Voicing Questions About the Women’s Voices Theater Festival

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With the Women’s Voices Theater Festival at Washington, DC-area theaters wrapping up in mid-November, it’s an excellent time to ask “Now What?”

Festival Logo
Festival Logo

To refresh your memory: in 2014, seven of DC’s largest theaters unveiled an area-wide female-playwright festival to kickstart the 2015-16 season. The seven theaters had planned the event for awhile, and it was, according to Washington Post writer Nelson Pressley, modeled on the 2007 “Shakespeare in Washington Festival.” Soon, WVTF grew to include 46 theaters offering 52 new productions of plays by women. Notably, the planning started well before the infamous “pipeline” comment at The Summit, held in DC last year, at which Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette claimed that fewer plays by women are produced because fewer plays by women are “in the pipeline” — a gaffe for which Rillette was roundly blasted on social media. The qualifications to participate in WVTF? A play had to be a world-premiere, written by a female-identified playwright, and it had to be the first show of a theater’s season.

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Fifty-two new productions of plays by women at 46 theaters is already something to be cautiously optimistic about. But many questions remain — both about the event itself and about the outcome for female theater artists all across the field. The event drew press from across the country and, again, 52 playwrights saw or collaborated on premieres of their work. Audiences saw that work — and a few theaters saw new audiences drawn to them because of press for the festival or from another theater. At a time when research shows 20 to 25 percent of plays produced in America are written by women (Theatre Communications Group’s 10 Most Produced Plays list remains stuck at one-in-four female playwrights), WVTF is nothing short of a miracle.

The Playwrights of the WVTF. Photo by Scott Suchman for American Theatre Magazine
The Playwrights of the WVTF. Photo by Scott Suchman for American Theatre Magazine

There was, however, some mixed critical and audience reaction. True, new plays seem ripe for criticism precisely because they’re new, so perhaps this is not unexpected. Indeed, Kathleen Akerly, artistic director of Longacre Lea Theater Company, whose September shows were among the earliest presented in the WVTF, told The Clyde Fitch Report that while “audience reaction was all over the place,” the one “uniform reaction was pleasure in seeing the festival kicked off with two plays that weren’t about stereotypically ‘women’s’ issues’.” Added Alix Fenhagen, managing director of Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theater (one of the few Baltimore theaters participating), “The audience reaction was very positive and the reviews were also very positive. That said, sales were much lower than we had predicted.” You could argue, therefore, that this was a warning sign: larger theaters may not feel the impact of lower ticket sales as much as smaller ones. Moreover, all of the information on the critical and financial receptions of these 52 plays will no doubt affect the selection of these and other plays subsequent to the festival. If a premiere doesn’t do well financially (or critically), what incentive do other theaters have to take a chance on that play — or any other new play by that playwright?

For the most part, playwrights need several full productions of their work to get their script picked up by a publishing house. So, with respect to WVTF, was there any strategic thought given to how these plays would be produced afterward– to filling up that “pipeline”? “That no endowment or financial incentive was put in place [to] secure the voices of women into the future says all there is to say,” Venus Theatre founder Deborah Randall told me. “I’m happy so many women were given so many opportunities. But at it’s center [the festival] was a missed opportunity that could have catapulted us into a place of real change.”

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A small sample of the plays included in the WVTF

And what will WVTF’s lasting impact be on theater across the county? Will we see, for example, any of those gender-parity percentages changing any time soon? As Randall explained:

The way to attain equity is to launch education and advocacy components that raise the attendance to plays that are written by women. The stigma needs to be directly addressed instead of reinforced by tokenism.

Nor is there any word about similar festivals arising in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco, even as select theaters or advocacy groups in those metropolitan areas tout gender parity in their season selections or show recommendations.

Yet another impediment to change is the very business model that may or may not get counted in current research used to figure those percentages. It is well known that TCG actively excludes theaters that are not its members when it calculates that 10 Most Produced Plays List. While it’s TCG’s prerogative to limit their research to their membership, let’s remember that few independent companies actually meet TCG’s criteria, regardless of how many annual productions they do, who writes those plays, who is employed by those theaters or any other measure. Longacre Lea, for example, does one show a year; Venus Theatre only does women-empowering new plays. Outside of the events like WVTF, will their work ever get factored into the statistics? How about community theaters? Do non-TCG theaters count for nothing?

Only time will tell what the short-term, long-term and financial impact will be of WVTF and the whole gender-parity movement. In the late 1990s, the music industry was shaken up by the Lilith Fair, the female musicians’ tour spearheaded by Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan. Not meant to be a political statement, McLachlan did state that the tour was meant to defy the fact that “a disc jockey couldn’t play two female artists back to back on the radio at that time.” While the mainstage lineup was full of singer-songwriters, the second stages read like a who’s-who of ‘00s musicians from every genre: Neneh Cherry, Diana King, Letters to Cleo, Antigone Rising, even Idina Menzel. However, according to Ronald D. Lankford, Jr., in the book Women Singer-Songwriters in Rock: A Populist Rebellion in the 1990s:

…even though many media stories were positive, and while most attendees seemed to enjoy their experience of Lilith Fair… the popular media and academics have relegated Lilith Fair as a failed experiment.

Bringing together women artists for a time certainly raises profiles…for a time. As Akerly speculates:

The task of marketing new plays, not just those by women, will probably continue to push back against the goals of projects such as WVTF — but if enough cities have these events it should at least make more women playwrights into household names.

Let’s hope so.