Who's afraid of the female playwright?

There's a gender bias against women writing for the stage -- but the culprits may surprise you

Published June 25, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Why do so few plays written by female playwrights get produced? Is this the result of discrimination, or, as many artistic directors claim, lack of material? These were the questions explored by Princeton undergraduate Emily Glassberg Sands in her thesis, "Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender," which confirmed that female playwrights experience bias at every level, from script selection to play production -- but not always from the usual suspects. (A PowerPoint presentation that summarizes Sands' thesis can be found here.)

In the theater world, it has long been an open secret that plays written by women are not produced as frequently as those written by men, that the former are not produced in the most prestigious venues, that they are not often awarded the most prestigious prizes -- the Pulitzer, for instance -- nor do their authors get the most prestigious jobs. In 2002, a much-discussed report on the status of women in the theater ("We passed it around like a joint," the playwright Theresa Rebeck has said) funded by the New York State Council on the Arts found that a mere 17 percent of the plays produced in this country were written by women. Six years later, Sands’ figure, from 2008, is frustratingly similar: Women penned only 18 percent of plays in production at nonprofit subscription houses. (Broadway is an even sorrier story; women write fewer than one in eight plays produced.)

Why such unequal circumstances should persist is a topic about which many female playwrights have long opined. Women tend to write plays about women, and one popular theory is that male artistic directors -- the majority are male -- do not care to watch plays featuring female protagonists. (This theory would seem to be refuted by Blanche DuBois and Mary Tyrone, to name just two great female protagonists. But Sands points out that plays with female leads fare just fine if they are written by men, as do plays featuring male protagonists written by women.) It’s also been said that women write "political" plays, by which is generally meant plays about women's issues, and that, once again, male artistic directors are not interested. Finally, some cry discrimination outright. In a 2003 New York Times article, Theresa Rebeck recounted an anecdote in which a prominent male director told her, without any attempt to sugarcoat, "Women don’t write good plays."

Received notions like these are what make Sands' research, and her counterintuitive findings, so fascinating. Sands sent out scripts by four well-known female playwrights (Lynn Nottage, Julia Jordan, Tanya Barfield, Deb Laufer) under pseudonyms that were similar but varied by gender -- i.e., Mary Walker and Michael Walker, Larry Young and Lisa Young -- to artistic directors and literary managers, and noted their reactions. In a surprise twist, female readers discriminated against playwrights of their own gender more often than male ones did, rating the "Mary" scripts 15 percent lower ("of lower overall quality") than the "Michaels." The men rated scripts by either gender equally. While this outcome would seem to invite all sorts of postulating -- Queen Bee syndromes and women-are-their-own-worst-enemy theories -- Sands' conclusion is more charitable. She has suggested that female artistic directors and literary managers likely assumed that plays by women "will be less well received" -- that they "perhaps possess a greater awareness of the barriers female playwrights face," according to the New York Times. In other words, female readers took into account the perceived bias against female playwrights, and then, sadly, helped to perpetuate it.  (Men are not totally blameless, however; as the majority of artistic directors, they are partly responsible for a system in which less-than-profitable plays by men receive equal runs to profitable plays by women.)

Is it this looming threat of bias that discourages women from writing plays? Because Sands also found that, indeed, there are not as many female playwrights as there are male -- and they also don’t author as many plays. Julia Jordan, who urged Sands to undertake this thesis project, has said that she stopped writing for three years at one point because she hadn’t had a play produced in a decade. Perhaps it is encouraging for female playwrights to know that Sands also found that plays by both sexes are produced at the same rate (proportionately, that is). The reason, then, that fewer plays by women get produced may simply be that fewer women write fewer plays. Thus a which-came-first question: Do women write fewer plays because the theater world discriminates against female playwrights, or does the theater world discriminate against female playwrights because they write fewer plays?

Whatever the case, the solution seems obvious. More women should write plays, and more of them. (It may be that there are sociological factors, whether educational or economic, deterring women from writing -- but that’s for another article.) And artistic directors would do well to mount these productions: According to Sands, "female-written" shows, once they actually make it to Broadway, are 18 percent more profitable than "male-written" shows. (Somewhere between 60 to 70 percent of theatergoers are women, and they probably care about female protagonists and their "political" issues.) If anything is apt to remedy the situation quickly, it's that there's money to be made.

By Amanda Fortini

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