How about putting all of them in the same play. Oh my god, I just died a little thinking about it.

However, the now famous study by social scientist Emily Glassberg Sands about gender bias in theater says that though female playwrights write more roles for women, they are aware that plays with female protagonists aren’t as likely to be produced as plays with male protagonists. “One way women have compensated for writing female stories is to write fewer [female] roles, which make their plays accessible to more theaters,” the study finds.

So American theater might need a theatrical version of the The Bechdel Test for movies which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

There are bright spots however. Chloe Bronzan and Robert Parsons of Symmetry Theater in San Francisco have already put into practice their own version of the Bechdel Test. They built their company around the precepts: “We will never produce a play with more male than female characters,” they said, “We will never have more male than female union actors on our stage and we will produce plays that tell stories which include full, fleshed out and complex women that serve as propellants to the human story being told.”

"Menopause: The Musical"

We won’t lose our audiences, but we might just gain new ones. Another Artistic Director colleague noted that if theater companies counted Menopause: The Musical as part of their actual season (as opposed to the touring or rental production it usually is) it would be the best-selling show in their histories. Why? Women go to the theater and they bring their friends if they have shows that reflect their experiences. A dear friend connected with August: Osage County‘s fierce females so much that she flew from Atlanta to New York three times just to see it as many times on Broadway.

As Hanna Rosen has pointed out in her articles and lectures — there is a definitive rise in women as breadwinners and moneymakers in this country. I live in the Bay Area and am delightfully surrounded by brilliant women running major intuitions, businesses, and government orgs. Smart institutions will notice this and deliver. Women are already your majority, and women share experiences with other women, so it shouldn’t be hard to bring new women into the theater patronizing community.

Sean Daniels again:

“I think there’s a hidden thinking in here that men won’t watch women centric plays, but women will watch men centric plays — which really just sells everyone in that equation short. There are men watching The Hunger Games, but eventually there won’t be ladies watching dude filled plays and seasons.”

Viola Davis in "Fences".

We might help the world. Women are always underrepresented in positions of money, power, and personal safety. This comes, as most inherent biases do, from a lack of understanding and empathy. If we see more stories of women on stages across the country and the world we can change that.

Maybe what we really dream of is the day when plays by and about women would stop being “women’s plays” and start being — oh, y’know — really successful, moneymaking, audience-supported, universal, true, bold, smart plays. Everyone wants those plays, no matter what your gender.

Theater audiences want the designers of theatrical seasons to pay attention to the women onstage. Count them (as Valerie Week is doing in The Bay). The women in your audiences will.

Joy Meads of Center Theater Group in LA says:

“It’s frustrating that we have to have this conversation in 2012. But I’ve experienced this in my conversations about plays with colleagues across the country. Colleagues dismissing a play because its female protagonist was ‘unlikable.’ Producers should recognize that ‘we just choose the best plays’ is no longer an adequate defense: no one believes that there’s a shadowy cabal of avowed misogynists determined to keep women offstage. We need to be brave and rigorous in examining the shadowy, unconscious ways gender bias influences our decision making.”

Theater should be in the complex and necessary business of illuminating the human condition, of inspiring empathy and community, of provoking understanding, of entertaining and surprising and exposing and making beautiful the complete world of our time.

You know what helps that?

Telling everyone’s stories.

Lauren Gunderson is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and short story author living in The Bay Area. She received her MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch, her BA from Emory University, is an NYU a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has received national praise and awards. She writes for The Huffington Post.

Is the Great White Way Finally Seeing Other Colors?

Is Theatre Just for White People?

That’s pretty much what academic Tom Loughlin said this week, with a post at his blog called The Great Whiter-Than-Ever Way.

The Broadway League’s recent demographic report found that 83% of tickets were bought by caucasian theatregoers. Loughlin writes: “I think it’s safe to make the following conclusion: Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners.”

The blog has, unsurprisingly, drawn plenty of responses, both below the line and elsewhere in the blogosphere. At least some have settled into considered debate. Scott Walters calls for change and consideration beyond the surface issues, and 99 Seats duly attempts to engage with it on that level, while Art Hennessey has thrown some wider statistics about audience diversity into the mix at his blog.

This materializes at a time of seemingly unprecedented exposure for black female playwrights on Broadway.

Katoria Hall

This season, for apparently the first time, Broadway will host as many as four distinct works written or adapted by African American women. Already running is the Martin Luther King Jr. play The Mountaintop, by the young playwright Katori Hall, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Also running is  Stick Fly, Lydia R. Diamond’s upper-middle-class family drama, featuring Dule Hill, Mekhi Phifer and Tracie Thoms. And the  new edition of the Gershwins-DuBose Heyward opera Porgy and Bess, with a revised book by Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog /Underdog). And angling for a theater this spring is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by another Pulitzer recipient, Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”).

Some of the women who are being produced on Broadway this season say they are not completely sure how to characterize their rise to prominence — or even totally comfortable with their being looked upon as part of a breakthrough season.

Lydia R. Diamond

Lydia R. Diamond stops herself from the kind of pronouncement that implies a circle has been closed. Not enough work by enough people of color has regularly been produced for any kind of victory to be declared.

Says Diamond: “If Suzan-Lori and Katori and Lynn and I got together we might say, ‘It’s a little safer today, and oh, look how far we’ve come. But we still have a long way to go.’ I feel that it’s important we learn from this moment, but not be so comforted by it that it has corrected all the wrong.”

Nottage takes this observation a step further, arguing that black women remain marginalized in many other facets of the entertainment industry, and figure more centrally in writing for theater because the form has been more welcoming. “There are more of us writing at a high level than ever before,” she says. “But we have to find a medium in which we can do it. And it’s partly because we’re shut out of film and TV that we are writing for this medium.”

Lynn Nottage

Broadway is also noticing the potency of African American ticket buyers, an economic force that for a long time had been undervalued.

“I think there’s a sense in the industry that there’s a black audience out there interested and engaged,” Nottage says.

In a perfect world this confluence of playwrights-of-color on Broadway would be the norm, not the exception. Playwrights rightly bristle at being sorted into categories and resist having their works considered from the perspective of the author’s racial or ethnic background. Good work should speak for itself.

Kenny Leon, the director of the recent smash revival of Fences,  directed both The Mountaintop and Stick Fly. He notes, “I can’t remember the last time there were three women playwrights on Broadway during the same season, let alone three African-American women.”

Katori Hall’s ebullience over reaching Broadway is tempered by an awareness that this season is hardly a usual one. “I’m used to the Great White Way being the Great White Way,” she said, “so yes it feels really good. But I’m hesitant to celebrate because next season we may be back to white male writers only. Let’s be cautious.”

Diamond has witnessed the enthusiasm and the sheer numbers of African-Americans coming to Broadway that has made the recent revivals of “Fences,” and “A Raisin in the Sun” (also directed by Mr. Leon) and the all-black staging of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” directed by Debbie Allen, solid hits. (An all-black “Streetcar Named Desire” is on the docket for 2012.)

“I remember standing in line for The Color Purple with my in-laws and my mother,” in 2005, she said, “and seeing black audiences lined up around the block twice. That was sort of mind blowing for me. I thought, I don’t know why we don’t see more things like this here if there are this many people lining up to see them.”

“I’ve worked very hard with marketing people to include African-Americans,” she said. “I know that there’s a huge population interested in seeing themselves reflected onstage.” Yet, she added, “At the same time I don’t think my work speaks only to an African-American audience.”

Leon pointed to other black female writers who deserve to have their work seen on Broadway stages.

Lynn Nottage is a top-of-the-line, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who should have her plays on Broadway,” Mr. Leon said. “Regina Taylor is writing some great work. Pearl Cleage is still writing good plays.”

Suzan Lori Parks

It is, of course, an uphill battle for any emerging playwright to get new work presented on Broadway. But while Ms. Hall cheerfully said, “The fact that me and Lydia and Suzan are coming to Broadway I have to see as something of a triumph,” she still has discouraging memories of regional theaters, where much new American work first gets seen.

“I’ve had frank conversations with theaters who say, ‘We love your play, but we’ve already done a play by another black person this year,’ or ‘I don’t think the kind of people you write about are the ones our audience wants to see,’ ” she said. “Up and coming young black female writers are still struggling to have their voices heard and have their plays produced. I may be on the mountain right now, but they are still in the trenches.”