The lack of production opportunities for women and playwrights of color compared to their white male colleagues is a major, and increasingly analyzed, issue in American theater. “The Count,” the latest statistics compiled by the Dramatists Guild and the Lilly Awards on just which playwrights are getting produced at our theaters, clearly spelled out the issue in their data on over 2,508 productions from 2011-2014—14% of productions are by American white women, 3.4% are by American women of color, 2.5% are by white foreign women and .4% are by foreign women of color. In total, women made up approximately 22% of the productions, and since the sample included only contemporary plays from the last 50 years, one can assume that their representation is even lower on the general theater landscape once the male-dominated plays of yore are factored in.
It’s a disappointing, although not surprising, look at how far the industry has to go on gender parity, and it came just a few weeks before the public outcry over Manhattan Theatre Club’s all-white-male season announcements further emphasized its points. But there are some bright spots. For example, Chicago proved to be the best city for gender parity with 36% female productions. Given that this column is rooted in Chicago, it’s encouraging to see the city’s culture leading the nation in opportunities for female playwrights. Also, compared to a former study of New York theaters on the 2001-2002 season, women’s representation has grown 5% from the previous 17%. These are small gains, but they suggest an upward climb, especially since the emergence of major writers like Sarah Ruhl, Annie Baker and Katori Hall, or advocacy groups for women writers like the Lilly Awards or The Kilroys. The Kilroys, who for the last two years have released The List — a carefully compiled list of the most popular plays by women writers yet to receive more than one (or any) production — seem particularly on to something. And while their emergence in 2014 at the end of the window for the study conducted for “The Count,” makes it difficult to assess their actual influence (yet), this concentrated, and seemingly unprecedented, movement by playwrights for playwrights suggests a new, and effective, method for getting quality work produced that has yet to succeed through the conventional, often New York-centric theater pipelines. It shows a need — the need for more female and trans* work to get actual productions — leading to a new tool of grassroots playwright advocacy — the branded list.
Seeing The Kilroys list makes me think about what other possibilities exist for branded list-making in the theater world. Lists could be powerful tools for any underrepresented playwright demographic or subject matter, as they streamline the usual literary management tasks of identifying quality work and suggesting how it might fit into a season. By offering a volume of plays, with an entire team of writers behind them, they also negate the usual excuses theaters give to defend a lack of demographic or thematic diversity in their programming — that plays of a certain category don’t exist; that there aren’t enough “good” plays in that category; that no one is interested in seeing such plays in the first place.
So what if, in addition to the list we have now of underproduced women and trans* writers, we also had a list of the top underproduced contemporary plays in other demographics, like Hispanic writers or Muslim writers? Or any other demographic that doesn’t get fair representation on our stages? The creation of such lists would have to be done with care, of course, after thoughtful curation and national surveys by a group of playwrights from the community that the list represents, and in such a way that the shared identity of the writers never becomes reductive or overstated. No list should ever be considered perfectly representative of an entire demographic, and we’re of course not looking to determine the “official” plays of a given community. Such a methodology could quickly lead to pigeonholing or play season tokenism, stripping writers of their individuality beyond some particular demographic trait. But the lists should be a way for a group of writers to assert themselves and to encourage just and deserving representation on American stages.
I also think it’s crucial that the lists be branded in a way that promotes their quality and underlying cause beyond the demographic ties of the plays on the lists. The Kilroys use inspired branding that emphasizes gender parity, justice and a subversion of an unfair system. They also make it clear that their play list is a collection of plays that deserve to be done because they are excellent plays. The shared gender ties between the writers is clearly the point, and it unmistakably connects the production of these plays to the greater issues of gender equality that our industry continues to struggle with. But they’re never suggesting the plays on their list be done simply because they are by women. They should be done because they’re excellent plays, written by excellent female writers, and because a person’s gender should never hold them back from having their voice heard.
In addition to demographic lists, we could also see subject-themed lists as well. The amount of advance planning that must be done for a theater’s season can make them slow to respond to the current, evolving issues of our 24-hour news cycle. But having lists of plays that deal with specific issues, like the Syrian civil war or Wall Street corruption, could be a way to streamline and encourage the production of plays on such themes. The creation of an official Black Lives Matter play list by writers with close ties to the movement could be a very powerful tool for bringing the national conversation on racial injustice further into our communities. And such subject-based lists wouldn’t always have to be for full productions. They could be presented as quickly assembled readings or workshops, wherever they most need to be heard. Having a convenient, curated list of excellent plays on hand would greatly facilitate this kind of immediate response.
Having dozens of lists out there could become counterproductive, and we would never want the lists to take precedence over the individual tastes and visions of the theaters themselves. The point is not to start a network of playwright lobbying groups that make season planning even more complicated and potentially controversial than it already is. But just as we have seen with The Kilroys, quality lists with powerful branding that speak to real issues of justice and representation can be an effective new method of playwright advocacy. Besides, when regional theaters primarily base their seasons on the latest hits Off- or on Broadway, that’s already its own form of choosing new work from a list. Why should that list be our only one?