Suzanne Bennett

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Despite the phenomenal success of several recent plays written by women–including Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” and the Pulitzer-prize winners “Wit” and “How I Learned to Drive”–women playwrights and directors are getting less work this season than last, and continue to be grossly under-represented in main-stage theater productions across the country, a new study reports.

Of approximately 2,000 Off-Broadway and regional theater productions scheduled for the 2001-02 season, 16 percent are written by women and 17 percent have female directors. These figures are down from 21 for writers and 23 percent for directors last year. The numbers, an analysis of industry data from several sources, were included in a recent report released by the New York State Council on the Arts.

The report’s authors noted that two plays, Yazmina Reza’s “Art” and Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” accounted for 52 of last season’s 390 women-authored productions. They found no evidence that there are fewer women than men writing plays: a sample study indicated that, on average, half of all works submitted to artistic directors for consideration are from women.

“The council’s report is even more horrifying than I expected. It’s really disillusioning,” says Linda Winer, chief theater critic for Newsday and the only front-line female critic of any major daily for 20 years. She is one of more than 200 critics, scholars, performers and playwrights interviewed for the report, which was co-authored by arts council official Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett, associate artistic director of the Women’s Project and Productions, an Off-Broadway theater that stages works by and about women.

Winer occupied an orchestra seat in the late 1970s, when a number of women playwrights and directors burst onto the previously male-dominated theater scene. She said she vividly recalled seeing Wendy Wasserstein’s play “Uncommon Women and Others.”

“I was dumbfounded and thrilled that there were women on the stage that could be friends of mine, making theater out of issues and concerns that could be mine. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was stageworthy material,” she said.

The percentage of women playwrights and directors in theater has grown from about 6 percent at that time, but Winer and other participants in the study said they felt progress would come more quickly and that this season’s numbers reflect a troubling backslide.

Jonathan Kalb, chairman of the theater department at Hunter College, said that when taken in context, the report reflected the advances women had made in theater in the past three decades.

“Equal opportunities for women are no longer ignored by the theater and real progress and strides have been made,” he said. “I think the numbers are not equal and should not be expected to be. They are normalizing and will continue to.”

Women’s Work Seen as Less Viable, Artistically Inferior

Playwright Theresa Rebeck said that male bias against female playwrights discouraged theaters from producing their plays.

“It’s a shockingly closed system,” she said. “People feel many of the press are hostile to women writers.”

Rebeck has written five Off-Broadway plays as well as scripts for such television shows as Law and Order. She said she was taken aback when one critic, reviewing her most recent play, “The Butterfly Collection,” called her a “man-hater.”

“I could write Hamlet and they’d find a hidden feminist agenda,” she said.

Kalb said that men are given more flexibility when experimenting with theater form and conventions. Whereas men would be perceived as “taking a risk,” critics would more likely treat women as though “they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

In its report, the council said that male bias in the theater extends beyond critics. Playwrights Neena Beber and Tina Howe described pressure from artistic directors to write from a male point-of-view. Others expressed frustrations over assumptions that women are incapable of writing in a universal voice.

In his review of “Wit,” the acclaimed play about a woman dying from ovarian cancer, Time Out New York reviewer Sam Whitehead admitted he expected “a whining victim play.” To his surprise, he wrote, “it was really about the human predicament.”

Casey Childs, artistic director of Primary Stages in New York, told the report’s authors that he passed on the scripts of “Wit” and “How I Learned to Drive,” a play about sexual abuse, because he thought his audience would find the plays “depressing” and would not identify with the female protagonists.

“I’m glad he outed himself. That was brave of him,” said Paula Vogel, the author of “How I Learned to Drive,” which won the Pulitzer in 1998. Vogel said the report’s findings did not surprise her.

“Many people had the impression that women had progressed further. I am an example of the woman who gets singled out, so they can say they are producing women,” she said.

Strategies for Change Include Mentoring, Funding Initiatives

When women are given opportunities to present work in major theaters, the report found, they are often relegated to secondary stages or readings. Interviewees theorized that because those holding the purse strings in top venues are usually men, they assume a male-authored production will be more financially viable.

Indeed, women’s representation is even lower on Broadway, where despite the successes of directors Susan Stroman (“The Producers”) and Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”), a mere 7 percent of productions had female directors. In 1999, 8 percent of plays and 1 percent of musicals on Broadway were written by women.

Women fare better in the non-commercial arena, where both resources and compensation are low. At the same time, women fear stigmatization if produced by organizations like the Women’s Project, said Bennett.

“They want to be recognized as a playwright, not a woman playwright,” she said.

Martha Richards, executive director of The Fund for Women Artists in Massachusetts, suggested that women think more creatively about funding, citing Ensler’s success in soliciting celebrity support and corporate sponsorship to support her art and activism. Women artists should lobby funding organizations dedicated to women’s issues and tap female philanthropists, she said.

The report offered several other strategies for increasing women’s power and prominence in the theater world, including better statistical tracking of women’s representation and mentoring programs that match successful women in theater with promising young artists. Efforts to document women’s history of artistic and commercial success in theater are also important, the authors said, to break the common perception that women artists are unproven commodities.

“Given the rate of change thus far,” said Jonas, “women won’t achieve parity with men for another 100 years.”

Ann Farmer is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

For more information:

New York State Council on the Arts:

Women’s Project and Productions:

The Fund for Women Artists: