On Women Playwrights and the Soft Bigotry of High Expectations


CriticsThe most recent genderstorm began, it seems to me, when the New York Times covered Emily Glassberg Sands’ research into whether “women who are authors have a tougher time getting their work staged than men,” and almost immediately grew into a sexflagration when she asserted, per the Times, that “women who are artistic directors and literary managers are the ones to blame.”

People in the professional theater were understandably gobsmacked by Sands’ findings — in essence, she took the heat off the men in the business, who are always the easiest to blame when diversity (or lack of diversity) is at issue; Sands was directly challenging women to consider a larger, more disconcerting, ambiguous picture. Soon enough, everyone was leaping into the fray, some assailing Sands’ methodology, some citing anecdotal and contradictory evidence, some spinning idealistic yarns, some bent on out-contrarian-ing everyone else’s anti-contrarianism (please do not parse that, thanks). One listserv, dramaturgy.net, was saturated by volumes of postings, typically civil in tone but not in every case.

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I stayed out of the fray initially because, as a man, I felt it wasn’t quite my fight; I don’t recall oppressing anyone on the basis of gender and I’m not, by dint of possessing a penis, responsible for what other men may or may have done historically or during contemporary times to women. Nor was I clear, nor am I clear, what exactly is being litigated. Should there be an equal, legally enforceable parity between genders when it comes to the number of plays produced? Who sets the standard? Who enforces it? Or, if it’s really a matter of “There really should be produced more plays by women,” how does one define “more”? Who does the defining? When is “more” enough? What constitutes “enough”?

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There exists in all this a slippery slope: Why not demand equal numbers of plays by gay and straight playwrights (or, for that matter, bi and transgender playwrights)? Why not equal numbers of plays by whites and African-Americans and dramatists of Asian descent and every multiracial example we can find? Why not go to the mat, get all quota-happy and ultra-specific and advocate a position in which, for every white heterosexual man’s play produced at, say, the Public Theater, a play by a gay man, or an Albanian albino, or a Tibetan monk or a Mormon should be produced? At what point does the discussion revert to that of quality?

Indeed, at what point might it be acceptable, which is to say necessary, for someone to stand up, Network style, and say:

Enough! All right already. We understand and we honor the idea that diversity in the theater is a must, an achievable goal. Lip service to this idea is lip service; it must be deemed as such whenever possible. Let’s not entirely throw out, however, willy nilly and all too casually in the name of diversity, the historically proven, cheished idea that plays should be mounted when they are ready, when they are good; when they are very good; when they are great; when they are superlative; when they are excellent; when they fundamentally entertain; when they intrinsically engage; when they indisputably provoke debate; when they break new structural, thematic and/or dramaturgical ground; when they’re clearly no longer a mere idea, an embryonic, developing, work in progress; when they’re unquestionably more than a slapdash notion, an exploration into personal vanity; when, to use a baseball metaphor, they’re not fly balls easily caught by even a blind outfielder but, rather, marvelous home runs that force crowds universally to their feet? When does quality matter?

Last September, I was annoyed with playwright Theresa Rebeck, whose plays I find largely underappreciated, almost always beautifully constructed and occasionally quite extraordinary, so my criticism of her must be seen within that context. She had written a screed in the Guardian that — well, allow me to just quote from it, as I did last September:

Boys, boys, boys! This year on Broadway it is a celebration of boys! Step aside, girls – it’s time for the boys!

The New York Times tells us this week that this is the Year of the Man. This year is nothing like last year, when there was actually one new play, written by a woman(me), on Broadway. At the tail end of the season a revival of Top Girls by Caryl Churchill snuck into the lineup too. And then lots of awards went to Tracy Letts — who is a man, but whose name sounds like it could be a woman’s name. So that’s TWO women and one guy whose name sounds like a woman’s. It was exhausting dealing with all that estrogen. Time to give the men a chance.

Could we get real? Every year is the Year of the Man, with a couple of women who manage to crawl their way into the lineup. In the 2008/2009 season, as it has been announced, the number of plays written by women on New York stages will amount to 12.6% of the total. Want to know the same figure for the 1908/1909 season? Let’s see, it was … 12.8%!

One might put this trend down to something like, hmm, discrimination. But actually what we’re told is that the plays that are produced are just the plays that were worth doing, and that playwriting is in fact a Y-chromosome gene. So women should just back off, because putting plays written by women into production because maybe audiences might like a really well-written play that was well-written by a woman would be pandering to ideas of political correctness. And art doesn’t do that.

Well, I didn’t understand who, exactly, she says is doing the telling. She screamed “Boys, boys, boys!,” but I would scream “Names, names, names!” As I responded at the time:

…Was it necessary to mention that Tracy Letts’ name “sounds like it could be a woman’s name”?…

And when Rebeck wrote:

What art does is celebrate the lives and struggles of men.

It also apparently celebrates big nasty women who wreck their children’s lives. Last season, Mama Rose once again held the stage; the mother in August: Osage County is a real monster too. So two terrifying women in plays written by men were up to their old tricks. This, we are told, is really what made last season a woman’s year.

I responded:

Notice how she codes what could be construed as homophobia in her statement: men writing about “big nasty women who wreck their children’s lives,” “two terrifying women in plays written by men,” hint hint? Why doesn’t she just come out and call Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein — oh, and Tracy Letts, too — misogynists? I guess Lillian Hellman never wrote any plays about nasty or terrifying women. Telling people what to write — as opposed to telling them what to produce — is wrong.

Well, at least now someone has stood up and made a direct accusation — telling someone what they ought to produce. The accuser is Laura Collins-Hughes, in a post on her blog, Critical Difference. She has decided to attack Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater while averring, don’t’cha know, that she’s not attacking him. A kind of dramaturgical counter-ops. She writes:

…when I wrote yesterday that Oskar Eustis’ male-heavy programming at the Public is disappointing, I was not suggesting that one of the American theater’s most activist-liberal artistic directors, or anyone else, ought to be subjected to quotas. I simply meant to say that the Public’s audience, the bracingly varied audience Eustis inherited, deserves subscription-series programming that better reflects its makeup. To achieve that, female playwrights and directors need to be working at the Public in greater numbers.

Assembling a season of good plays is a delicate balancing act. There are innumerable factors to take into account. Diversity is only one of them — and the sex of playwrights, directors, actors and other artists is hardly its sole measure. No single season can be taken as representative of the whole, either. But over time, it’s been strange and striking how very often Eustis’ choices have favored the guys.

Pow! Back slap! And here’s the problem: What would satisfy Collins-Hughes, if not a quota? Guilting Eustis into a more balanced kind of programming? All right, I can see the value, naturally, in programming balance, but where does such an advocacy end? If Collins-Hughes believes it’s right and good and fair and decent and moral to expect Eustis to offer more plays by women, why should her point of view gain precedence over mine, should I choose to think that it would be right and good and fair and decent and moral to expect him to offer more plays by gays?

Is there any way we can agree that programming based on demographics, not dramaturgy, is a dreary idea whose time should never come? Or are we going to allow the theater to balkanize itself, everyone identify with their little sliver, be it gender or ethnicity or sexuality — or, while we’re at it, why not political affiliation or religion? I think Collins-Hughes isn’t exactly a Jewish name — how about for every play by an atheist, a lapsed Catholic or Muslim we ensure there be a play by a Jew?

  • Jonathan

    This is a thorny issue – Emily Sands’ study (let’s accept the findings for arguments sake) indicates that there are more male playwrights and that they are more prolific than their female counterparts. So at the programming level, if ADs were gender-blind, there would be a disproportionate number of plays produced by men over women, relative to the general population. I would like to think that, given appropriate opportunity, men and women would be equally populous in every career – be it playwright, nurse, soldier, scientist, or athlete. That leads to the question of why there aren’t more female playwrights out there? Is this an education thing? My experience in university suggests that females equal or outnumber males in literature, writing, and theatre programs – why isn’t that translating into more career writers? The idea of a quota system is based on the (true?) assumption that females abandon the career track because they recognize their poor chances based on current programming in professional theatres. The “only way” to create more female playwrights ten years from now would thus be to force a balanced representation at the professional level, giving female playwrights a sense that they could make it too.

    Is this the only way? My (admittedly ignorant) impression is that the sciences made a big change in the number of working female scientists today by changing education programs ten years ago. Perhaps it would help if literature, writing, and theatre programs bothered to teach business-side skills in the same hands-on way that other programs do – labs, internships, co-op programs, etc. rather than pounding out flocks of skilled but helpless artists. Don’t know if that would be enough to keep a proportionate number of female (or choose your underrepresented group) playwrights at it long enough to level the field on the production side, but it might be something that big theatre companies could more easily get behind than having quotas forced into the artistic equation.

  • BRAVO! especially to the slippery slope argument, and to Jonathan’s response (above) re: the thorny issue, because this is slippery and thorny and it HURTS. And I’m not even a playwright. Thank you for raising the questions “How can it be changed? What action can be taken? Is it possible to focus the conversation on quality of writing?” and for proposing possible solutions.

    If Emily Glassberg Sands intended to “to consider a larger, more disconcerting, ambiguous picture” I wish she had taken a step further back and provided a more revealing perspective. What if, for instance, she had researched the goals of the companies producing the plays? The male and female Artistic Directors and Literary Managers she surveyed were hired by organizations and boards of directors with powerful agendas. Didn’t this drive the results of her study?

    Research and surveys are not my expertise, and admittedly I opted out of the brouhaha following Ms. Glassberg Sands’ NYT article. Nevertheless I’ll add another question to the list: How can this issue be effectively evaluated and measured?

    As a longtime business owner in the theatre community, I’ve learned that one way to effectively evaluate is to look at what’s working well, consider what could be improved, and choose take action based on the results. As it happened, “what’s working well” fell into my lap the day I read Ms. Glassberg Sands’ article, because that same day I attended the matinee and evening performances of the Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon. (Full disclosure: I am a member.) The world premieres of ten one-act plays included six written by women. When I remarked about that fact to Artistic Director William Carden, he told me that even more remarkable was that the plays had been “read blind” by the selection committee – no writers’ names were on the scripts.

    Ensemble Studio Theatre’s mission is to nurture individual theatre artists and to develop new American plays. Let’s make no mistake that this institution, by adhering to its seemingly simple guidelines (for almost four decades!) produces quality writing and terrific theatre, with no gender agenda. Isn’t that what we’re looking for?

    Let’s issue a challenge to bright young graduate students such as Ms. Glassberg Sands, to develop a case study of EST that would provide a useful model for theatre companies for our beloved but artistically endangered country.

  • But Leonard, you have to admire the sheer Sarah-Palin-like contradictory chutzpah of Laura Collins-Hughes:

    ” . . . when I wrote yesterday that Oskar Eustis’ male-heavy programming at the Public is disappointing, I was not suggesting that one of the American theater’s most activist-liberal artistic directors, or anyone else, ought to be subjected to quotas. I simply meant to say that the Public’s audience, the bracingly varied audience Eustis inherited, deserves subscription-series programming that better reflects its makeup. To achieve that, female playwrights and directors need to be working at the Public in greater numbers.”

    In other words, “I was not suggesting that Oskar Eustis should be subjected to quotas, but that he should be subjected to quotas. Which is an entirely different thing.”

  • Here’s my question: what brings about the apparent assumption that only quotas or slanted judging will work to even the balance in productions of plays by men and women? Why is it difficult to imagine that a rise in demographic diversity and a rise in theatrical quality can happen together?

    I don’t think anyone would argue that American theatres are necessarily producing the best possible selection of plays all the time. As Ann indicates above, there are theatres which are producing an excellent selection of plays by a more diverse group of writers. (I would put the company I work with, Stage Left Theatre in Chicago, on the same list–we produced one play each by a man and a woman on our mainstage this year, and three of the five plays in our new play workshop festival last month were by women.) Why shouldn’t there be more?

    Increasing demographic diversity and increasing dramaturgical quality are not mutually contradictory goals. Why not include gender/racial/sexual/etc diversity in the ongoing, vital conversation of how to make the American theatre better?

  • Oh, also: quotas and diversity are not the same thing. A quota is one method, and not a very good one, of attempting to increase diversity (or squelch it, i.e. college admissions in the early part of the 20th Century). Diversity is a goal, and there are many ways to achieve it.

  • The bottom line for me – and I know people will scream at this – is that quality is more important to me than diversity. MUCH more important. If all the best plays are by men, then I want to only see plays by men. Likewise, if the best plays are by women, so long fellas (at least until after the show)!

    Right now, there’s only one female playwright on the planet who really interests me – Caryl Churchill. If you want to produce Caryl Churchill, right ON, sistah! But when it comes to Lynn Nottage or Sarah Ruhl or Theresa Rebeck or Lydia Diamond – well, not so much. I think Edward Albee and Tony Kushner and Tom Stoppard and David Mamet and Howard Barker and David Hare are better. A lot better. I’m more interested in hearing from them.

    If proponents of diversity actually had a few PLAYS they could point to, rather than authors, then I would understand their position completely. But they really don’t seem to have many actual texts that they feel deserve more productions. It’s always just “women” in general. The play is secondary. But to me, the play is primary. And I think it HAS to be if we’re ever going to reach anything like real diversity.

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