A Reply to ‘For Women Playwrights, Did 50-50 in 2020 Fail?’

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Jessica Coward in 2010. Photo taken by Cliff Mautner
Jessica Coward in 2010. Photo taken by Cliff Mautner
Jessica Coward in 2010. Photo by Cliff Mautner

Not all CFR Staff bylined stories are created equally. Some posts are solely the work of one person. Other times, conversations happen among contributors that give birth to ideas. Such was the case with the latest CFR Staff post, “For Women Playwrights, Did 50-50 in 2020 Fail?

While I didn’t write the actual post, I provided some input into the content. After much discussion, an initial post was formulated. At that point, I was encouraged to offer a dissenting opinion in my own post. I was more than happy to do exactly that.

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But with each subsequent draft, it became apparent the post would become a series of questions. There’s no way to offer dissent from something like that, other than to say, “Please stop asking questions.”

So here I am, answering those questions. If the tone of that post upset you — and you are a man — let me assure you that women have no need for protection against harsh questioning. On the contrary, I would rather someone verbalize skepticism than hide behind political correctness. Undoubtedly there is an Artistic Director out there who has the same thinking as what was in the CFR Staff post. I’d like the opportunity to respond openly.

And also I’ll add that no one has told me to respond to this CFR Staff post. I’m doing this completely on my own. If you have doubts about this statement, then perhaps reading “How To Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Russ will be enlightening. Focus particularly on the chapters that show how often women are accused of not writing their own texts and how their life experiences have been viewed as insignificant. Then get back to me.

Contrary to popular belief, asking questions isn’t the same as being unsupportive. I believe in The Kilroys, along with the 50-50 in 2020 Movement. I also know both efforts are strong enough to answer provocatively posed questions. Responding to them with integrity could even sway some people who are on the fence about a few issues.

Although I’m not a member of the Kilroys, I’m going to attempt to answer these questions.

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If you don’t know me, let me introduce myself. I’m a playwright with modest success. I’ve been around for quite awhile (on and off now for two decades) and no, that doesn’t include the time frame when I told everyone in theater to go fuck themselves. I quit theater for a few years and came back a bit more wiser. Since the late ‘80s, I observed and experienced gender inequality firsthand in theater. Except back then we called it sexism. And if you talked about it openly in mixed company, the men in the room would grow silent or get angry at you. That was my experience, probably up to 2006. Gender equality wasn’t always so hip in the theater community.

I fully understood my name wasn’t going to be on The List, particularly since I haven’t sent plays out in the past 18 months or so. I recently completed my first film project – as writer and director – which is now making its way on the film festival circuit. I mention all this so you know this doesn’t come from a place of “sour grapes.” I’m happy in my creative life and I most definitely want to make things better for women playwrights in the future. I would hate to see people go through what I did.

That said, let’s begin.

Did 50-50 in 2020 fail?

I didn’t understand this question when it was posed behind the scenes. I think the train of thought went something like this: Wasn’t 50-50 in 2020 supposed to be a cure for this issue?

I never saw it that way. I also think some women may have thought leaders in American theater would be a bit more reasonable. But who could’ve predicted Joe Dowling’s last few seasons at the Guthrie Theatre? Who could envision how an artistic director would stop listening to his community, accuse theatermakers of sour grapes and program an ill-conceived, white male season? Efforts such as The Kilroys are clearly needed for a theater community that seems stuck in 1970. More work has to be done. Let’s hope The Kilroys are just the beginning.

What is “systemic, institutional and unconscious bias?”

It’s the type of bias that relegates women’s plays to the Black Box theaters while men get the Mainstage because of budgetary concerns. It’s how men push each other’s work while ignoring work by women. It’s about articles gauging how a woman looks rather than her performance skills. It’s telling women they write small plays, while assuring them you are an ally. It’s when men say they don’t know any good plays by women. Do I need to continue? If so, let me know. I’d be more than happy.

Why do no women stand up and name names of an artistic director they believe is actively discriminating?

It’s not that women lack courage. We name names amongst ourselves. That’s the way it works in extremely sexist environments. We keep to ourselves and help each other quietly.

After college I worked in a pressroom. There were multiple instances of sexual harassment. During a shift change, women would inform each other about what happened and which guy did it.

I’ve had that experience in theater, particularly in the last few years. It doesn’t happen publicly because women don’t want to be blacklisted. And that is a very real possibility, particularly in this industry.

Is The Kilroy List exclusive?

Yes, and that is a real criticism. One of the disheartening things I’ve seen in theater lately is how the “unlisted” women were shut down by their colleagues. They were told that their objections were petty because it stemmed from personal interest. After all, it isn’t about them.

But if it isn’t about those unlisted women, then who is it about? Theater, of course. It’s always about theater and never really about the theatermakers. Theater is the reason why so many nonprofits don’t pay theatermakers. Theater is the reason why nonprofits would rather build extravagant buildings than invest in people. Over and over again, theatermakers get told to put their personal interests aside.

So when I see unlisted women in genuine pain because they were, once again, invisible, it feels like a punch in the gut. And the fact that many people lacked compassion for their fellow theatermakers, telling them in essence, to “suck it up,” was a huge problem. It was something that needed to be addressed to get people to buy into the effort.

In the same breath, I will also tell you that The List, while imperfect, needed to happen. Yes, it consisted of a whole lot of insiders. But if Artistic Directors can’t see women who are standing two feet in front of them, how are they doing to see women who are coming up the stairs?

What if someone produces one of the 46 plays tomorrow and people think it sucks?

Well, I’d blame the director. Duh.

I’m kidding, of course. But that question is part of the sexism. White men are individuals. Every other group – women and also men of color – are supposed to move like a blob. We aren’t seen as individuals.

As an advocacy organization, what will you do about gender inequality in other aspects of American life?

I think they would kick ass because that’s what we all need to do.

Those questions are the ones I feel qualified to answer right now. But I would like to bring this discussion full circle – back The Clyde Fitch Report.

If you take a look at our contributors, you will see that the site is nowhere near racial or gender parity. When I was brought on as Associate Curator back in January, one of my tasks was to deal with this issue. Everybody working on this site is aware of the problem, and we have often had discussions – occasionally heated – about how to deal with it. The most popular way, of course, is to invite your friends.

I’ve resisted this idea, and not because I have no friends. The idea of limiting opportunities to people who are within your social network smacks of elitism to me. There are plenty of voices out there who are unlisted, unconnected and outside the mainstream. They don’t belong to some of the powerful cliques in theater. They are not insiders. And sometimes they are afraid to speak up for fear of being shouted down by others.

If you think you have something to say, a project you’d like to discuss or even present an opposing viewpoint, drop a note at: Laura (at) ClydeFitchReport.com

As you can see, this site is not afraid of dissent.

  • Guest

    “Theater is the reason why nonprofits would rather build extravagant buildings than invest in people.” — if someone truly believes this, it makes me wonder whether they know anything about public financing. Extravagant buildings have little to do with theater.

    And that misunderstanding makes me wonder what else they/you don’t get. As an invisible, straight white male in the theater, I wonder why posts like this are not directed at the people who run theater today and who make the curatorial choices – gay men. They are the ones who were traditionally forced into this field, because straight men didn’t want them in any other field.

    So now they own it, and they produced the work of their friends and peers, the people they meet at their parties and events the same way straight people do in other fields. It’s networking that’s rarely discussed. It’s not me or mine, so don’t blame us. As I root for the Yankees and Knicks, and play softball in the park, I’m just as invisible as you and yours.

    More power to the gay men in charge, but they’re not really interested in producing the work of women. Too much competition. They want to be you, they don’t want to raise you up. Where’s that frank discussion?