For Women Playwrights, Did 50-50 in 2020 Fail?

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KilroysWe give The Kilroys credit. They announced their existence, got a feature in the New York Times, and suddenly on social media and at theatrical water coolers and lodged within the heads of artistic directors of theatre companies from sea to shining sea people are talking up the 46 Kilroys-recommended plays by women that are good — like, very good — like, very good and very ready for production by the very theatres which, we assume, perpetuate gender inequality in the American theatre.

Statistics on new-play production by women, of course, are all over the place: easily assailed, easily criticized, notoriously difficult to divine in the first place. If, for example, your standard is to measure new-play production by women on Broadway, implicit is the idea that Broadway is the epicenter of the American theatre, and unless you’re purely all about commercial production, only the intelligence-deprived would know that’s simply untrue. If your standard is to measure new-play production by women at the hundreds of nonprofit theatres across the U.S., do you count only those that are members of the national service organization Theatre Communications Group? Do you count only playwrights with agents? Should playwrights whose plays have been produced by major nonprofit regional theatres more than once somehow count more toward redressing gender parity than “early-career” playwrights receiving their first production?

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Still, it remains indisputable that new plays by men are produced more often than new plays by women. So The Kilroys basically said to hell with it. The Los Angeles-based group (Zakiyyah Alexander, Bekah Brunstetter, Sheila Callaghan, Carla Ching, Annah Feinberg, Sarah Gubbins, Laura Jacqmin, Joy Meads, Kelly Miller, Meg Miroshnik, Daria Polatin, Tanya Saracho and Marisa Wegrzyn) created a daunting list of new plays by women as “nominees,” then a selection process to winnow things down to the 46 Kilroys-recommended plays. Their list of eligible voters included artistic directors and literary managers and people they deemed Important to Include.

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We believe true arts journalism means asking legitimate questions. Not to be killjoys about The Kilroys, but we wonder if their idea wouldn’t benefit from critical analysis. Which brings us to 50-50 in 2020. Remember that? We sure do.

We thought the point of 50-50 in 2020 for women playwrights was to force the industry into a tacit affirmative action plan. (50-50 in 2020 meant 50 percent of new plays produced would be by women by the year 2020.) We thought it was born of that boiling ’00s moment in which Emily Glassberg Sands made public her research on gender inequality on new-play production, fitting neatly with the larger national conversation about gender parity in American life, especially in business.

The high-powered League of Professional Theatre Women was all over this, and we had questions for them as well. Our first one was simple: Is it all right to question, if not the goal of such efforts, their feasibility?

We’re six years away from 2020 now, and here come The Kilroys from, it seems, the same place of demanding meaningful redress to gender inequality on the American stage, through a different shock-and-awe assault.

Actually, we’re ahead of ourselves. We noticed the branding of The Kilroys on its website:

We Make Trouble. And Plays.

And this, on The Kilroys’ About Us page:

The Kilroys are a gang of playwrights and producers in LA who are done talking about gender parity and are ready to act. We are mobilizing others in our field and leveraging our own power to support one another.

Does this mean 50-50 in 2020 failed? If we’re done “talking about gender parity,” was 50-50 in 2020 just talk?

To Zakiyyah Alexander, Bekah Brunstetter, Sheila Callaghan, Carla Ching, Annah Feinberg, Sarah Gubbins, Laura Jacqmin, Joy Meads, Kelly Miller, Meg Miroshnik, Daria Polatin, Tanya Saracho and Marisa Wegrzyn we ask this: May we ask you some questions? Warning: we suspect you won’t like them. We fear you will whip out accusations of misogyny or patriarchy-laced condescension or some other defensive device in response, as if to de-legitimize what we know are legitimate questions. We hope we’re wrong. Here goes:

1) Many women playwrights across the U.S. already feel alienated and marginalized by the industry — not only because their chances of being produced are miniscule but because they don’t live, for example, in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, or didn’t attend one of the four or six graduate schools which we all know aspiring American playwrights must attend to be viewed as legitimate by most of the industry’s power-brokers. (Do you dispute there’s a graduate school mafia in the American theatre?) By creating a major master list of new plays by women, then a process to fashion and promote 46 Kilroys-recommended new plays by women, aren’t you doubly de-legitimizing huge swaths of your own constituency?

2) Why will no contemporary women playwright stand up and name a name of an artistic director they believe is actively discriminating? We understand the easy answer: all playwrights have investments in not alienating the artistic directors who they want to produce their plays. At the same time, wouldn’t the definition of courage be to stand up not merely for your own interests but for the interests of women playwrights as a whole?

3) This question picks up on your answer to Question 2, for we read what Joy Meads told Howlround.com:

…the reason is not because we’ve got shadowy smoke-filled rooms full of avowed misogynists who are harboring conscious enmity towards women. That’s not what’s happening. That was what was happening in the past, way back when, but not now. I think what’s happening is that we have a lot of systemic, institutional and unconscious bias. All of these reasons that have converged to make it feel quote unquote riskier for one reason or another for a theater to produce a play by a woman. With unconscious bias, the way our minds work, our expectations and assumptions are shaped by our experiences, and that’s just something going in. So when you’ve had a lifetime of reading and seeing quote unquote successful plays that come from a male perspective and are male-centered, that influences the way you perceive what will be successful, unless you are very conscious about identifying and being aware of that bias. I think that’s one thing. I think everyone wants to produce equitably. No one wants to consciously prop up men and keep women down, but I think there are all of these forces that we haven’t yet been able to talk about because the conversation has been stuck in this loop of “oh, the plays aren’t there,” which they are.

How do you define “systemic, institutional and unconscious bias”? Like, exactly, how does it manifest? Why do you think no one in the decision room at any point, be it a literary manager or an artistic director or a member of a board, is capable to saying “Hey, wait a minute!”? Is it that unconscious? How do you know? How do you prove it? How does creating a list of 46 Kilroys-recommended new plays by women — that is, to the exclusion of many other new plays by women and making value judgements about all their work — get us talking of “forces that we haven’t yet been able to talk about”? Aren’t you perpetuating a system of winners and losers? If there was a woman playwright out there who felt The Kilroys represented something cliquish, clubby, exclusionary and elitist, how would you demolish her case?

4) Speaking of winners and losers, do all playwrights on your recommended list have agents? Is that fair? What of women playwrights who feel it isn’t fair, who sense institutional bias against them by agents in the first place?

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

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

7) For women playwrights, did 50-50 in 2020 fail?