Action Plans: Three Women on Women in Theater

On every significant front — writers, directors, artistic directors, leading roles — the status of women in today’s theater is in dire straits. What is to be done to redress the situation? I posed this question to three women this week at TCG’s 50th anniversary annual conference. Here are their answers:


MARSHA NORMAN, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of ‘night, Mother and co-founder of the Lilly Awards:

1) “Artistic directors have to realize that wonderful plays by women are being written and available. The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, TCG and the Lilly Awards are all great resources for finding them.”

2) “Artistic directors need to question their assumptions about what the audience wants to see. There’s a lingering perception that people don’t want to see stories by and about women, and that work by women is not ‘commercial.’ But in fact the real numbers show that plays by women certainly are profitable. Yasmina Reza and Winnie Holzman are two of the most commercially successful playwrights today.”

3) “Theaters need to recognize that we need to tell all the stories of all the people. And the people need to put pressure on artistic directors to do so. For instance, the Public Theater’s upcoming 2011-12 season offers no plays by women. None. That lack of parity should not be acceptable to its audience and subscribers—nor, for that matter, its board.”

4) “The problem is not lack of talent or material. There are plenty of female playwrights and directors. They need to be mentored and encouraged, and they need to make themselves visible.”

5) “The NEA and other arts organizations need to recognize that women are clearly a disadvantaged minority and create proactive programs to address the problem.”

* * * * * *

ALEXIS GREENE, editor of Women in Theater Magazine, published yearly by the League for Women Theater Professionals:

1) “Well, first of all, there is a struggle to produce statistics on exactly how many productions are written by women, or directed by women. Yes, there are some numbers, such as the ones used by Julia Jordan and others, but those are based on faulty databases. There needs to be an ongoing study across the industry.”

2) When asked if LWTP would be conducting such a study: “Well, that would take money.” When asked if LWTP would be applying for grants to fund such a study: “That is under discussion.”

3) “We need to ask ourselves as women, What is keeping us from moving forward? We’ve come so far, but what is keeping us from this last step of being more visible in the arts? How do put ourselves out there, the way men do? I really don’t know what the answer is. There are a lot of woman producers on Broadway, you know. So why don’t they hire woman playwrights and directors? It’s a mystery.”

4) “Maybe it’s just a matter of time.”

5) “You know, this whole Julie Taymor thing, her being fired, is almost a signal that women have arrived — no kid gloves. She wasn’t treated any differently from how a man would have been in the same circumstances.” Pause. “Maybe I’m looking for positive things in the wrong places.”

*  *  *  *  *  *

LAURA SHAMAS, co-founder of the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, a self-described “grassroots advocacy ad hoc group” of 200 women and men who started meeting in the spring of 2010 to “take positive action”:

1) “We’re interested in consciousness raising, of course, but also about doing things that can bring about change. People need to start trying to do things that would bring about more participation by female theater-artists across the board. For instance, we’re partners with the Hollywood Fringe, and have been helping to spotlight the female performers. Anything that can be done to bring attention to female artists.”

2) “We’re making a documentary short that showcases female playwrights and presents these statistics in a fun, interesting way, as well as discussions of the female playwriting experience.”

3) “We’ve been conducting a study on female playwrights in L.A. and believe studies need to be done in every city. Statistics originally came out of New York. Now we have some here, and some have been done in Chicago as well, but every theater community needs to conduct studies to use as a barometer of fair participation.”

4) “LAFPI is sponsoring mixers which have been wildly successful. We did one last month with directors labs and will have an upcoming one with only female theater artists. We believe that anything we can do to help female theater artists get access to space and resources is useful.”

5) “Personally, I’ve decided this year to see shows only by female playwrights. It’s a question of economic support. How can we financially support theater written or directed or starring women? This isn’t something everyone has to do, by any means, but it has helped me think about where our money goes, and how that affects the situation in a very real way.”


Grace Suh

Grace Suh is the theater writer for the Kansas City Pitch and Editor-in-chief of HerKansasCity Magazine.

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  1. Thanks for this important piece and the work Engine 28 has done all week. I only wish i had more time to read, to comment and even visit. In response to this piece, i just wanted to mention the company i work for. it’s Synchronicity Theatre in Atlanta. We are heading into our 14th season. We are a womencentric company, but not really feminist and definitely not man-haters. About 85 percent of the work we do is by women playwrights. We work with women directors, technicians and seek out plays for meaty roles for women. Check us out. We’d love to talk to more of you about this topic. you can hit me up at Our smart, gutsy, bold and all-around wonderful producing artistic director is Rachel May (one of our four female co-founders). You can follow her on twitter, us on facebook and online. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Grace, and Engine 28, for highlighting this issue. Since we started LA FPI we’ve worked on connecting with other like-minded people and organizations – like LA STAGE who worked with study director Ella Martin to get numbers that reflect LA theater for the LA FPI Study. We think the numbers – the sometimes surprising numbers – are powerful, and the first step in putting a spotlight on the fact that women’s voices are missing in theater, which leads to asking questions and hopefully positive actions. We also believe that these kind of actions can’t come out of an “us vs. them” mindset. We formed LA FPI to become a nexus of community support: for women playwrights, and for all Los Angeles-area artists and companies interested in opening doors in a new direction, breaking out of old patterns and thinking in a new way. The more work we collectively get onstage – the more theater artists we put to work – the more we all benefit.
    For more info, visit or email

  3. Maybe what we’re looking at is a numbers problem, plus something to do with a nature of the sexes. Producers will happily tell you that there are very few good plays to be had for love or money written by any sex you may care to name. Let’s say in any given year there are [okay, all these numbers are invented for illustrative purposes] 27 slots for all plays of all kinds across the nation. Competing for these few venues are 143,989.6 plays. I believe about 139,000 of those plays will be by male playwrights. Theaters [this is the correct spelling, not British or Spanish] are being snowed under by plays each year, most of them bad, some of them woefully bad, and most of them by male playwrights.

    Why so many bad plays ? Because plays are a living bitch to write. Why so many [percentage wize] plays from male playwrights ? Because women are the more practical sex. Your average male playwright is a half-bright dreamer, persisting in the face of impossible odds because he’s too dumb to know any better. A female writer will be generally be quick enough to see that her chances of getting a play onto a stage are miniscule, and so won’t bother. And with writing plays being about the most difficult thing anyone can do, who can blame them ?

    The best thing any playwright can do is to write a fabulous play. But no matter how good it is, the reality is that no one is going to see it unless your uncle holds the mortgage on a theater.