2016 was a stellar year for women in theater, and yet ...
When you can burn this article like a bra, women will cheer.
That is the sentiment among Los Angeles theater professionals at the close of a year in which so many strong productions by women writers made it to local stages.
Equally notable, however, is the work that’s left to be done to achieve gender parity for playwrights, according to Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie, East West Players’ artistic director Snehal Desai and others.
“It has been a significant year for female playwrights, not only in L.A., but nationally,” Ritchie said. “Still, one would hope that the time comes when that statement isn’t worthy of a newspaper article.”
If one were looking for a symbolic moment in 2016 theater, flash back to the curtain falling April 3 on L.A. playwright Sheila Callaghan’s gender-bending feminist satire “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
The production was called “lavish” and “gleefully vulgar” in a largely positive Times review by Margaret Gray — good news for Callaghan, who had another play, “Bed,” running concurrently in a well-received production by the Echo Theater Company.
Any writer would be happy to claim the accomplishment, and Callaghan certainly was. The catch: When the plays closed, Callaghan couldn’t drum up interest from other theaters for additional productions.
For Callaghan, the lesson was simple: We may have come a long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go.
Complacency is the death of progress, so declaring victory risks the pitfall of having artistic directors check off the “chick box” on their season lineup and move on, says Callaghan, one of the founders of the advocacy group the Kilroys.
For the last three years the group has sought to raise the profile of female playwrights by publishing an annual list of noteworthy unproduced plays written by female and transgender writers based on a survey of 230 professional artistic directors, literary managers, professors, producers, directors and dramaturgs. That list is distributed to theaters nationally. More than 100 plays singled out for the last two years have since been produced.
The activism of the Kilroys and other groups like the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative comes in the midst of an uproar surrounding a 2015 study called “The Count,” funded by the Lilly Awards, which honor the work of women in American theater, and the Dramatists Guild of America, which consists of playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists. The study found that in the preceding three years, 22% of productions in regional theaters — just one in five — were written by women.
Such numbers make all the more impressive the achievement of the female-led productions in Times critic Charles McNulty’s year-end top 10 list, as well as Lucy Alibar’s “Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up” and Deborah Stein’s “The Wholehearted” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land” at the Echo, Leah Nanako Winkler’s “Kentucky” at East West Players, “Colony Collapse” by Stefanie Zadravec at Theatre @ Boston Court, “The Two Kids That Blow … Up” by Carla Ching at the Lounge Theatre, and “Going to a Place Where You Already Are” by Bekah Brunstetter at South Coast Repertory.
“Kentucky,” which made the Kilroys’ list last year along with “Colony Collapse,” is part of an East West Players season featuring only female playwrights. Desai, the company’s artistic director, made that choice because of what he sees as sluggish movement toward gender parity.
“The statistics,” he says, “are still there and they are alarming.”
Equally alarming, Callaghan says, is how difficult it can be for female playwrights to secure multiple stagings of their plays — a key metric of success.
One production — or in the case of “Salad,” two — does not the life of a play make. Callaghan says the problem is an epidemic, particularly for female playwrights.
The dilemma has spurred the Kilroys to take a hard look at the way it has been structuring its list. To date the group has mostly supported new voices worthy of attention. However, it is increasingly “concerned about the artistic death of mid-career female playwrights,” Callaghan says.
As an example, she cites Paula Vogel, the playwright who won the Pulitzer in 1998 for “How I Learned to Drive” but whose “Don Juan Comes Home From the War” was on the Kilroys’ 2014 list of unproduced plays. “Appalling,” Callaghan says.
In 2014 the industry publication American Theatre began producing a list of the top 20 most-produced playwrights. This year’s list is the most diverse yet, with eight playwrights of color and six women represented — an increase from last year’s list, which had three playwrights of color and five women.
American Theatre’s list of the 10 most-produced plays of the year, however, did not reflect parity. Only three titles were written by women.
“They need that practice — to be able to see their work fully realized onstage multiple times,” Desai says. “It’s a vicious cycle because artistic directors will say, ‘Show me someone else who has produced them on that scale and I’ll do it on that scale.’”
Solving the problem, theater leaders say, is holistic. More women sensitive to these issues are needed as artistic directors and in other top roles, they say.
“We are trending toward leadership positions being more representative of the population base of the United States,” Ritchie says, “but we’re certainly not there yet.”
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