Introducing The Marbury Project: Covering Women in the Arts

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A woman plays alone in an art gallery. Photo by Photocapy
A woman plays alone in an art  gallery. Photo by Photocapy
A woman plays alone in an art gallery. Photo by Photocapy

When it comes to dealing with sexism and bias in the arts, it seems as though a woman’s work is never done.

For decades, groups such as the Guerilla Girls on Tour, the International Centre for Women Playwrights, the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative and others have advocated on behalf of women in the theater.

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In 2002, the New York State Council of the Arts published a study confirming bias against women playwrights by American theaters.

In 2009, a controversial study by Emily Glassburg Sands also reached a similar conclusion about bias against women writing for nonprofit theater.

In early 2014, Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks hosted an event at Arena Stage. When Ryan Rilette, artistic director of Round House Theatre, claimed that fewer women were “in the pipeline” to get produced, anger exploded across Twitter. According to reports, Rilette also stated that some plays by women are feminist and outdated. So they are difficult to revive.

The Kilroys, a group of women working in theater, responded by conducting a survey of selected leaders in theater. They asked this group to recommend the best new plays by women. With a master list of over 300 plays, the group used criteria to cull the list down to 46 most recommended plays.

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These concerted efforts have been vital to confront gender bias and discrimination in theater. As a result, change might finally become a reality for women playwrights in theater.

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However, women in other art forms have had fewer resources through which to create change. Women arts administrators, choreographers, directors, artists, and others also struggle against bias.

Seven months ago, I began to discuss sexism in the arts with members of the CFR staff and elsewhere. This effort included background interviews, research, and idea sessions on how a spotlight could be shined on voices that were often ignored by insiders.

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We decided it was essential to go beyond proving bias exists and, instead, delve into solutions. The answer should include investigations, information and advocacy for artists and arts administrators who are women, male-to-female transgender and non-binary gender of all races and class backgrounds.

This new initiative would also provide a place for these artists and arts administrators to speak out about their experiences in the arts, along with their roles within it. Finally, the space itself could also be used for multi-media presentations about this issue. So it would not only include journalism but other creative expressions as well.

Elisabeth Marbury (left) and Elsie de Wolfe (right)
Elisabeth Marbury (left) and Elsie de Wolfe (right)

And so we are introducing The Marbury Project. It is named after Elisabeth Marbury, a contemporary of Clyde Fitch and one of the unsung heroines of American theater. Marbury was one of the first female theater and literary agents in America. She introduced the U.S. to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and promoted the careers of African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was also Fitch’s agent and friend.

Many scholars note that Marbury was a walking dichotomy. She was an independent woman and free-thinker during the rigid Victorian era. Marbury lived in an openly lesbian relationship with famed interior designer (and onetime Fitch actress) Elsie de Wolfe; yet she was also a convert to Roman Catholicism.

I believe Marbury’s apparent contradictions make her more human. Marbury didn’t accept conventional wisdom without questioning it. She honored her own voice and perspective, despite pressure from elsewhere. In essence, Bessie Marbury was true to herself.

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Honoring our own truth is absolutely essential in the arts. But far too often, we have been asked to mold our voices and stories to please the conventions of the present. Some of us have silenced ourselves for fear of a backlash, thus never giving ourselves a chance to grow as artists. When we have disagreed with our respective arts communities, we have found ourselves outside of it, isolated and alone.

Other times, we have found our voices drown out by those with more power, access and privilege. While it is important to have male allies, it is equally essential that they understand how to step back and allow us to maintain the integrity of our perspective and experiences.

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You will see and hear many voices in this space, not all of them will be in agreement with each other. It is not a competition for who is more progressive. Instead, the goal is to provide space for people to speak their truth.

There are plenty of worthy organizations and groups that are fighting bias in the arts. The Marbury Project will not duplicate their efforts; rather it will create another window into a pervasive problem in the arts.