Saturday, June 27, 2009

Women and playwrighting

So, I know I'm a bit late with this but I wanted to say something about the study by a Princeton University student on why female playwrights find it so difficult to get their work produced.

The study's author, Emily Glassberg Sands, found some validity to the argument that there simply are more male playwrights and they tend to be more prolific. She also says that female artistic directors and literary managers tend to be harder on female playwrights, which I guess feeds into the stereotype that we're always tougher on "our own."

Sands examined the 329 plays and musicals produced on Broadway over the past 10 years. She found that shows written by women have sold more tickets and tend to be more profitable overall. But they weren't kept running any longer than less-profitable plays written by men.

Here's an article from Salon discussing the report. One of the comments makes an interesting point that playwrights have to sell themselves and culturally, women have been discouraged from pushing themselves agressively. Blogger Monica Reida, at Fragments, offers some thoughts as a reader and writer of plays.

Over the past 2 1/2 years of theatergoing I've seen about 40 plays, only a handful of which have been written by women.

Three of those I saw at Trinity Repertory Company: Kathleen Tolan's Memory House, Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. (During that time, Trinity Rep has produced other plays by women that I didn't see.) In New York, I've seen Liz Flahive's From Up Here off-Broadway and Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage on Broadway.

(And one of my favorite musicals, Wicked, was written by a woman, Winnie Holzman, who also wrote the short-lived tv series My So-Called Life. Yeah, I know Wicked is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire. But there's way more Holzman than Maguire.)

I think part of the issue is that so few new plays of any kind get produced. Regional theatre companies tend to rely on the classics, on plays that have been theatre staples for the past hundred years or so, and we're talking about works written almost exclusively by men.

Since historically women have been the primary caregivers, we may simply have focused our literary ambitions elsewhere - toward novels, memoirs, poetry, short stories, which are far less of a collaborative enterprise.

Of course I'd like to see more plays by women, just as I'd like to see more plays by writers who have diverse backgrounds and life experiences, who deal with diverse subjects. I mean, I wouldn't want to see 80 plays about people exactly like me. That would get pretty tiresome.

And we should definitely do everything we can to encourage writers - male and female - to write for the theatre. I was glad to read earlier this year about Fidelity's FutureStage program, which gives students in New York City an introduction to acting, playwrighting and directing.

But I have to tell you, the one play that illuminates the lives of women like no other work I've seen was written by a man - Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which ends its Broadway run tomorrow.


Todd Wallinger said...

Interesting thoughts. I agree with most of what you say, but I don't think the difference is because women have been discouraged from pushing themselves aggressively. I think it's that men are more likely to push themselves aggressively whether or not they're encouraged.

Esther said...

Thanks for the comment!

You make a good distinction. And I should add that I don't think you can generalize. I know plenty of women who have no trouble being aggressive and plenty of men who aren't very assertive at all.

Katie Ganem said...

This study is very fascinating. I've thought about it a lot. What frustrates me most about all these classic plays written by men is that there are so few dynamic roles for women in them. Men tend to write male characters just as women tend to create female characters.

Monica said...

I didn't think about it when I wrote about it on my blog, but the two plays that I have read or have seen that I felt portrayed women in a way that I could really relate to, were both written by men. Those two are "August: Osage County" and "Proof." There are some plays that I feel portray women very well that are written by women, but there are also some plays that I feel portray women in the stereotypical manner. But those two plays are the ones that I relate to and they're both written by men.

Esther said...

Hey Katie,

You should put down your thoughts in a blog post sometime.

I think there are some plays with great roles for women - dating back to antiquity. I saw a production of Antigone at Trinity Repertory Company here in Providence, and it was great. And I hope you get to see August: Osage County on tour sometime because Tracy Letts really has written great roles for women.

But I agree, it would be great if there were even more roles for women of all ages and backgrounds and I think female playwrights are part of that.

Esther said...

Hey Monica,

I've been in a caregiving situation so I definitely relate to August: Osage County. While my situation is only partially similar to Barbara's, I think Letts has beautifully illuminated women in the "sandwich" generation, torn between caring for their spouse, their children and their parents. So it really resonated with me. In fact, my only criticism of the play is that the male characters get a bit of a short shrift!