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A Feminine Ending

Tiffany Moon examines the debate surrounding "the plight of women in theater." logo

Breaking this glass ceiling is not about excluding men, it's about including women. (stock image courtesy of Microsoft Office Images)

Recently I received an edition of "You've Cott Mail" featuring articles related to the plight of women in theater. (For those of you interested in theater management, if you haven't already you should start subscribing to Mr. Cott's "You've Cott Mail" service, which sends out articles about arts administration grouped together in a different theme every day. It's a great way to keep in the know about current trends, practices and studies. Sign up here.)

Well, I thought, I'm a woman in theater! I wonder what this "plight" business is all about. Eagerly, I clicked on the first link which directed me to a commentary by Corey Madden, formerly associate artistic director for the Mark Taper Forum and apparently a recent intern for a major television series. You read that correctly - Ms. Madden, a mid-career woman who has helped launch an impressive number of important 20th century plays during her tenure at the Mark Taper Forum, worked as an intern after leaving her position.

Although Ms. Madden's depiction of competition among women is shocking, it is unfortunately also familiar and realistic. Growing up doing theater, competition was ingrained. As many actresses can probably relate to, the girls always far outnumbered the boys in our drama classes and children's theaters, but the roles for boys always far outnumbered the roles available to us. I remember more than once wishing I was a boy so I could have an easier time getting lead roles. It's no wonder that this sort of competitive spirit is still prevalent among women in arts, no matter how feminist we try to be. But this particular section stood out to me:

"Last year Emily Glassberg Sands, a Princeton University economics student conducted a study to analyze why less than 15% of the plays produced annually are by women. Her research revealed a startling finding: that female literary managers and artistic directors consistently rated a script submitted by a "Mary Walker" lower than the identical script submitted by "Michael Walker." Equally surprising, male counterparts rated the script the same whether authored by a man or a woman." (Read the entire article by Corey Madden here.)

First of all, that "only 15% of the plays produced annually are by women" is startling enough, but to think that women may be consciously or unconsciously contributing to the imbalance is horrific.

Consider this article by Kelly Kleiman about the current climate in Chicago, which points out the current offerings from Chicago's "Big Four" theaters (Goodman, Steppenwolf, Court, and Chicago Shakespeare) are all by and about men.

Consider the Guthrie's recent season announcement, which is described here as primarily "white and male." A different article reports that Artistic Director Joe Dowling's response to criticism of the apparent lack of diversity was that "he only looks at the quality of the play and the talent of the director when planning his season; he does not look at the gender or color of the people doing the writing or the directing."

But, is it time to do just that? Institute affirmative action in the theater, as Kelly Kleiman suggests, in order to bring female voices into mainstream theater? Limit theaters that cater to female playwrights so, again, female writing becomes more integrated into "traditional" theaters? I personally don't have a problem with gender focused theaters (read this great commentary by Meghan Arnette about why she does feminist theater here), but wouldn't it be wonderful if we no longer needed them because theaters naturally presented seasons that accurately represented the population of the world?

This is an incredibly complicated subject that I haven't even begun to delve deeply into in my limited space here, but I'd like to suggest we (my TMU readers) start changing the climate. We, as college students devoting our lives to theater, male and female alike, need to propagate seeing the works of women as equal to the works of men. We need to seek out female playwrights and find the brilliance, brilliance that is universal and not gender-based.

This summer, I am challenging myself to read at least one play per week, and I want you to do the same. But let's go a step further, and set up some rules.

Rule #1 - Every other week, the play has to be by a woman. This way, our reading more accurately depicts the human experience.

Rule #2 - No repeating playwrights. We need to find as many amazing playwrights as possible, from both genders.

If we, as the theater leaders of tomorrow, are going to break this glass ceiling, we are going to need to know what we're talking about. It's not about excluding men, it's about including women. Having an arsenal of amazing plays by playwrights of both genders to draw upon in our work will help bridge that gap. If we focus on trying to keep the balance 50/50 in our early stages, I have no doubt that divide will naturally begin to narrow and that the theater will be better for our efforts.


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