The Year of Living Statistically

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By Thomas Garvey
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report

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If Oscar Wilde believed he lived in an age of surfaces, then we believe we live in an age of statistics. Or rather, that what we believe can be supported by statistics. Our world views aren’t irrational, we educated folk tell ourselves, much less driven by personal predispositions, or collective mythology. No, our views are evidence-, not faith-, based; what we believe aligns well with the data, with what can be shown to be true about the world.

But actually, the data doesn’t always back up that self-assessment. Just ponder, for a moment, the theatrical blogosphere, which has been reeling over the past year in a near-orgy of statistical claims – most of which have faded faster than Martha Coakley’s lead in the Massachusetts senate race.

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Only last summer, Emily Glassberg Sands announced that she’d demonstrated female playwrights were facing a landscape of entrenched sexism — and for a brief moment, her work was a cause cél√®bre. But it turned out Sands didn’t actually have the data to back up her thesis. Indeed, under scrutiny, all her claims fell apart but one: many women believed they were facing a landscape of entrenched sexism. Which is hardly the same thing. What’s more, Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout recently unearthed a startling bit of news: of the 10 new plays most produced by American theaters in the past decade (according to the magazine American Theatre), four were by women. Which would have been obvious to anyone actually watching the plays rather than drinking the post-feminist kool-aid.

But Teachout then stumbled himself, as he mused that his data seemed to show all classical authors but Shakespeare were disappearing from the boards. He bemoaned the fact that he had could find in his rankings “No Samuel Beckett, no Bertolt Brecht, no Anton Chekhov, no Georges Feydeau, no Henrik Ibsen, no William Inge…no history, in other words.”

Only Teachout was wrong, too. His method — he had simply synthesized the “Top 10” lists for 10 years running — had an obvious flaw (which he openly admitted): plays — and playwrights — could, over time, build up enough productions “under the radar” to beat the tallies of the authors in any single year’s Top 10. And utilizing the “advanced search” features on the very website Teachout had consulted, other bloggers soon found that classic playwrights were in fact being performed, just not in numbers that gave them any statistical prominence. Indeed, shows like The Importance of Being Earnest, though never in the golden circle, still racked up enough productions over the course of the decade to put Oscar Wilde ahead of many playwrights in Teachout’s pantheon.

Still, the critic’s doubters found plenty of evidence supporting one of his surmises: In the national database under consideration, 1,163 productions of Shakespeare were listed for the years from 2000-10, far more productions than were given any other classic author, or indeed any author, period. “Shakespeare crowds out everything else,” one excitable blogger huffed (who later decided, in between musings on “the Bruckheimer phenomenon,” that we have “a Shakespeare problem”).

Only he may be wrong, too. Here in Boston, erstwhile blogger Art Hennessey went to work assembling a spreadsheet of every professional theater in the Hub, categorizing each of its productions for the past decade. And Hennessey found that, at least locally, Shakespeare wasn’t crowding anyone out at all — except, perhaps, as Teachout had speculated, other classic authors. But new playwrights were doing just fine. Indeed, in the Hub they may even be crowding out Shakespeare: roughly 72% of Boston productions of the past decade were of contemporary plays.

But wait, there’s more. Hennessey’s spreadsheet didn’t quite align with the database Teachout and others had been consulting; some Boston theaters and productions seemed to be missing. Questions began to bubble up about whether its numbers could be trusted. Like almost all such databases, it was self-reporting, an obvious problem for any kind of rigorous analysis.

And therein lies another rub in our ongoing love affair with statistics — like so many significant others, the data’s not always there when you need it. In fact, we can’t be 100% sure that it’s ever there, or even could be there.

To some bloggers, of course, this is merely a speed bump in a breathless race to find some data — any data — to fit their politics. (Or their career path.) To others, the lack of back-up is actually unthinkable: the data has to be there; those clever proofs we all read about in Freakonomics couldn’t all be exceptions to the rule, could they?

Of course the trouble is that yes, they oh-so-could, and yes, even with a degree from an East Coast liberal arts college, you may be driven more by self-serving assumptions and prejudice (particularly of the subconscious kind) than by dedication to social justice and art.

Not that I can prove that on a bar chart, mind you. But this may be an opportune moment to stop and ponder: what precisely have we in the theatrical blogosphere learned from our year of living statistically? More on that in the next post from Hub Hubbub.

Thomas Garvey has at various points in his checkered career impersonated a director, screenwriter, architect, strategic analyst, and Boston Globe theater critic. He’s still impersonating a critic at www.hubreview.blogspot.com, where you can read his “cantankerous, but brilliant” reviews of theater, music, art, film and dance.

  • I’ll ask again. Can you (or anyone) show me any facts outside of the flaws in Sands’ undergraduate senior thesis that disproves the existence of gender bias in the American (or Canadian or English) Theatre? Any actual facts and data that disproves gender bias? Anyone? I would love to see them.

  • Tony:

    That Sands’ thesis is not supported by her data, doesn’t mean that there isn’t gender bias, it just means that her thesis about how gender bias might manifest and her conclusion regarding the degree of this bias has not been validated.

    We have to expect some margin of error, and we also have to expect some variation even amongst the best of these studies: i.e. Art Hennessey’s study of the Boston theatre scene is going to pick up ways that Boston is different from the national scene, the role that Israel Horowitz has in being the AD of Gloucester Stage, for one example.

    My guess is that if we examine the data, we will find biases, and that some of these biases are unfair, but they might not be the biases we expect.

    The point is that statistically reality might not match up with my personal experiences, and anyone who thinks they do is making an epistemological error about the relationship between those two bits of knowledge.

    Playwright A who belongs to cohort B may have consequently experienced bias from theatre C, but the over all national picture might show no strong bias against cohort B.

    Conversely:

    Playwright D of cohort E, might have no trouble getting produced even if the national picture shows a strong bias against E playwrights.

    In other words, neither statistics nor individual experience contradict one another.

  • I get what you’re saying Ian. However, that is not what Thomas has said. He is openly hostile to the idea that gender bias exists. He has said it, and he always uses flaws’s in Sand’s study and two or three women who’s plays he doesn’t like to make the case that women don’t get produced because they are not as good.

    The problem is there is a lot of data that shows gender bias exists. 7,000 Sarah Ruhl productions don’t negate that. (For the record, I’m not a big fan of Ruhl’s work either.)

    So if he is going to argue that gender bias doesn’t exist, that women only BELIEVE that it exists, I’d like to see one set of data, one study that backs that up.

    Are there are shitty plays by women? Yes. But on average there are 80% fewer shitty plays by women than shitty plays by men produced every year. (there’s also some pretty great ones) Judging by Thomas’ stated thoughts on the quality of new plays, what is there to lose by producing different voices? Why the hostility?

  • Thomas Garvey

    Well, Tony, I guess the fact that several women playwrights have been among the most produced in any given year for the past decade makes it a little harder for some people to believe in gender bias in the theatre. The fact that the most reliable evidence Emily Glassberg Sands unearthed revealed that male readers showed no prejudice against female playwrights makes it a little harder for some people to believe in gender bias.

    I know, of course, that you believe gender bias is still a problem in the theatre, and that you have a ten-year-old study to back you up. And that’s your prerogative. Just as other bloggers believe that new playwrights aren’t being done as much as classic playwrights. Yet what data we can find shows that women playwrights are indeed getting plenty of productions, and that new plays actually dominate the stage in our major cities.

  • I cede your point. Women are on TCG’s most produced list every year. But that’s not really an accurate snapshot. The most produced play on that list, Boom, has 9 productions out of 473 theatres. And that list doesn’t include holiday themed shows or Shakespeare.

    It also skews the new/old debate because 20 Miller productions aren’t counted if it is two or three productions each of different shows. Maybe Boston does far more new work than the national average, I can’t say. In Chicago it feels about 50/50. Once I get some free time I can say for certain what it has been over the last five years. (haven’t had time to look over the data I just got.)

    The Jonas/Bennett study is almost ten years old, but the numbers have been checked against it each year since, and there has been little variance. There has been continual follow up on it. And on average women earn less for their productions.

    For me the biggest flaw in Sand’s study is the assumption that the ratings of script readers have any major factor in season selection. I am not standing up for her thesis, if that’s what you think.

    If you want to question those studies, I have no problem. Question away. I quibble with the flat out assertion that it doesn’t exist, with no facts or counter argument to offer.

  • 99

    You have to help me here, Thomas. On your own blog, you proudly proclaim that you haven’t read Outrageous Fortune, so you’re not actually familiar with that research. You also applaud the Glassberg study’s work on operational bias (though it comes from an unexpected source: other women); you had issues (as did many others) about her further findings. This post says that Terry Teachout’s work is ambiguous at best. And yet, in that last comment, you seem to say that the evidence, which you either haven’t read, or draws different conclusions or is unclear at best (given that you’re comparing a possibly incomplete national survey to one individual’s study of one city) all by your own admission, is clear that women playwrights are being produced at an appropriate rate for their representation and that new plays are dominating the stage in our cities. So…were you wrong before? Are you wrong now? You seem to be all over the map here.

  • Thomas Garvey

    Tony, if this helps at all, in my next post I am going to discuss why theatrical practice is so resistant to statistical analysis. The very disjuncture between the data that seems to show gender bias and the data that reveals women are at the top of the new production list should give you some hint of what I’m getting at. That, rather than skepticism towards claims of gender bias, is the actual point of this series, btw. If you think that my aim in writing these articles is to “disprove” that women have ever faced bias in the theatre, then I think you’re projecting a bit (and nowhere do I say anything like that).

    As for 99 – after months of tangling with you on various blogs I have come to the conclusion that you’re so intellectually dishonest that I really would just prefer to disengage. Even in this most recent comment you subtly try to distort my words and slide in what amounts to a smear. That’s your M.O., frankly; if I respond you’ll just play the same trick all over again. I think open-minded readers can follow my arguments well enough, however, so I don’t think there’s much to lose in ignoring you.

  • I haven’t met you in person, so I don’t know your voice other than your writing, but you have said, (and forgive me if I have this wrong as I paraphrase from memory): It is a thesis I am hostile to, not because I hate women . . . but because I see many productions by women held up by the academy that are inferior, like those of Sarah Ruhl, and Lynn Nottage.

    Without having met you, it’s hard to parse from your writing. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d think you were really attacking the large institutions and press (ART, The Globe, NYT, etc.) So part of your response to the Sands study was in response to the NYT, Princeton and the powers that be more than the senior thesis itself? (Am I incorrect on that?) However, it doesn’t come off as being hostile to institutions and the big papers, it comes off as hostility to women. I may be wrong, but others have told me that as well, so I may not be the only one that is wrong.

    If you’re talking about statistics– and I know you’ve said no one in the blogosphere understands them, it’s been a few years myself– wouldn’t Ruhl or INTIMATE APPAREL be a classic example of an outlier? Is the disjuncture partly due to failing to account for outliers? Might it depend on whether or not one sees them as anomalous conditions?

    FWIW–You may want to check out OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE, I think it’s pretty interesting so far. There is some whining for sure, but any study on a disjointed field will have that. What’s most interesting in it for me is when it points to how much the insulation between Artistic Directors and the world outside the institution hurts theatres, and how audiences take the rap because it’s easier to blame them than to be honest with each other.

    • I want to tiptoe into this with respect to one issue. Setting aside whether anybody’s statistics are valid or not (Sands’ or otherwise), setting aside whether we read them objectively or use them as propaganda to advance our own views, if there is gender bias against women playwrights in the American theater, mustn’t there also be intent? Wouldn’t those accusing bias have to prove that specific artistic directors — Oskar Eustis or Carole Rothman or Andrew Leynse or Marc Masterson or anyone — are intentionally programming fewer plays by women?

      I’m not saying there is or isn’t bias. I’m saying that if bias is unintentional, that’s not bias, that’s ignorance. And if the bias is intentional, prove it. Specify names. Challenge them directly and publicly and in cyber-print. Don’t hide behind numbers.

  • Thomas Garvey

    Tony, I don’t mind if people think I’m “hostile towards women,” although of course nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t mind because I’ve encountered that kind of insult a zillion times before, from every interest group you can imagine. By now I’ve been accused of being anti-Native American, racist, homophobic (I’m gay), anti-Irish (I’m Irish), of course anti-American, and anti-just-about-everything-else, too. By now I’ve learned that kind of smear is the default mode of most people when they encounter aesthetic critique, so while I feel embarrassed for the people who employ it, beyond that it doesn’t affect me aside from the irritation that comes from having one’s time wasted.

    As for Emily Glassberg Sands, the intellectual bankruptcy of her supporters does surprise me a bit, I admit. By now the issues with her paper are pretty much common knowledge, but still people like Marsha Norman carry on about her. It’s just pathetic. Leave her to Harvard, is what I say; I’m sure her next set of thesis advisors will pay more attention than the crew at Princeton did.

    Since you bring up Sarah Ruhl and Lynn Nottage, I will say that what is truly troubling about so many people who bat about insults like “he’s hostile to women” is that there are, indeed, great female playwrights out there – only the “feminists” are never interested in them! I’ve never heard any of these types really champion writers like Caryl Churchill or Sarah Kane, whom I adore. And why? Because they’re too talented, that’s why! Could Theresa Rebeck or Marsha Norman or Sarah Ruhl hold a candle to Caryl Churchill? No, my friend, not in a million years. So of course they’re of no interest to these types, because they’re of no political use! But to me, they’re the female playwrights who count.

  • 99

    Leonard, I think there can and should be a distinction between bias and discrimination. I’m of the opinion that discrimination involves intent; the actual thought “I don’t want women’s plays produced here” is a feature of discrimination. Bias is, in my experience, subtler. One of the things that the Glassberg study shows very well is bias. The women readers in the study indicated that they thought the women’s plays would be judged more harshly than a man’s plays and therefore passed on them. That’s an instance of bias. It’s a slippery thing.

    • Well, I think your distinction, 99, is highly facile. That’s just my view.

  • 99

    I can see that. As I think about it more, it’s a “distinction without a difference” and the key thing is whether you need to prove intent to have bias or discrimination. I think that’s one of the things that muddy the water, though I know I’ve engaged in it, usually out of anger. There’s a definite difference in my mind between someone being a racist (or a sexist) and being discriminatory. They may actually be the complete opposite. The case from the Glassberg study is a prime example: do the women who discriminate against other women’s scripts do so out of bias against them? Or just ignorance? I do read it as bias. They feel that, based on their experiences, both they and the scripts written by women will face harsher scrutiny, so they pass on certain scripts. The end result is discrimination. Where does intent fit into that?

    I guess, in a way, what I’m asking is that, if it’s more a case of ignorance, where do you see the potential for education?

    • Well, that’s precisely the question. If we can identify which specific artistic directors are intentionally/unintentionally engaging in discrimination/bias (just to put all the possibilities out there), the question is how we confront them, what it is we want.

      Now, I still think the community is too timid, too petrified, to be specific — to name names, to make all the appropriate stinks in all the right boardrooms, talkbacks and blogs. But if we did, you’re quite right: How do you educate taste? If an a.d. simply doesn’t like any new plays by women that particular year, can we trust it’s because they just don’t like them or does not, simply by definition, make them avatars of bias/discrimination? What we have is a matter of trust — or loss of trust, as part of this equation. The whole 50/50 in 2020 basically wants a quota system, which is a terrible idea as applied to art. If I’m an artistic director and I think Sarah Ruhl’s new play is better than that of Donald Margulies, I should produce it. And if I think vice versa, then I should produce that. The problem is, we don’t trust artistic directors are doing that. And Sands’ report is predicated on playing on that distrust and using statistics to prove it.

      I happen to think Tom is right, though if I didn’t, it wouldn’t matter in terms of the CFR publishing his piece (we have a conservative columnist now, and you just know I don’t agree with a lot of what she writes). But whether Tom is right or not, whether you agree with him or not, statistics very, very rarely make people take action. If they did, health care reform would be the law of the land. As you’re suggesting in last comment, only education can really change anything. So the question is what we mean by education, and who needs to be educated. And on that score, I feel pretty bereft of answers that satisfy me.

      (I wrote this very quickly so apologies for any typos or missed words.)

  • Thomas Garvey

    Just btw, it seems rather obvious that if the bias women face is actually from other women who believe that there is, indeed, bias – despite the success of plays by women, despite the growing number of scripts by women – then one form of “education” that should take place is the message that there, is in fact, little, or at the very least far, far less, bias than was once the case. To cling to the belief that an earlier form of bias still exists will, ironically enough, only perpetuate the bias that actually exists today. Yet keeping that belief going is what Tony and 99 unwittingly advocate.

  • 99

    Oh, Thomas, I thought you were ignoring me! I’m so glad that you’re not and still able to divine my unwitting intentions. Thanks ever so much.

    Leonard, I think there are a number of overlapping, intersecting bias concerns involved here. The basics of what makes a good play is part of it. If the standards of what makes a good play were established by men, at a time when only men were allowed to write plays, what does that say when a woman sets out to write a play? Is it just a matter of taste? And how do artistic directors make their decisions anyway? The whole thing is clouded in secrecy. More transparency from their end would also be good.

    But you (and my very good and/or imaginary friend Thomas) are actually quite right: what’s the end game? It’s something I’ve certainly been thinking about and wrestling with throughout this discussion. Is absolute parity the end game? Proportional representation? I think you’re right that a quota is not the right way to go, but making blind selections an industry standard (which has worked well for classical music) would be a step in the right direction. At the end of the game, it’s about making sure as many plays as possible have as fair a shot as possible.

    I still say the proof is in the pudding: the list of most produced playwrights is still dominated by men. Male playwrights are still making more than female (though the gap isn’t quite as wide) and are produced on Mainstages more, as opposed to second stages. On top of which, apparently, if someone doesn’t like a play by a woman, the first assumption is that her play was produced as some kind of affirmative action sop. I’ve yet to hear anyone say that Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s work is getting preferential treatment because he’s a white male. Bias and prejudice do still exist and pretending that they don’t isn’t an actual solution.

  • Thomas Garvey

    Well, by all means have some more Kool-aid, 99, while you plot your next move! Gosh, what grand plan will you settle on for western civilization? We’re all on pins and needles.

  • @Leonard, do you think institutional racism is a facile distinction? That an institution or systems can be discriminatory without the individuals inside the institution being actively racist? If yes, how is that different than gender bias v. active discrimination?

    I’m not in NYC, so I can’t say with much veracity who is doing what there. I know the Public routinely comes up. Names are being named in NYC, but mostly by women, so for the most part they are written off as sour grapes. (And then there are folks like Rebeck, who probably does more harm than good on that issue every time she writes an essay.)

    Thomas, I totally agree about Churchill. I would add Fornes (who was an influence on Churchill) and Astrid Saalbach to that list of women with formidable bodies of work. But they are rarely produced as well. Saalbach has only had one US production (full disclosure, I produced it.) In Chicago, I don’t think Kane has been underproduced, but that may be different than Boston.

    But it intersects with a lot of issues. One is that a lot of quality plays are passed up for ones by writers with the proper credentials. (And nationally for ones done by a handful of NYC non-profits with the blessing of the NY Times.) At heart I’m not arguing for a quota system. Others may be, I’m not. I’m arguing for opening up the gates to allow more quality plays through. There are many extraordinarily talented writers whose plays are not making it to production, and that is a problem. But one of the first steps is making people aware of the problem. To me we need to open the gates, not to allow for more productions of Ruhl or Rebeck, but to allow for more Churchill’s and Fornes’ to develop.

  • 99

    The quota is a total straw man, since no one has ever mentioned it. I have, as a proponent of diversity, considered what the best results are, especially given that some of the evidence shows that the actual gap isn’t quite as stark as it appears. I think there’s a lot to discuss in terms of why, to the artists in the field, they feel as though it is. And why it appears that our stages are so bereft of it. Obviously, there’s still a problem. The question is what to do about it.

    But, Thomas, you know you’ll be the first to know.

  • Needless to say, 99, I disagree. And I have mentioned it — though I guess for you that means “no one.”

    But the question is indeed what to do if the artists in the field “feel as though” there is bias. Frankly, I think there’s a bias against people over 30, which must be why I read a statistic last week than one out of five white men 25 to 54 in the U.S. is currently unemployed. But maybe that’s how I feel. Honestly, I don’t know.

  • Leonard, I don’t know if this got much play, but another thing that OF talked about was the desert for playwrights between their early 30’s and their 60’s (for those who were able to stick around long enough.) I don’t think you’re that off on that.

  • 99

    Come on, Leonard, you know what I mean is that no one on the side of diversity has mentioned a quota. That’s why it’s a straw man. I’m not advocating for it, no one has advocated for it, and yet it’s the first question out of the critics’ mouth.

    The kinds of bias we’re talking about is exceedingly slippery and, Tony is very right, far more about institutions than individuals. I just read the Terry Teachout piece you wrote about, the one with the list of playwrights he likes. He lists three women and two minorities in his list of playwrights he finds worthy of going out of his way to see. Do I think that he’s a racist or sexist? No. But do I think that’s a sign of bias? Yes. And that’s part of the “feeling.” I can’t say that there should be exactly 50% women, 12% black, etc. on his list. But…it gets icky when you start asking why, because, sooner or later, you come to the bedrock: if there aren’t more minorities on the list, then they’re not on the list because they don’t deserve to be, and then they don’t deserve to be on the list because they don’t write good plays. And then we’ve hit some pretty ugly thinking.

  • Thomas Garvey

    Tony, you may be right about Fornes and Saalbach. I’ve read Fornes, and she’s interesting all right, but I’ve actually never seen her produced in Boston, so I don’t feel confident making any critical assessments. I’ve never even read Saalbach, but hell I’ll give either one of them a chance over Ruhl or Rebeck!

  • In the last decade I’ve seen four Fornes productions in Boston. All smaller productions.

    The ART Institute (Sarita), Pet Brick (Molly’s Dream) and the Factory Theatre (Mud.) I think the fourth was at Peabody Coop?

  • Michael Evans

    Nice discussion, guys. Here’s my two cents’ worth:

    It’s hard to prove a negative. Sands’ thesis had some problems, but that doesn’t mean its conclusions are wrong, only that they haven’t been proven. What she did show, conclusively, is that 75 % of productions are male-authored. This very fact, it would seem to me, indicates that a lot of woman feel it’s harder for them to get their plays produced than it is for men. So they don’t write them, or submit them. The percentage of submitted female plays is about the same as the percentage of produced female plays. So the gap is first and foremost in the writing.

    But how strange this is! Audiences are usually 60% female and 40% male! (Several studies wind up with something like these figures.) Why is it that going to the theatre is feminine, while writing the content is masculine?

    This dichotomy I find very strange…

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  • Thomas Garvey

    To Michael – sorry, but some of Sands’s conclusions are just plain wrong. The techniques she uses can’t be applied to theatre (they’re forms of marginal analysis), and she fudges the data she puts into them. That makes her conclusions wrong.

    If her “conclusion” had been what you say it is, then yes, there would be no argument from me. But her paper would have been much, much shorter.

  • Thomas Garvey

    To Art – thanks for the tip on Fornes, but it doesn’t sound like any of those were professional productions, and those fill up just about all my time. Also, I only began writing criticism about five years ago! Certainly Fornes is overdue for a professional production in Boston!

  • Michael Evans

    To Thomas –
    Some of her conclusions may well be wrong, but do you deny that about 75 % of theatre productions are male-authored? Just look around you, man. Now, that may or may not be a bad thing. My comment went to the fact that more woman buy tickets to shows than men. It’s THAT descrepancy I was trying to point out. When so many more women are going to the theatre than men, perhaps we should be thinking about masculinizing the theatre more, not feminizing it. Just a thought.

  • Thomas Garvey

    Well, Michael, one might ponder the fact that talent in playwriting is not a smooth data set – in fact, it couldn’t be more spiky. Dramatic talent is not like a widget. It’s rare, very rare. I’ve been screamed at for pointing out that “all the best plays are by white men,” but of course they are, because white men have had something like a 2,000 year jump start on everyone else. There’s often fifty years between lasting playwrights, sometimes a hundred (sometimes five hundred). So it would be quite surprising – actually, it would be very bizarre – if within two or three decades female and male playwrights were at parity in production. As it is, we’ve seen recently that among productions of new plays, women have more than gained a foothold – indeed, they are, actually, getting closer to parity. I’m not sure we have data specifically about women purchasing tickets to new plays, but I imagine, actually, that they may well buy more tickets to new plays by women. Or at least I wouldn’t be surprised; why not? But I do want to resist, a bit, your implicit confidence that this would necessarily be a great thing. I’d hope that women (as they are, indeed, smarter and more sensitive than men) would gravitate to the best plays being written, whoever wrote them.

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