The Female Playwrights Issue Takes Center Stage

I’ve been lamenting the representation of women playwrights on the American stage since I learned that only 17 percent of all plays produced in the U.S. are written by women. And women playwrights are lamenting as well.

In a 2008 New York Times article, playwright Gina Gionfriddo protested the lack of women’s plays produced in New York. “Producers, directors and perhaps audiences,” she said, “seem much more willing to accept unappealing male characters than unappealing women.”

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman addressed this issue a year later in “Not There Yet:  What Will it Take to Achieve Equality for Women in the Theatre?” published in Theatre Communications Group. She writes that “the U.S. Department of Labor considers any profession with less than 25 percent female employment, like being a machinist or firefighter, to be ‘untraditional’ for women. Using the 2008 numbers, that makes playwriting, directing, set design, lighting design, sound design, choreography, composing and lyric writing all untraditional occupations for women … If it goes on like this, women will either quit writing plays, all start using pseudonyms, or move to musicals and TV, where the bias against women’s work is not so pervasive.”


Five years later, in a June 16, 2014, New York Times article, a group of women playwrights and producers, who call themselves The Kilroys, submitted 46 plays by women to theaters encouraging them to produce more plays by women. This list was developed to help artistic directors, “who have good intentions,” while “confronting others” who might be biased toward male playwrights.

For example, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is sometimes considered one of the best plays ever written, an excellent representation of the human struggle, effective in its ability to connect with “everyman.” And while I love much of what Mr. Miller put down on paper, this play does not represent MY struggle. I feel alienated from that play, particularly as a woman, and even more so because of the way women are portrayed in it. On the other side, numerous plays by women have not been mainstreamed because they were too much about a woman’s experience rather than the human one.

Huh? Are women aliens and nobody told me?

This problem plays out on Rhode Island stages as well.  Let’s look at 3 of RI’s more prominent theaters: The Gamm in Pawtucket, 2nd Story in Warren (where, full disclosure, I have been a long time subscriber and actor) and Trinity Rep in Providence. In an analysis of three seasons from these theaters, 12 out of 62 plays were written by women. I have debated this subject with many a talented male director or actor, people I consider friends and even feminists.  The excuses are 1) I couldn’t get the rights to any of the plays by women I wanted to produce; 2) The shows I am producing include strong female characters in lead roles; 3) I produce plays written by gay men; and 4) Women haven’t won many Tonys (thus there are no good plays by women).

The Gamm has no women playwrights in their upcoming season. Trinity has one. 2nd Story has not announced their season yet.

For some time, I blamed this local “miss representation” on the fact that the people choosing these seasons and running these theaters were white men (Tony Estrella at The Gamm, Ed Shea at 2nd Story, and Curt Columbus at Trinity Rep). However, out of six plays produced last season at ART (American Repertory Theatre) in Boston, only one was written by a woman, and ART’s Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, is a woman.

There is hope. Maybe not on the big stages, but on the smaller ones. Epic Theatre’s Artistic Director, Kevin Broccoli, put together an upcoming season of nine shows featuring six women playwrights. I asked Kevin why he thinks artistic directors don’t care about diversity. “I don’t think it’s that they don’t care, I think they don’t realize what it means to include diversity in your season. It doesn’t just happen. I think that’s the problem: A lot of people assume it’s just going to happen on its own. You have to make it a point to strive for diversity and make it happen.”

He continues, “It’s a problem that starts from the top and works its way down. If more women playwrights don’t start getting produced on Broadway and in major regional theaters, you’re not going to see smaller theaters taking those leaps. And since Broadway is the furthest thing from daring, it’s up to the regional theaters to take the lead.” His advice to his brother artistic directors is this: “You have to make it a priority — maybe the top priority even. Deciding that you want a diverse season makes the entire season better because it forces you to constantly rethink your choices and your play selections. It forces you to read more plays, and become more familiar with who’s out there.”

What can you do to promote the representation of women playwrights? To start, take a look at the seasons offered by your local theaters. What percentage of the playwrights are women? What percentage of the playwrights are people of color? Write to those theaters and ask for a better representation. Write op-eds. Don’t subscribe to theaters that don’t demonstrate a commitment to diversity and social justice. Remind them they are missing half of the HUMAN experience.