Sunday, September 27, 2009

Conference on women in theater raises important questions

by Jordan Kisner

This weekend, Princeton hosted a conference titled Women in Theater: Issues for the 21st Century. Jill Dolan, Princeton professor of English and Theater and new Director of the Program for the Study of Women in Gender, organized the conference and succeeded in putting together one incredible group of artistic directors, playwrights, directors, administrators and artists. Emily Mann (artistic director of the McCarter) spoke alongside Paula Vogel (Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of How I Learned to Drive) and Gigi Bolt (former director of theater at the National Endowment for the Arts); Lisa Loomer (screenwriter for Girl, Interrupted) shared the stage with upcoming actress and playwright Danai Gurira. It was a stage all-stars, all convening to discuss a single problem.

Women are drastically underrepresented and underpaid in American theater. The information cited by panelist Julia Jordan indicate just how bleak things seem for women in the theater:

  • Plays with female protagonists are demonstrably more likely to meet with commercial success (tours, productions in regional theaters, etc.), and seven out of the ten most recent Pulitzers had female protagonists, but shows about women are demonstrably less likely to get produced. The most produced plays are written by men with male protagonists, followed by shows by men about women, then by women about men, then, finally, by women about women.
  • As a result, it is much harder for female actors to get work. Only 30% of the roles in shows at New York City theaters (99+ seats) are female roles, indicating that men are more than twice as likely to get financially sustaining work at an actor.
  • According to the U.S. Census, women working in theater (in any job, not just acting) still work in a "nontraditional profession." In this classification, women who work in theater are joined by female machinists, movers, and manual laborers.
As another panel member noted: "Women are wildly underrepresented on American stages. End of discussion. The only thing to talk about is what to do." So, there was much of that, much strategizing about how to change these numbers, how to reimagine and reinvent the theater industry so that women's voices can be heard. But, to my mind, the most interesting comment of the afternoon came from Susan Jonas:

We can talk all we want about how women want a voice in theater (or in politics, finance, culture, the world), but what will we have to say when we finally achieve the parity that we're seeking? We're on the edge of a huge cultural moment, we're at the precipice of whatever will define the 21st century, and what will women, what will feminists have to contribute when our contributions are finally valued equally? In the fight to be heard, let's not forget to think about what we want to say when we finally get the stage.

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