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Plays By Women: Where Are They?

By Rick Pender · August 20th, 2014 · Curtain Call
A crowd of female playwrights came together in New York City in 2008 to express their concern that works by women were not getting produced by that city’s theaters. More than 150 playwrights attended the gathering, resulting in standing-room-only at the venue.

Cincinnati native Theresa Rebeck told The New York Times, “I personally don’t think playwriting is a gene on the Y chromosome. Many of our male peers find the debate intolerable. Men in the community seem to think that everything is fine.” 

Rebeck is something of an anomaly: Her own work has been frequently produced in New York City as well as in her hometown (Bad Dates, The Understudy and Dead Accounts at the Cincinnati Playhouse, as well as Mauritius at Ensemble Theatre). But the group counted 50 plays being mounted at 14 theaters in New York during 2008-2009 — 40 by men and just 10 by women. Not exactly parity.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director at New York’s Public Theater, observed, “It’s harder for women playwrights and directors … [because] it’s harder for professional women in the United States.” At his own theater, over a four-year period, Eustis had produced 19 plays by men and 9 by women. He labeled that as “pretty good but not great.”

I’ve been wondering how this plays out here in Cincinnati, and I was reminded of the issue again while watching Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry & the Thief at Know Theatre (onstage through Aug. 30). How do we stack up locally?

I surveyed six past seasons to see how our theaters have done. It looks like just above one-quarter of 114 shows produced by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati and Know Theatre for the past six seasons have been by women.

(In case you’re wondering, I omitted A Christmas Carol at the Playhouse and holiday musicals at ETC — all by men. 

I didn’t include Cincinnati Shakespeare Company; unless it’s determined that the Bard was really Elizabeth the First using a pseudonym, they’re at a disadvantage. CSC has produced a handful of stage adaptations of novels by women including Jane Austen and Harper Lee, but only one work — an upcoming version of Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women — this season was adapted by a woman.) 

The Playhouse produces twice as many shows as any other theater in town. Its six seasons from 2009 to the present encompass 60 productions, 14 by women writers: Michele Lowe’s Victoria Musica; Connie Ray’s Sanders Family Christmas; Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s Gee’s Bend; Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy and Dead Accounts; Julia Cho’s The Piano Teacher; Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage; Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still; Karen Zacarias’ The Book Club Play; Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Leveling Up; Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles; and Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship. 

This season offers Buzzer by Tracey Scott Wilson and Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker. I also counted Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters and adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (by two men) and Giulia Melucci’s I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti (by a man).

During the same period, Ensemble Theatre, where D. Lynn Meyers is Cincinnati’s only female artistic director, has staged 30 non-holiday productions, seven by female playwrights: Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone; Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days; Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; Nina Raine’s Tribes; Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop; plus this season’s The Other Place by Sharr White and Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67. It’s worth noting that five of ETC’s seven have happened in the two most recent seasons.

Know Theatre makes counting a tad harder, since its production schedule varies, but I identified six of 24 productions by women writers. That includes an adaptation (by a man) of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book A Wrinkle in Time and a program of pieces by the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Female playwrights/plays have been Alison Vodnoy’s The Dragon; Saviana Stanescu’s Aliens with Extraordinary Skills; Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble; Gilmer’s aforementioned play; and an upcoming production of Lila Rose Kaplan’s Bureau of Missing Persons.

While our local theater scene might qualify for a “good but not great” assessment, I suspect most cities do no better. 

The group that came together in 2008 to raise the issue, this year issued a list of 46 new, unproduced plays by women (thekilroys.org/thelist). A script by Rebeck is included, one by Anna Ziegler and one by well-established writer Paula Vogel. The other 43 writers — never produced locally — are waiting to land somewhere. I’m eager to see them.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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