Not There Yet
What will it take to achieve equality for women in the theatre?
By Marsha Norman
Discussing the status of women in the theatre feels a little like debating global warming. I mean, why are we still having this discussion? According to a report issued seven years ago by the New York State Council on the Arts, 83 percent of produced plays are written by men—a statistic that, by all indications, remains unchanged. Nobody doubts that the North Pole is melting, either—we see it on the news. These are both looming disasters produced by lazy behavior that nobody bothered to stop. End of discussion. What we have to do in both cases is commit to change before it is too late.
But, you ask, why is it a disaster that women writers are wildly underrepresented on the American stage? Actually, it's awful all over the arts world for women. My painter pals tell me that at one big museum in New York City, the new acquisitions by men are on the walls, while the new work by women is all in crates in the basement. Only in the orchestra world are the gender numbers equal, and that's because they started holding blind auditions a few years ago.
The U.S. Department of Labor considers any profession with less than 25 percent female employment, like being a machinist or firefighter, to be "untraditional" for women. Using the 2008 numbers, that makes playwriting, directing, set design, lighting design, sound design, choreography, composing and lyric writing all untraditional occupations for women. That's a disaster if you're a woman writer, or even if you just think of yourself as a fair person. We have a fairness problem, and we have to fix it now. If it goes on like this, women will either quit writing plays, all start using pseudonyms, or move to musicals and TV, where the bias against women's work is not so pervasive.
In the late '70s, when I came of age as a playwright—along with Beth Henley, Wendy Wasserstein, Tina Howe, Paula Vogel and Ntozake Shange—we thought the revolution would be over by now. We thought we were changing things, that regional theatres and New York institutional theatres would soon be presenting seasons filled with plays by women. But that did not happen.
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