Producing a Sisterhood

The New York Times recently ran an article by Patrick Healy about a small rise in the number of female theater directors in New York. Healy attributed the increase largely to the success a number of women directors have had in cultivating relationships with playwrights whose careers have propelled their own forward. In two thirds of cases mentioned, the writers these directors were collaborating with, and whose productions advanced their careers, were male.

It is well known — at least within the industry — that women writers are underrepresented in theater: in any given year, between 17 and 25 percent of plays produced across the US were written by women. As I read the article, a frustrating question emerged: if female directors (who historically have fared no better than their writer counterparts, directing about 16% of US productions) are now gaining ground by attaching themselves to (mostly male) playwrights, how then do the female writers ever gain ground?

The topic of gender disparity has been much debated within the community — at town hall meetings and symposiums, and in the media. Everyone seems to have a different explanation for why the disparity exists and everyone has a different theoretical solution to the problem.

As a producer myself, what I have always found interesting is that companies dedicated to promoting women writers — such as The Women’s Project and Productions, New Georges, WET Productions (the organization that I founded and ran for eleven years), the Lark Play Development Center, Clubbed Thumb — are rarely included as a substantial part of that conversation, despite the fact that all have actively been part of an actual, not theoretical, solution.

These theaters do develop and produce the work of women playwrights, do get them New York Times reviews, do get them published. All of that doing opens doors for women writers; it leads to their work being produced at other theaters, locally and nationally, and to their being hired to write for TV and film. And in fact, that doing opens doors for women directors as well; my co-founder at WET pointed out that a number of the directors highlighted in the article were actually first “put on the map” by one of these companies. But, continually, these organizations are dismissed as if they don’t count, or overlooked entirely — not only by the media, but also by funders and by some of the women playwrights and directors themselves.

I’ll never forget when one of the playwrights whose work my company premiered, getting her terrific, career-boosting attention and press, had the audacity to tell me that funding to promote gender parity should go to the city’s well-established (old boys’ club) theaters. She believed that this would encourage a behavior change among those institutions that aren’t doing that work, and that this would be preferable to supporting the “women’s theaters” that are already championing female talent.

The irony here is that we are not “women’s theaters.” We are theaters that have chosen to produce the work of women writers; we each have our own distinct identity that appeals to diverse audiences made up of women and men.

Similarly dismissive was one funder’s request that we justify our organization’s value in light of the fact that The Women’s Project already exists. The implication was that there is only space for one of us (at least on the funder’s docket). Yet even combined, our productions do not come close to creating gender parity among New York City’s annual theater productions. I doubt that a funder would ask the Atlantic Theater why it should be funded as opposed to MCC or the Vineyard or Playwrights Horizons or Primary Stages. They are all unique unto themselves, with distinct aesthetic agendas and artistic points of view. Like WET or The Women’s Project, each is deserving of financial backing in its own right and not at the expense of another.

The tendency of promoters of gender parity to dismiss the companies most dedicated to this cause has little to do with those organizations themselves; it is symptomatic of a deeper-rooted opposition. Perhaps this resistance is a byproduct of the backlash against feminism and the related tendency to associate women-focused initiatives with radicalism. Perhaps, in the case of the artists, it is tied to the endless quest for equal footing; they want to feel as though they “made it” on their own, same as their male counterparts, and somehow, acknowledging the support they received from a company whose mission it is to support women would seem to detract from that sense of accomplishment. For funders, it’s a matter of education; until recently, I don’t believe people have truly appreciated how important it is for women’s voices to be given the same amount of attention and airtime as men’s. When it comes to the media, I suspect it’s a challenge to see how these companies, most of which have very limited budgets and production schedules, can make a strong impact on the bigger picture.

These attitudes, which are the result of insecurity or ignorance, can actually become self-fulfilling prophecies, and the repercussions are severe. Without money, of course, the theaters already fighting the good fight cannot afford to continue doing so. I no longer run WET, and it has been on a theater-producing hiatus for a couple of years now. The reasons behind this transition are many, but a lack of funding is a significant one.

Supporting women playwrights becomes all the more critical when we consider that, for a writer, being attached to a successful director does not guarantee a corresponding career boost. While it’s great news that women directors are gaining ground, it is essential that we don’t forget the writers, or companies that are working on behalf of playwrights in addition to directors.

The playwright who wanted to give more money to the boys’ clubs to convince them to play with the girls was wrong. Give money to the girls themselves.