Monday night I attended the first session of The Summit, a series of discussions led by Washington Post reviewer Peter Marks and hosted by Arena Stage. This night was made up of a panel of artistic directors including Molly Smith (Arena), Eric Schaeffer (Signature), Paul Tetreault (Ford’s), Ryan Rilette (Round House), and Paata Tsikurishvili (Synetic). Michael Kahn (Shakespeare) was initially slated to attend but ended up double-booked and spent the evening at his own theatre interviewing Patti LuPone.
The evening was not livestreamed or recorded and there was no official Twitter presence, but several participants, myself included, were live tweeting using the hashtag #TheSummit. The response to the speakers and to the tweets quickly escalated with many theatre artists around the country following along online. Ilana Brownstein of Company One in Boston put together a Storify of the hashtag in an effort to keep all of the comments in one, easily-read place. If you haven’t read any of the tweets or responses, I recommend you do so now.
Today, I want to take a moment to reflect on what was said. A few artists I respect — though I am not personally, particularly close with them — tweeted that “certain people” (i.e., me and the others live tweeting) went to this event looking to “crucify” the artistic directors on stage. This is as far from the truth as possible. I went hoping for answers.
The announcement of the Women’s Voices Festival was preceded by a year which saw women representing only 27% of playwrights on DC stages and 33% of directors. Then, it was quickly followed by two season announcements by major DC theatres, that featured one female artist between them. I hoped that this rare opportunity to talk with so many theatre leaders simultaneously could help reconcile these two disparate visions of women in DC theatre: Underrepresented to the point of necessitating a festival on one hand, and continually ignored in season planning on the other.
If you look at the question I prepared, it shares numbers for most of the organizations on stage — yes, the numbers are pretty damning, but that’s not by my hand — and asks how they plan to use the Women’s Voices Festival as a springboard to improve these numbers. It is not a question of demanding justification for the numbers or asking for explanations in the moment. My question asks how the Festival fits into these theatres’ plans to improve the numbers and honor their commitment to female artists. It also asks the same question regarding artists of color.
However, before we get to my question and the answers that followed, I would like to address some of the points that were brought up during the panel discussion before the conversation opened to questions.
1. The potential twisting of Ryan Rilette’s comment regarding plays by women writers in the “pipeline.”
Ryan — whom I have considered a friend since he was leading Southern Rep and I was the Literary Manager at Woolly Mammoth, both members of the National New Play Network — jumped in to offer an explanation of why ADs, especially those of large regional theatres, have a hard time producing female writers. His explanation was that there aren’t enough plays written by women “in the pipeline.” He defined the pipeline as a channel flowing from New York and London to the regional theatres, meaning that plays that met success in either of those locations can be relied on to perform well at the box office. His argument was essentially a paradox: There aren’t enough plays by women being produced, so I can’t produce plays by women.
Did he say he’s committed to parity at his theatre? Yes. Do I believe him? I will once I see it reflected in his track record. In his leadership of Round House, there are already reasons for hope. He has only programmed one full season so far: Of six productions, two were written by women, but none were directed by women. So, am I damning him? No. Am I praising him? Not fully and not yet. He says his upcoming season will feature three female playwrights and two female directors. Once this is publically announced, I will happily praise it.
Here’s where what he said got twisted: As a former literary manager, the “pipeline“ is a well-known concept. However, Ryan’s pipeline was specific and different from the one with which I am well acquainted. As I said, his pipeline ran from Broadway and London to the regional theatres in only one direction. The pipeline I am more familiar with runs from playwrights to literary managers to artistic directors to stages in NY, London, and beyond, and from those theatres to more literary managers and artistic directors. Literary managers are constantly moving plays around the country in hopes that an artistic director will fall in love with a script and produce it. In my world, this pipeline is where plays get stuck. This pipeline is clogged with plays by women and people of color that never get produced. To say “there aren’t enough plays by women in the pipeline” is tantamount — TO ME — to saying there aren’t enough plays being written. This is not what Ryan was saying, but it’s how I heard it in the moment, and I apologize that his initial statement was twisted.
However, to claim you can only rely upon plays that have already been produced in NY or London to be successful is just not true. It’s a choice. And yes, if you choose to believe that, you will significantly limit your options in terms of what you can produce that is written by women and people of color.
But, if the playwrights who are well-known enough to produce at your theatre include Gina Gionfriddo, Melissa James Gibson, and Theresa Rebeck (the female playwrights Ryan has produced since taking over Round House — Gina’s play was a replacement for a play in the season Ryan inherited from his predecessor), you basically open yourself up to any female writer who has received a good review in NYC, and that opens your doors to hundreds of female writers. Again, to not produce those women is a choice.
So were Ryan’s words twisted? Slightly. Do I still disagree with what he said? Absolutely.
The other point Ryan made in the evening that sparked a lot of controversy online was that some established women writers, such as Caryl Churchill, purport a feminist view of the world that is now dated, and thus they are hard to revive. In a twitter conversation following The Summit, he clarified that he was specifically thinking of Cloud Nine. In terms of feminist plays being hard to revive, I would simply point to the massive success of Machinal on Broadway. In terms of these plays being “out-dated,” I would say this once again points to the viewpoint of the male experience being universal and timeless, while those of women and people of color are considered “niche stories,” which is patently not true. It’s just how the world has presented our stories throughout history
2. Beaches and High Ticket Prices
During the course of the evening, Eric Schaeffer said that part of the reason ticket prices are so high is that production costs are so high, and that audiences expect Broadway-calibre productions. In order to make enough money to support these high-cost productions, ticket prices have to go up. He specifically cited that costumes for Beaches are coming from thrift shops, but still cost upwards of $10,000.
Massive budgets are an artistic choice. Will some audiences flock to see production values? Sure. But to claim they will ONLY support elaborate sets and costumes is disingenuous. While Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark was flailing around on Broadway with its giant budget and dangerous production choices, there was a show across the street: a small, smart production of Cymbeline by a new company called Fiasco. It told a story that spanned continents and major swaths of history, combining almost all of Shakespeare’s favorite plot devices (long-lost siblings, faked deaths, ghosts, etc) and it did so with six actors, two crates, a sheet, and a “fabulous trunk.” The production was so successful that when it finished its initial run at the New Victory Theatre, it was transferred to the Barrow Street Theatre to continue performances. Since then, Fiasco has gone on to stage a similarly minimalist (and critically lauded) Into the Woods at the McCarter, and they are bringing two shows to run in rep at the Folger this summer.
Expensive production values are a choice. They do not guarantee a great production. They do not guarantee success. To claim audiences will not support shows without them is demonstrably untrue.
When asked about the potentially prohibitive nature of high ticket prices and how it keeps young people in particular away from their theatres, Molly suggested subscribership as a means for younger audience members to guarantee themselves the cheapest tickets.
Suggesting that subscriptions are a way to bring new patrons into a theatre misses the broader cultural trend away from subscriptions. Across the country, engaged, repeat theatregoers are increasingly less committed to any particular theatre and much more likely to curate their own seasons from a variety of theatres through repeated individual ticket purchases. Instead of driving motivated consumers into a subscription model that does not suit their viewership, theatres should be lowering barriers, offering engagement within the confines of how someone chooses to participate, and rewarding the loyalty repeat customers offer them outside of subscriptions.
And this is not just a fancy way of saying “lower the ticket price”: Engaging audiences always begins with programming. Last night, the artistic directors on the panel all recognized a strong desire on the part of audiences to “see themselves” on stage. And while stories that place women and people of color on stage are always welcome, why assume audiences only purchase tickets because of a superficial demographic representation of cast members that look like them, when it’s just as logical that audiences would stay loyal to a theatre where they can regularly “hear themselves” in a playwright’s voice?
4. The Question
I want to address the response to my question. The numbers cited below were compiled by concerned artists who spent time combing through production histories that are publically available on most theatres’ websites. The phrasing of this question was worked on by myself and several others, including multiple playwrights. I say all of this because I want to be clear that this is not just my voice. There is a collective desire to address this issue, and I was just the person who read this aloud in the room.
Here we go…
I’m encouraged to see a growing number of artistic directors in the community publicly address the lack of parity for women writers on our stages – most notably through the Women’s Voices Festival. I hope this effort continues and extends to directors, designers, and other artists as well. However, several statistics give me pause.
At Signature, since the 2005 season, only 10 of 90 credited writers have been women, with women directing 2 of 54 productions.
Since Ford’s reopened after renovations, 2 out of 29 productions have been directed by women – the same woman.
At the Shakespeare Theatre, since opening the Harman in 2007, they have produced 51 shows – none of which have been written by a woman. 3 were adapted by women, and 9 were directed by women.
At Arena, since the 1998 season, 44% of productions have been directed by women. However, three women account for over half of those woman-directed productions, while 49 different men have directed here. The plays and lyrics that have appeared on Arena’s stages reflect the work of 110 men, but only 35 women.
I’m hoping you can speak on two points. First: How do you plan to use the Women’s Voices Festival as a platform for improving the parity of female artists in your regular programming? Second: Similarly, how will you address the lack of racial equity for writers and directors of color, who are frequently less represented than women? For example, Ford’s has hired three writers of color out of 40 credited writers since 2008, and the last time the Shakespeare Theatre hired a director of color was 1991.
I am not able to speak to the response while I was reading the question as my eyes were glued to my computer screen and focused on keeping my voice loud, calm, and clear, so I can really only speak to the response once I finished reading the question. However, we had the forethought to record the response which we have transcribed. This followed the question with nothing in between.
Paul Tetreault: [inaudible] …get a few minutes to write a response? [laughter]… [inaudible]
Peter Marks: Um I don’t want to—I don’t want to–
Paul: (overlapping) Send it to us, we’d love to see those stats.
Elissa Goetschius: Absolutely.
Peter: I’m sure everybody wants to and—[inaudible] Let me just ask the question, is it–[inaudible]
Molly Smith: (overlapping) I want to know how many women we’ve produced, because we’ve produced a lot of women. So you don’t have all those percentages.
Elissa: Uh… there have been, since 1998… a total of 35 female creators have worked at Arena.
Molly: That’s pretty good, actually.
Elissa: As opposed to 110 men.
Molly: I mean it’s, it’s–
[Paul or Ryan or Eric]: We, I mean, I think that that’s the whole reason when we sat around and talked about this idea and it was like you know what? We need to do this. And so, again, I think we all want to do better.
[overlapping, inaudible talking]
Elissa: Absolutely… Yeah, and I’d love to hear about how the Festival will be a springboard–
Paul: There’s a LORT conference, which is a sort of league of resident theaters, which is sort of 80 major theaters from around the country, that for 30 years has been talking about diversity. Diversity in, um, artistic positions, in administrative positions, and there’s a conference that’s being held in May in New Orleans, and it’s only going to be discussed, diversity. Now, some of us up here have been around for 30 years listening to this conversation. I actually think there’s a movement now—and maybe it takes 30 years—to actually move this needle. And maybe it’s because of diminishing numbers as Peter talked about, maybe it’s because as we look out in our audiences, they are not being made up of the, the um, the makeup of the people of this country. So I think there is a movement. And I guess if someone wants to just throw stones, they can look at our track record and look back on the last 15 years. We’re actually trying to look forward, and I think that’s where we’re putting our optimism and we’re putting our energy looking forward, not looking backwards. [applause]
[Peter adjourns the meeting]
This response ignores the question. I asked the panel to respond to how they intend to use the Women’s Voices Festival to improve the statistics I shared with them. I had hoped there would be a plan in place that would prove the festival is a first step, but that was not the case. Instead we were told that while this has been an issue for 30 years, the lack of improvement shown in the statistics should not be as important as the optimism for the future.
When do the promises of the future become the accountable facts of today?
During the course of the evening Ryan suggested that it will take at least ten more years for significant change to happen in terms of parity for women and artists of color. Then he went so far as to say the change will come when the Baby Boomer artistic directors retire and hand their posts to younger artistic leaders.
Are the current heads of these organizations really incapable of implementing change? No. It’s a choice. It’s passing off responsibility and accountability to the next generation.
I believe the artistic directors on stage were legitimately surprised by the statistics I shared. Yes, I believe they all know that the general statistics are bad. I said before The Summit and continue to believe after The Summit that artistic directors are not aware of the extent of this problem in their own institutions. I believe they want to be part of the solution and believe that they are working to fix this problem — but without looking at specific numbers, it’s easy to believe that “working on” the problem will produce results. This is why I wanted to share numbers, to hold people accountable for the results of their work.
Two things give me hope:
Artistic directors who are aware of their shortcomings. The more artistic directors become aware of where they are falling short in their duties to artists and audiences, the harder they will work to change their statistics.
And audiences. Audiences are my great hope. Audiences can provoke change. Audiences have sway. And audiences are continually underestimated. At the Summit event, we were told that audiences:
– will only attend shows now if they were taken as a child.
– will only attend shows that have been successful in New York or London.
– will only attend shows that have large budgets supporting massive production values.
Audiences have become the scapegoat of artistic directors: The reason they program conservative seasons with no women or people of color, that the only financially safe programming for large institutions are established white, male playwrights and directors. I think this is blatantly false. I think this is why theatre audiences are shrinking at the fastest rate of any of the fine arts in the country.
Look at Hollywood’s recent success with diverse narratives: A recent study has shown that films and television shows with ethnically diverse casts are more successful than those with primarily white casts. Look at Frozen — Disney’s most successful animated film in years — a fairy tale about a pair of sisters that explicitly refutes the need for a Prince Charming. Look at the success of Bridesmaids, The Heat, Orange is the New Black, Scandal… the list goes on.
On the other end of the scale, look at the failure of the all white, all male season programmed at the Guthrie last year.
If we want theatre to thrive, we need to stop hiding behind old narratives: That only success can breed success. That in order to bring in money, we have to stick to what worked in the past.
We can’t develop as an artform if we make decisions out of fear. We can’t evolve if we refuse to change.
Gender parity and the representation of artists of color are huge, systemic issues in American theatre that need to be tackled from many angles. Last night, I chose to tackle them with information. Knowledge and accountability. These things will help us move forward. We’ve seen that the path we’re on now leads to shrinking audiences, massive budget deficits, and theatres closing their doors. Knowing all of that, why are we afraid to change?
Finally, the artistic directors on this panel invoked our opportunity as artists to teach empathy. If we aren’t representing a myriad of voices and perspectives on our stages, we are teaching our audiences to empathize with a very limited section of the populace. So I want to leave you with two quotes from articles I read this past week. Think of them if you find yourself asking why we as a field should care about representing diverse voices on our stages.
You know how vampires have no reflections in the mirror?” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author [Junot Diaz] asked. ‘If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.
And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me?’ That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me was this deep desire, that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors, so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.
Junot Diaz: Man in the Mirror, by Carrie Stetler
History and media and art might influence one’s opinion of another race or gender or orientation or neighborhood, what have you, but at the end of the day a violent, hateful action is a decision made by an individual, and they must face the consequences of that action. But we could damn well do our part as artists and creators to dare to explore and discover the complexity of world experiences and portray humans of all shades and credences etc as complicated and myriad as they are and might be. In fact, we should be ashamed if we do no less. Can we really call ourselves artists if we can’t imagine beyond stereotypes and one’s own experience?
Prior to that, she developed and directed REFLECTIONS with Andy Wassenich, a tour of short plays written by patients at St. Elizabeths Hospital, produced by Wandering Souls, and co-directed AMAZONS AND THEIR MEN with Michael Dove at Forum Theatre. Her ongoing collaboration with playwright Liz Maestri includes development of the plays SOMERSAULTING, TINDERBOX, FALLBEIL, CONDO CONDO CONDOLAND, and HOUSE BEAUTIFUL.
Formerly the Literary Manager at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Elissa has worked as a dramaturg at Portland Center Stage, Marin Theatre Company, Florida Stage, Rorschach Theatre, Forum Theatre,
and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She has worked for Manhattan Theatre Club, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, studied at the British American Drama Academy, and holds a degree in English from Columbia University. twitter: @egoetschius