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DC’s Forum Theatre Tackles the Question of Gender Bias

Washington, DC’s Forum Theatre is redressing a basic wrong—or, more accurately, taking a crucial first step. Forum recently hosted a discussion on the disparity, nationwide, between the rates at which female and male playwrights’ work is produced. Forum Theatre itself had produced only three plays by women in its nine-year history. Forum Theatre artistic director Michael Dove remedied that situation, slating three plays by women for his 2011-2012 season and kicking off a Female Voices Festival, culminating in the panel discussion.

The first panel, assigned to address the question “Is there a Female Voice?” was composed of DC playwrights Renee Calarco, Allyson Currin, Jennifer L. Nelson, and Jacqueline Lawton, along with Eleanor Holdridge, director of The Gaming Table, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, and Anne McCaw, executive director of a new producing company in DC, The Inkwell. What ensued was a thought-provoking discussion that ranged well beyond the initial question. Dove noted that thirty years ago, the percentage of plays on national nonprofit stages that were penned by women stood at seven percent. The rate currently—seventeen percent. Gender parity is on track for being achieved in just under a hundred years.

The panel that followed (entitled “Who is Produced and Why” and composed of artistic directors of DC-area theaters) addressed the question of whether theaters have a responsibility to strive for gender parity when choosing which plays to produce. The panel members were split. As one put it, “Of course. What would you think of a business executive who hired twenty-two people, twenty of whom were men and two of whom were women?” Others said their commitment is to the quality of the work and whether if fits their mission, and gender should not necessarily be considered.

The problem is that gender is considered, at least subconsciously. A New York Times article cites a study on gender bias in theater, in which identical scripts were sent to artistic directors and literary managers around the country. On half of the scripts was a man’s name (for example, Michael Walker), and on half was the name of a woman (i.e., Mary Walker). Mary’s scripts received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects, and projected audience response. And the harshest critics of the scripts believed to have been written by women were female literary managers and artistic directors. The study also found that plays featuring women are less likely to be produced.

A question put to the panel was whether scripts should be evaluated blindly, with names removed. There was some support voiced but no unanimity. Meanwhile, Forum Theatre is working toward a fifty-fifty rate, hoping to produce as many female as male playwrights in the future. The Strand Theatre, in Baltimore, produces only female writers. Theater Alliance, The Hub, and Theatre J all produce more female playwrights than the national average would lead one to expect. Woolly Mammoth takes gender actively into consideration in planning its season, with the goal of representing the voices of the marginalized.