A group of women playwrights is calling tonight’s event a “town hall” meeting. But the town they are in is huge. Tonight, they are meeting at the New York home of New Dramatists, the non-profit center that provides resources to help develop new playwrights. Their reason is a complaint: that New York’s leading Off Broadway and nonprofit theaters don’t produce enough female playwrights. The charge is being led by playwrights Sarah Schulman and Julia Jordan.
Women playwrights are not represented in any of the Broadway productions now on stage. But the women in this group also charge that they are underrepresented in the Off-Broadway world as well.
The representation of women playwrights on the stages in Louisville, however, often fares better, especially in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. The second festival in 1998 featured Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out” and helped launched the Tony-award winning artist’s career. Since then, the festival has premiered a long list of works by women, Constance Congdon, Gina Gionfriddo, Beth Henley, Naomi Iizuka, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Naomi Wallace, to name a few.
Actors’ artistic director Marc Masterson says that doesn’t come from having any kind of quota, but something that has come naturally from a process that seeks out diverse voices and perspectives.
“I keep my eye on diversity in all sorts of ways, in terms of style, in terms of content and subject matter, in terms of race and gender,” Masterson says. “We live in a diverse country and theater ought to reflect the diversity we live in.”
Masterson does say that work by women isn’t very prevalent in the plays scheduled during the regular season. That, he says, is because the season includes many classical plays and Broadway or off-Broadway plays that have been hits, which are mostly by men.
A recent article in The New York Times documented the numbers of plays staged of works by women playwrights at five off-Broadway theaters since 2004. Three of those theaters showed several years when no works by women were produced.
Playwright and Humana Festival alum Melanie Marnich says she was surprised by the charts. (Her play “Tallgrass Gothic” was part of the 2004 festival and “Quake” was staged in 2001.)
“I think the numbers don’t lie,” she says. “I don’t think I realized that the contrast was that stark. I mean I think the most important thing is that the best plays get produced and I’m sort of saddened that we’re still dealing with the issue of women playwrights verses male playwrights.”
The staging of women’s plays by other Louisville companies has mixed numbers. This season Louisville’s Bunbury Theatre has several plays penned by women, but looking back on its history, there are several yeas without any female playwrights on the bills. Juergen Tossmann, Bunbury’s producing and artistic director, says making a place for women playwrights during the season has never been a factor.
“Actually, I just look for plays that I think are interesting and relatively diverse in nature and have a broad appeal,” Tossmann says. “I’m not really looking at female or male playwrights.”
Other local companies regularly stage work by women playwrights and some have been devoted to doing so. From 1996 through 2006, Pleiades Theatre devoted itself to giving more opportunities to a variety of women artists, including playwrights. Looking For Lilith, founded in 2001, stages works often written by women that re-examine history through women’s perspectives.
Producing contemporary work means including women playwrights, says Tad Chitwood, artistic director for The Necessary Theatre. It has staged works by Beth Henley and Theresa Rebeck, whose work also has premiered in the Humana Festival. The company has been around since 1991 and Chitwood has worked on productions with other companies in town.PHOTO: From “Tallgrass Gothic” by Melanie Marnich, which premiered in the 2004 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
“I never got the feeling that in Louisville there was a boys club that excluded women,” Chitwood says.
He says he often reads many new plays when planning seasons and finds his reading list includes work by women.
He and Masterson say despite the dearth of women playwrights in New York commercial theater, women playwrights will be a larger part of American theater’s future, just by the strength of some of the work women are producing these days. Says Masterson, “I see plenty of great, strong work coming from female writers.”