Julia Jordan

(WOMENSENEWS)–The Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ken., presents six full length plays by new American playwrights each year since the festival began in 1979. This year in its 28th season, from February 29 to April 10, five of those plays were written by women.

“It’s definitely a major leap for the festival,” says Tanya Palmer, director of new play development for the theatrical event, which is often seen as representative of U.S. regional theater. “When we’re reading plays we’re lookingfor a diversity of plays that represent different voices and different approaches to the form. We don’t have an agenda. But in the last couple of years we’ve had more and more plays by women.”

And true to its reputation as a theatrical bellwether, the preponderance of female playwrights at the Humana Festival is also showing up across the country, says Larry Harbison, a New York editor at Samuel French, one of the largest play publishing and licensing services in the world.

“Are more female playwrights getting produced? The answer is yes,” says Harbison. “The next wave of playwrights seems to be mostly women. We had Odets in the ’30s, La MaMa in the ’60s, and the top of the next wave seems to be female playwrights,” Harbison continues, placing theater by women in the company of Clifford Odets, who ushered in an age of socially-engaged, realist drama, and Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa Theater which launched American experimentalism.

New Momentum for Female Playwrights

Women have only received nine Pulitizer prizes for drama, a paltry 7 percent of all of the prizes that have been dispensed since the awards began in 1917. But in a sign of female playwrights’ recent momentum, about half of those have been awarded since 1990.

Some of the best known names on Broadway these days are women. Susan Stroman of “Contact” and “The Music Man” is the best known choreographer, unless you count Twyla Tharp, who is represented by the long-running “Movin’ Out.” Julie Taymor is Broadway’s most famous director, sporting a successful film and television career, ever since she turned Disney’s “The Lion King” into a critical and commercial hit. It’s a situation that makes sense, considering that women account for over 60 percent of the Broadway audience, according to a study by the National Theater Fund.

Theater has traditionally attracted large numbers of women. Professionals estimate that 80 percent of amateur theater is performed by women, and the stage has traditionally offered opportunities to female performers–Marlene Dietrich and Liza Minelli are two cases in point–whose age has limited their opportunities in film. But women have never had much access to positions of power, and the director and choreographers cited above tend to be the exception, rather than the rule.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s women accounted for only 7 percent of directors and playwrights in regional and off-Broadway theater. Almost 20 years later, in 1994, that number hovered at 17 percent for playwrights and 19 percent for directors. In 2001–seven years of multicultural and sexual-identity politics later–those numbers still held. On Broadway the gap is even wider. There, on the most prominent U.S. stage, women write about 8 percent of the plays and 1 percent of musicals.

Julia Jordan is a playwright who, after not having a play produced for 10 years, is suddenly having four off-Broadway premieres this year, including “Boy,” “Tatjana in Color: The Trial of Egon Schiele” and “St. Scarlet.”

“I considered quitting,” she says. “I considered putting my brother’s name on my scripts. The problem with not getting produced for that long is that you think maybe it’s because of your gender, but maybe it’s really because you’re not good enough.”

Dismissed as “Too Political”

The issue seems to be discrimination. A 2001 New York State Council on the Arts study on women in theater cited numerous examples of women having their plays dismissed as “issue plays” or as “too political” and “too dark” by key theatrical decision makers who never even read the scripts.

One artistic director claimed that he passed on both “Wit” and “How I Learned to Drive” because they had female protagonists. Both plays have since won Pulitzers.

Plays written by women are often condemned to what’s known as the “development circuit,” a limbo of readings and workshops that rarely leads to an actual production.

Female playwrights and their advocates often get the feeling that when their plays are produced it’s out of a sense of tokenism by well-meaning but misguided theaters. “I think, across the nation, there’s always been a slot for people of color and a slot for women and I think that’s still pretty much the case,” says Marya Cohen of the Women’s Project, one of the largest and oldest organizations devoted to producing female playwrights, in New York.

It’s a “Catch-22” claims Jordan. “Female writers get slammed for writing ‘female plays’ that are limited in their interest to the politically female. But then at the same time a lot of theaters, when they produce in their ‘female’ slot, that’s the kind of play they want so they can say ‘We did one, and it didn’t work. Nobody liked it.'”

Study Leads to New Popularity

But lately, female playwrights seem to be gaining in stature and popularity. And some of them say the 2001 study by the New York State Council on the Arts had a lot to do with the shift.

The study looked at the numbers of working female directors and playwrights, and those statistics, which have already been peppered throughout this article, were depressingly low. But for many women they were liberating because they suggested that the failures they had suffered were not necessarily a true reflection of their talent.

One of them was Julia Jordan. She had stopped writing plays for three years when the study came out. “When I read it I almost started crying. That’s something to hold onto, there’s the possibility that I’m not a bad writer, there’s the possibility that I’m good enough.”

Tanya Palmer at the Humana Festival also cites the effects of the study.

“I don’t think that report has influenced anyone necessarily,” she says, “but I do think there was a return to acknowledging that it’s still an issue, that, yes, women are in much better positions in many parts of their lives now versus 20 years ago, but that there are many battles still to be fought.”

Larry Harbison at Samuel French believes the change is prompted more by economics.

“Artistic directors are more aware of the need to satisfy the market, and when you consider that women are who buy the subscriptions to regional theaters, there’s the desire to serve that audience. Naturally, women playwrights more naturally might serve those interests.”

No one can agree on how a play written by a woman is inherently different from a play written by a man. But female writers, at least the majority of those getting produced, seem to be more socially engaged with the world in which we live, although this could be a product of self-selection: plays by women are perceived as “dark,” “personal” and “political” and so artistic directors produce accordingly. Of the 25 shows on Broadway, only two plays are by women: one is Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” and the other is Bryony Lavery’s meditation on loss and death, “Frozen.”

Changing the Demographic

And women, especially women of color, are changing the demographic of the shows we see. The only musical on Broadway written by a woman, Meera Syal, is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s production of “Bombay Dreams.” The musical has a South Asian cast and celebrates India’s film industry, Bollywood. Except for “The Lion King,” directed by Julie Taymor, no other current Broadway musical acknowledges a world outside the Anglo-American tradition.

As the complexion of the casts change, so, too, does that of the audience.

In Sarah Jones’ one-woman show, “bridge and tunnel,” the performer-playwright “channels” a multicultural cast of characters, mostly recent immigrants. Producer Meryl Streep has given the show enough celebrity sparkle to keep it in the press with its frequent A-list attendees, and it continues to play to capacity in off-Broadway houses. In its audience, middle-aged African Americans mingle in the lobby with Asian hipsters and Hispanic families in a contrast to the usual demographics off-Broadway where, traditionally, 89 percent of the audience is white.

Grady Hendrix is a film programmer and freelance writer who lives in New York.

For more information:

New York State Council on the Arts Theatre Program
Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement?
Executive Summary
(Adobe PDF format):

Humana Festival of New American Plays
Festival History: