Counting Women: Baselines for Advocacy

From the Lilly Awards & Dramatists presentation of The Count

Observations of the male-dominated Tony Awards by Pia Catton and Lynn Nottage provided a poetic and troubling call to arms for the initial Women Count report in 2014. For Catton, the 2012 Tony Awards telecast revealed the “sad truth” that while the performing Tonys “are equally bestowed on male and female stars of the stage, there’s a colossal gender gap in the honors given to the men and women who create the shows.” The June 2014 telecast underscored for playwright and Tony-voter Nottage the maleness and whiteness of the awards and how that affected her as a voter:

Broadway is a closed ecosystem. It is dispiriting and quite frankly infuriating for those us who participate in the voting process. It sometimes feels as if we’re being asked to assemble a guest list for a party to which we’re not invited.

Existing efforts to count, study, analyze and report on the status of women in theater across the country provide pieces of the current picture. These efforts often focus on playwrights and directors, including the landmark 2002 Report on the Status of Women for the New York State Council on the Arts’ Theatre Program. Occasional national surveys of stage management professionals conducted by the University of Iowa Stage Management program have tracked the gender balance in stage management — currently 70 percent female nationwide. Gender parity counting efforts in selected regions — including Washington, DC, San Francisco and LA — now track productions, playwrights and directors. And the Women’s Leadership Project focuses on gender and leadership in residential nonprofit theaters.

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LPTW Call to Arms: A Challenge and an Opportunity
Playwright Laura Shamas outlined in 2014 her unsuccessful efforts to locate consistently collected numbers on women playwrights in locations other than New York City’s Broadway.

‘In 2013, I tried to get accurate figures about women playwrights working in New York, at levels other than Broadway. I was unable to find this information, because no organization was funded to count it.’ Shamas issued a call to action. ‘Is there really no institution in 2014 that will sponsor an ongoing annual study of American women playwrights working in theater seasons around the country (and directors, producers, designers, for that matter)?’

Several ongoing efforts of recent vintage have taken up this challenge, and are providing awareness of the status of woman playwrights outside the Broadway fishbowl. The Dramatists Guild of America and the Lilly Awards recently published The Count, which includes analyses of 2,508 productions from 1,486 unique authors in 153 theaters across the country over three seasons (2011-12 through 2013-14), and finds that 22 percent of productions are by women playwrights.

The LPTW Women Count studies in 2014 and 2015 join the recent flurry of activity counting women in theater, assessing parity, striving toward a more equitable future. LPTW Board member Judith Binus began in 2013 to collect data, beginning with the 2010-11 season, on basic personnel for a number of Off-Broadway theaters from playbills, season announcements, theater web sites, published production reviews, on-line databases and professional networks and personal communications with theater staff. As a fellow LPTW member with a background in data analysis who ventured into work as dramaturg, critic, researcher and editor, I joined Binus some months into the project, assisted with expanding the number of companies and productions covered, cleaned the data, led the analyses and took on report writing duties. The 2014 and 2015 Women Count reports add several dimensions to current studies on the status of women in theater by analyzing employment in a broader-than-usual range of roles and with an explicit focus on Off-Broadway productions.

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women count 2015 cover
Women Count 2015 cover

The 2015 Women Count report analyzes employment for 13 professional roles in 455 Off- and Off-Off-Broadway productions by 22 theater companies in five complete seasons, 2010-11 through 2014-15. The report presents gender breakdowns in hiring to show which women (often by name) are employed in a wide range of roles.

Some findings reveal a few areas in which women dominate, and many areas where men continue to dominate employment in theater. Women playwrights among the study theaters range from a low of 28 percent in 2011-12 to a high of 36 percent in 2012-13, and are consistently much more common among “new” plays (plays with first productions in 2005 or more recent). Rates of new plays by women range from a low of 32 percent in 2011-12 to a high of 42 percent in 2012-13. Directors among study productions range from a high of 40 percent women in 2014-15 to a low of 22 percent women in 2011-12. Other professions show even more dramatically skewed data, with lighting designers dominated by men in many years (e.g. 8 percent of women lighting designer credits in 2012-13) and costume designers dominated by women in many years (e.g. 79 percent women in 2012-13).

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The Future: Lessons for Women Count From Kids Count
At this early stage of our engaged and group efforts in counting the status of women in the theater, we are collecting data, establishing our coalitions, accepting the challenge set by Shama in 2014 for an “ongoing annual study.”

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Another long-term counting and advocacy initiative could provide some additional context and vision. The Kids Count initiative began in 1990 funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to track the wide range of data on the status of children in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This project was first a national annual report (a kind of report card on child well-being), and spread at one time into funded state-based data and advocacy partnerships. I was part of one such partnership in Pennsylvania in the 1990s. The national initiative always had its sights on advocacy informed by the solid data it assembled. Before this initiative it was difficult to assess the general well-being of children over time on a consistent set of health and economic indicators in neighborhoods, cities, state and regions — all the data were held by different departments that didn’t talk to each other. Through this initiative, annual reports call the departments and their own data collectors to account and have provided data that many advocates can use. As AECF writes of the initiative,

Our signature resources tracking the well-being of children over time and across states in order to provide high-quality, unbiased information and encourage action on behalf of kids and families.

Twenty-five years on, it is no longer possible to claim ignorance of the range of information available in any US jurisdiction on the status of health and well-being status children and families. Policy makers start with information and engage immediately on strategies.

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Women gather to celebrate.
Women gather to celebrate. Photo courtesy of LPTW.

The advocacy on behalf of women working in theater that has come in tandem with efforts to count and assess has taken many forms, from challenges to action steps. Theresa Rebeck’s 2010 acceptance speech for her PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award challenged the theater community to acknowledge its gender problem and to change its way of doing business. The Lilly Awards — named for Lillian Hellman — have honored the work of women in theater since 2010. The 50/50 in 2020 grassroots movement works to achieve employment parity for women theater artists by the 100th anniversary of American suffrage in 2020. In late June 2014, The Kilroys released its first annual list of work by women writers (46 in 2014 and a second list of 53 released in 2015) recommended by playwrights, dramaturgs and artistic directors across the country to inform season selection.

A series of convenings in New York City and other locales in recent weeks expressly focuses attention on the “what next” stage of our parity considerations. The Good to Go Festival on Nov. 18, 2015 asked for successes and action steps toward parity (asking where are we and where to we go from here), and the Percolating Gender Parity in Theatre convening organized by the Women in Arts & Media Coalition, with a similar “what’s next” agenda, is set for Dec. 3, 2015.

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The success of the Kids Count initiative provides lessons learned, and hope for the future. There is always value in keeping the baseline true and clean, preparing a solid foundation for creative thinking to achieve our joint goals, whether they be the health of young children, keeping children in school, or assuring that women have an equal shot at careers in the theater. Consistently collected data keep systems honest. On this foundation, we build creative and solid advocacy.