The Cure for the Common Cold… (not literally of course, this is about theatre – what else?)

Recently, I read a story, dated February 22, 2012, in the UK Guardian that had the headline “Female playwrights still face sexism – it’s time we admitted it” in which the first line “Research shows that theatres are prejudiced against female playwrights. What can be done about it?” Here’s the link to the full article.

I have a problem with sweeping generalizations like this because it’s very hard to parse out what’s sexism (and any other “ism” e.g. agism) in decision making and really just how things get done in theatre. The lack of nuance in this article utterly annoys me.

I’ve repeatedly been frustrated myself re: getting produced, and theoretically I have very good credentials, yet I’m a man and it’s done nothing special for me. That’s because the truth is that personal – direct and indirect – connections are the driving factor first and foremost in play production. (Do a survey of literary managers and artistic directors and ask them this question: when was the last time you produced something blindly submitted through the mail by anybody male or female and the answer, I’m 99% certain based on the words of a couple dozen theatre producers I’ve heard answer this question, will be none or very few.)

Since many (assumedly most) of the ultimate decision makers (i.e. the artistic directors) are men, the sexism could be a by-product, not a motivating factor, of who’s in their personal orbit. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t also conscious or unconscious sexism in the decision process as well – but quantifying that is the hard part.

On the other hand, because theatre people, in my experience at least, do tend to be socially-conscious and politically progressive, they do attempt to deliberately diversify. Thus there are specific awards, contests, grants etc. and informally season slots, for women and various minorities. This is both good and bad. It’s good because it does guarantee at least some access and visibility to people who may never have had any. The bad part is that the “black play” or the “woman play” becomes a mark to check off, as in okay, we’ve done our black/woman/Latino/Asian play for the season so the other slots are for the people the A.D. knows or is familiar with and/or thinks his/her audience is familiar with and/or will relate to. (It’s in the latter assumptions regarding the economic viability of a particular play choice that the dreaded “isms” that everyone consciously deplores can often come into play in a decision, as in “my audience won’t come see that play about so and so / by so and so”. To make matters more complicated, sometimes these assumptions of an audience’s prejudice may actually be correct. I’ve heard Artistic Directors talk about the long term education of their audiences regarding style and/or content, i.e. what they couldn’t do in season 1 of their tenure, they could do in season 7.)

How much of this is self-fulfilling prophecy? Even if only partially a real problem (what an audience will accept) for an artistic director, as frustrated and depressed as I can be about my own career stasis, I sympathize with the difficult position these leaders are in during such hard economic times: too much risk and the theatre folds; not enough risk and the audience slowly withers away from boredom.

And, after all, artistic directors are making decisions about a season from a variety of motivations that mix in art, commerce and personal history in a complex manner. So to really get at the “why” of these decisions and therefore the “how” of fixing it would need to take into account more variables than what is presented in the above article. Now that’s a hornet’s nest of complexity to just figure out the management side of this imbalanced gender equation.

On the creative side, here’s a simple variable not quantified in the above – how many playwrights are women and how many are men? The article assumes more men submit plays but exactly how many more? To throw a wrench in figuring out this number, does one even try to figure out if all who claim themselves to be writers can be labeled “professional”? What makes a professional in a profession where most writers get “paid” not with money but with “exposure” that they “should” feel grateful they’re getting? That leaves separating the serious writer from the amateurish one by quantifying quality – a notoriously difficult thing to quantify.

(Maybe the problem is even worse than the writer implies – maybe there are more amateurish men filling up the script piles of world’s literary offices – I don’t mean that to be snarky – I was a script reader once. Most scripts are pretty awful, so I really don’t know since I didn’t differentiate the bad ones by gender at the time. Maybe there really are more bad male writers than female ones. Who knows! There’s just lots of assumptions and guesses.)

So, to study this gender imbalance correctly would take a lot of time and money. As theatre is an industry where there isn’t a lot of money to be made, comparatively, to other businesses – realistically, a nice complex, well-designed sociological study isn’t going to happen.

Metaphorically, is a cigar just a cigar here, or is it really something else? Personally, I’d love to see a theatre world, as well as a whole wide world, based solely on merit and quality rather than inheritance, connections and luck, but I’ve lived too long in this world to know that it’s inherently unfair.

So, do nothing?

Let’s remember one other thing, in the few places where plays are actually occasionally selected from reader recommendations, these play readers are low paid freelancers (often paid by the script, which only encourages reading something quickly without care), or are unpaid interns (often young and inexperienced college freshman), or of course unpaid volunteers in the smallest companies. Moreover, often it’s only a single reader’s opinion that is tallied before a year’s worth of writing work is assigned the rejecton form letter.

So, if one really is most concerned about quality as opposed to any particular quota, the first place is to change is to make sure the reading committees are experienced, relatively well-paid and are actually decision makers.

And in this new, utopian system, absolutely, set it up as a gender / race / age / sexual-orientation blind-selection system. That’s the way many orchestras hold auditions (where a curtain blocks off the player from the listeners). Unfortunately, that’s not the way plays (or movie scripts) are selected for production, or ever will be.

What I’m saying that there is no magic bullet for this problem, in the same way there is no magic pill to get rid of the common cold. You can relieve a few symptoms, but mostly it’s about following certain common sense procedures and slowly things get better. If your polemic has holes in it, then the whole argument can be rejected – even when a portion of it may be very, very right. Build a real case – don’t just make assumptions. And until you can prove actual intent, rather than say, “you’re being sexist” – it might be more effective, to ask, “Do you think you’re making any assumptions here that have to do with who this playwright is or is not, rather than the play itself?”

In the long run, the most effective change will come slowly if people are self-aware and question themselves – not just in picking a play for a season but in everything they do in life.