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Study: Nearly Two-Thirds of Theater Productions Written by White Male Playwrights

Study: Nearly Two-Thirds of Theater Productions Written by White Male Playwrights

This year’s edition of The Count — a tally of regional, non-Broadway theater productions by playwrights’ gender and race — is out, and the results are grim. In the last three seasons, nearly 63% of the 2508 productions mounted across America was written by white men — close to three times the rate for female playwrights of all races (22%). Broken down further, the 1486 writers who penned those productions consisted of 16.5% white women and a wincingly small 3.8% women of color. 

In her introduction to the research results, Marsha Norman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a co-conceiver of The Count, called the approximate 20% rate for women’s participation the “real ceiling” holding back women today. She wrote: “At
NPR, for example, in a survey much like our Count, it was found that the
percentage of women being interviewed, doing the
interviewing or being the subject of the story — was
exactly 20%. In the art museums, 80% of the art
hanging on the walls is by men. The women’s work
is stored in the basement. In orchestras, until the
advent of blind auditions, 20% of the players were
women.” In the film world, the number of women-helmed features at major film festivals also hover just below 20%. 

“This 20% number is the real ceiling we are fighting in our lives and in our careers today,” Norman continued. “So what do we miss if we do not hear the voices of
women? Half of life, that’s what. It would be like
ignoring the stories of everything that happens in
the night. Or the day. Women have lived half of
the experience of the world, but only 20% of it is
reported in the theaters. … What we
want is 50% of the
airtime, 50% of the walls
of the museum, 50% of
the stage time in theaters and on the movie screens. We want life in
the arts to represent life as it is lived in the world.
We want to hear the whole human chorus, not just
the tenors, basses and baritones.” 

In one of the responses to the study that ran in The Dramatist, playwright Rehana Lew Mirza distilled what’s so deploring about the over-representation of white, male voices, who speak, of course, for just a minority segment of the population: “Theatres
are NOT producing the BEST plays; they’re merely
ascribing higher value to plays that show a particular (hegemonic) perspective. Theatres are tacitly
allowing unconscious bias to permeate the industry, and until we find ways of holding decision-makers accountable for excluding women (and men of color), they will
have no incentive to change.” 

She added, “Sometimes when I mention this stuff in public, inevitably an older white man will tell me, “If you
can’t take it, get out of the theatre.” The thing is,
according to these statistics, I’m already 96.6% out
of the theatre. [American women of color made up 3.4% of playwrights in production during the years studied.] Ultimately, [we] have to believe
that the value of our plays will transcend statistics.
Yet The Count shows that there is a toxic systemic
bias at play which we cannot overcome on our own,
no matter how much we believe in our plays.”

Things are somewhat better for off-Broadway playwrights in NYC. Statistics from the League of Professional Theatre Women’s (LPTW) second annual study reveal that in the five seasons represented in the years 2010 to 2015, women wrote 30% of local productions. Six theaters even featured 50% or more women in their 2014-15 season: Ensemble Studio Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater, MCC, Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, and The Women’s Project.

In those same years, women made up 33% of theater directors — much higher than anywhere in the film world except in nonfiction, and yet lagging far behind parity. 

Check out the percentages for other key crew roles, such as set designers, lighting designers, costume designers, sound designers and stage managers, in the Women Count study.

[via The Dramatists, League of Professional Theatre Women, Women Count]

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