Heretic’s Foundation X: Does Gender Bias Exist Against Women Playwrights?



By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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On Aug. 25, a meeting about discrimination against women in the theater will take place at the Julia Miles Theater, organized by the League of Professional Theater Women, the Women’s Project and New Perspectives Theater. Ahead of the meeting, I was asked on behalf of the panel to review the three research studies contained in the controversial thesis by Princeton student Emily Glassberg Sands, and its conclusions regarding whether gender bias exists in the theater — in the acceptance, and production of, playscripts by women. Sands’ thesis was the subject of an article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times on June 23. Analyses by various people followed, most notably in the articles — all very thorough and to the point — published by Thomas Garvey’s The Hub Review.

Sands’ findings have been so widely distorted in the press — in a way that has maligned women theater directors and literary managers — that one purpose of this meeting would appear to be for women involved in the industry to create a response that accounts for the reality of what Sands actually found.

As Garvey has emphasized, this document was, after all, only an undergraduate thesis, something to which the media would not normally pay any attention. Although it uses very sophisticated, even dazzling, computer-based statistical software, it is fairly unsophisticated in the implications it draws, in how its methodologies are applied. This created initial distortions that were then amplified by the uncritical echo chamber of the media. The research comprised three studies, each demonstrating a different methodology.

The Broadway Study (Chapter 6)
Sands first addressed the production and profitability of scripts by women on Broadway. As everyone in the theater knows, how much a Broadway show will net profit is not just a function of the length of a run but a consequence of the size of the theater — the cap, the constraint, if you will, on ticket sales. All else being equal, a show at the Gershwin Theatre can sell four times as many tickets as a show at the Helen Hayes Theatre: the former venue has approximately four times the seating capacity. However, Sands’ analysis does not factor in the seating capacity of venues. As a consequence, when Sands determines that plays by women writers generate greater revenue than those by male writers, this could simply be a side effect of theater size. Owing to this variable, some or perhaps all of Sands’ data on revenue is spurious. Analysis based on revenue information is also not a good proxy for understanding profitability, since it does not take production costs into account.

Of all the data Sands puts forward, perhaps we can best judge gender bias on Broadway by lengths of runs. In this respect, Sands finds little difference between male-written and female-written productions (that “remain in production for approximately the same number of weeks,” page 102). This indicates — contrary to what Sands suggests in her overall discussion — that producers do not prematurely close shows by women writers.

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The Audit Study (Chapter 5)
In her audit study, Sands attempts to test the hypothesis of gender bias against female playwrights in the theater community at large (page 61). To do so, she distributed 10-page scripts, deliberately created for this exercise by female playwrights, to 252 theaters nationwide, identifying either as the work of male or female playwrights. She asked “artistic directors around the country” (page 53) to comment on their quality. Of the respondents, 56% were artistic directors. Most of the remainder were literary managers.

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Asked to make a hypothetical judgment as to they would produce the submitted scripts, Sands found “respondents appear to be equally eager to produce scripts irrespective of playwright gender” (page 74). Female respondents “report being approximately equally likely to produce a script in their own theaters, irrespective of playwright gender” (page 77).

The only area of gender bias supported by the data was that female artistic directors and literary managers think other people won’t support women-authored scripts. They think such scripts will be “less likely to be produced by the theater community at large” (page 77), less supported by marketing directors and less equipped with “audience appeal.” Sands summarizes: “Female-written plays are perceived by artistic directors and literary managers to be of lower overall quality, to have poorer economic prospects” and “these results are most pronounced within the sample of female respondents.” Sands cautions, however, that as a hypothetical study, this research could itself be biased: it is based on people speculating about how other people might behave.

As the New York Times article stated, “Mary’s scripts received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael’s.” The writer of the article, however, claimed that this study provided “concrete evidence that women who are authors have a tougher time getting their work staged than men….that women who are artistic directors and literary managers are the ones to blame.” That is not what the data shows. Rather, the data shows female artistic directors and literary managers give scripts by women equal treatment. However, they imagine women’s scripts will encounter sexism from other people. Men were less sensitive to this difficulty — neither a new nor a remarkable conclusion.

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Analysis of total productions (Chapter 3)
Sands’ third research area aimed to assess the production of women’s scripts compared to those of men, globally as well as across the U.S. This was based on hard data from the online database, not hypothetical questions. The data, therefore, was self-reported.

Globally, although scripts by women have more female roles than those by men — which Sands’ data suggests makes it harder for women’s scripts to reach production — Sands found that, worldwide, “scripts on Doolee written by women are “equally likely as those written by men to be produced” (page 41). Similarly, “female-written scripts in the American sample are approximately equally likely to be produced” (page 49). In America, unlike globally, scripts with a majority of female parts are “equally likely to be produced” (page 49).

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Overall, this research showed that:

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  • in America, scripts by women playwrights are approximately equally likely to get produced as often as men;
  • regardless whether a playscript bears a male or female author’s name, male and female artistic directors and literary managers are equally eager to produce it;
  • the length of runs on Broadway is unrelated to the author’s gender.

That there are more plays being mounted by male authors is not caused by gender bias, but the presence of fewer women playwrights, who write fewer plays.

So the key question is: How do we encourage more women to write plays? Are there good role models among women playwrights? I think there’s a really exciting answer to this. I think one of the most important playwrights of all time was female. She is Amelia Bassano Lanier, a major Renaissance poet known as the “dark lady” of the Sonnets and mistress to the man in charge of English theater. Lanier has been listed by the Shakespearean Authorship Trust in the U.K. as one of the top ten Shakespeare theories. In October, the peer-reviewed journal the Oxfordian will publish my article showing that Lanier is the author of the plays of William Shakespeare. And on Sept. 5, my company, the Dark Lady Players, will offer a demonstration production at Manhattan Theater Source supporting this claim.

If this research turns out to be correct, this discovery could be precisely the stimulus to create a culture encouraging a new generation of women playwrights.

John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.

The views expressed in Heretic’s Foundation are not necessarily those of The Clyde Fitch Report.