“Women in Theatre: Issues for the 21st Century”

Emily Mann's 20 year tenure as Artistic Director of the McCarter Theatre Center will be celebrated at the "Women in Theatre" conference at Princeton University on September 26, available streamed live on the internet. (Photo of Emily Mann by Merri Cyr)

Much remains to be said about the status of women in theatre, a topic that’s seen its way into print once again lately, thanks to a number of synergistic events during the past year or so. First, playwrights Julia Jordan, Sarah Schulman, and their colleagues at New Dramatists got fed up with the lack of representation of women playwrights in Off Broadway theatres in New York, and invited a few artistic directors to come to a town hall-style forum to explain themselves. That gathering got a fair amount of press, and recalled attention to the perennial problem of discrimination against women in theatre.

Shortly after, the press jumped on research conducted by Emily Sands, a Princeton economics graduate who wrote her senior thesis last year on production inequities for women playwrights. Sands’ thesis was widely reported, although some of its findings were skewed to make it seem as though women artistic directors hire fewer women playwrights than male artistic directors, a misinterpretation gleefully touted by the mainstream press.

At the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) joint conference with the American Alliance of Theatre and Education (AATE) in New York in August, at least four or five panels were expressly devoted to feminism and the state of women in theatre. On one panel that I co-organized with Sara Warner, a past-president of ATHE’s Women and Theatre Program, a multi-generational panel of feminist theatre practitioners spoke about their work, its reception, and its relationship to the social movement as it’s changed over time. Deb Margolin (of Split Britches), Sue Perlgut (of It’s All Right to be a Woman Theatre, one of the first feminist theatre collectives in the country), Sharon Bridgforth (of The Austin Project), Roberta Sklar and Sondra Segal (of the influential Women’s Experimental Theatre), and Carmelita Tropicana (Alina Troyano, of the WOW Cafe) discussed their work and to a large extent their lives as feminist theatre workers, and what that’s meant and what they’ve accomplished over the years. The large conference meeting room was packed with people eager to hear them speak.

On August 25th, The League of Professional Theatre Women, New Perspectives Theatre Company, and the Women’s Project sponsored a panel and working group event called “50/50 in 2020: Parity for Women Theatre Artists.” The lively panel and speakers’ astute comments and suggestions for continuing advocacy struck a chord in the large, responsive audience. Susan Jonas, Julie Crosby, Elizabeth Van Dyke, Linda Winer, Alexis Greene, Milly Barranger, and Natatia L. Griffith filled in the history of activism for women in professional theatre; discussed the realities of producing work by women; talked about the paucity of women first-string critics; addressed the importance of knowing the history of women in American theatre; and strategized about how to keep the conversation alive and moving forward.

The latest event to address women in theatre is scheduled to be held at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, on Saturday, September 26th from 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. The sold-out event (at 300+ attendees strong) will be streamed live on the internet. The conference web site—which includes a schedule for the day, speakers’ bios, and a wealth of information and links to other advocacy networks—has an icon through which you can connect to the streaming video 15 minutes prior to the event’s start. The welcome and first panel begins at 10:00 a.m. I encourage anyone interested to join us virtually for the event at www.princeton.edu/arts/wit.

I’m including here my welcome note as conference organizer, which is published in the event’s program. After the conference, I hope to blog in more detail about the Princeton meeting, the August 25th panel, and the general issue of advocacy for women in theatre.

Here’s my conference welcome:

I’m delighted to welcome you to Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts for “Women in Theatre: Issues for the 21st Century.” As a feminist critic and scholar whose work has focused on gender and performance, I’ve been invited to, participated in, and organized countless symposia, conferences, and panels over the years that address the too often sorry state of women in theatre. Although the numbers continue to look grim, today’s conversations are meant to accentuate the positive, by bringing together women who’ve achieved considerable success in American (and world) theatre. They’ve been asked to talk about the specifics of their work and their practices, to address what makes their artistry distinctive and exemplary, and to describe how their careers belie the evidence of discrimination that we all know persists. We mean these discussions to be probing, provocative, particular, and inspirational.

My own hope is that “Women in Theatre” will become an on-going conversation at Princeton, one that includes any and all women working in theatre in various ways and locations. Today’s speakers are centralized in regional theatres, Off-Broadway, and Broadway houses, which might be considered the apogee of the field, given its visibility and influence. Emily Mann’s career—and her 20-year tenure as Artistic Director at the McCarter Theatre Center, which we’re honoring and celebrating today—represents the consummate artistry of a woman successful as a writer, director, and administrator on the platform of the country’s largest stages.

Many women who’ve also inspired my own thinking over the years perform, direct, design, and write in “downtown,” experimental, or community-based theatres, where they work with smaller budgets and sometimes more specific audiences. Some of the women speaking today began in such theatres, and now find themselves addressing broader audiences in larger, better financed (although budgets are relative these days) venues.

I’m interested in all of these pathways through which women work in theatre, and all the different forms, styles, genres, contents, contexts, politics, and ideologies that influence our labor and creativity. Gender, of course, represents only one perspective through which to think about inequity. The categories often described as “identity politics” along with gender—race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, and others— influence how theatre is created and produced, seen by spectators and reviewed by critics. But then again, style, preferences, habits, training, connections, and artistic commitments also have an impact on production and reception. What kinds of hierarchies persist, and how might we challenge them to facilitate an ever more thrilling diversity of theatre practice?

Our guests will address these issues today with vigorous energy, and will share creative ideas and articulate insights. I encourage everyone attending to lend your voices to the debates by speaking at the open mikes during session discussions and by affiliating with a networking table or two to continue the conversations over lunch. I also encourage you to visit the conference web site at www.princeton.edu/arts/wit, where a wealth of information and action ideas is posted, and where the conference proceedings will be archived. The web site also includes instructions for how to join the Women-in-Theatre listserve we’ve established here at Princeton to help circulate information and advocacy plans.

Most importantly, please strengthen your own commitment to this issue by buying tickets to see theatre by and about women, by teaching the plays, by writing about women directors, designers, artistic directors, dramaturgs, performers, and playwrights, supporting them, and promoting them as they generate the vital, necessary, inspiring art of the our collective present and future.

Thanks so much for joining us today.

Jill Dolan
Conference Organizer

Yours in struggle as always,
The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

3 thoughts on ““Women in Theatre: Issues for the 21st Century”

  1. Thank you for this inspiring blog entry! As a fellow woman taking action to promote women in theatre, I thank you for your articulate thoughts. Your conference welcome is particularly thought provoking. I wish I could have been there to be part of what must have been, as you say, vigorous and energetic discussions. I have recently co-founded WAM Theatre (www.wamtheatre.com) which uses theatre to benefit women and girls worldwide, philanthropy through the Arts is our mission, and your blog and this entry in particular has filled me with even more passion to move forward with our mission! Thank you.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I’m working towards a career in feminist theatre and am happy to hear that I’m not alone. I’d love for you to check out my blog at avivapressman.net/blog.html

    I write about feminism and theatre, shows that I’ve seen and been involved in from a feminist perspective…that sort of thing.

  3. Hey, my names Jess.

    I’m currently writing my dissertation at university in England on Women in Theatre in the 20th and 21st Century.

    I have been very inspired by this blog and would love to attend the conference as it would benefit me greatly. However, being a student, i’m completely broke!!

    I would therefore love to get in contact with someone/ Jill Dolan/ ANYONE and talk through their ideas on the sturggles women are facing.

    Look forward to hearing from you.

    Jessica Rainbow

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