It was a historic moment in theater few people saw when the first female writing team won Tony Awards this year for Fun Home. The milestone symbolized a stubborn imbalance between the number of female playwrights who see their work produced on stage compared with men.
The breakthrough for Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori with Broadway’s Fun Home” came during a commercial break in the Tonys. Writers are rarely recognized in the theater world. But for this team, the win cemented their place at a time when very few new plays picked up for production in theaters are written by women.
Now a large-scale theater festival in Washington is challenging this gender divide. In September and October, the Women’s Voices Theater Festival will involve more than 50 of the Washington region’s professional theaters and will present more than 50 world-premiere productions written by women.
New productions will be staged at theaters both large and small, with the aim of launching plays that could move to other cities in the future. Washington’s busy Arena Stage will premiere two new works — one about the humor columnist Erma Bombeck, another in the style of a Mexican telenovela comedy.
New statistics released this summer by the Dramatists Guild of America focused attention on the gender disparity in theater. Only 22 percent of some 2,500 contemporary theater productions in the past three seasons were written by women, according to the study.
“What you see is this is not about women’s feelings that they’re under-represented,” Kron says. “This is about actual numbers.”
When it came to marketing Fun Home on Broadway, Kron says her team faced knee-jerk assumptions that theirs was a niche show mainstream audiences couldn’t relate to. Part of that was having a butch lesbian protagonist in a “serious musical” instead of light entertainment, she said. But Kron insisted they had a deeply emotional story worthy on its artistic merits.
“I don’t want any more discussions about, you know, if I can word process with a uterus,” Kron wrote sarcastically to her marketing team at one point. “I want to talk about the work.”
Women playwrights are often asked about their personal experiences, she says, while men are asked about their work. To have their work produced, women often have to prove their accomplishments while male playwrights are chosen for their potential.
In taking a risk on a new play, theaters often gravitate toward people who already have large bodies of work, theater directors say.
“What that says is that the bar is higher for women to be produced,” Kron says. But women playwrights “have the same authority to write about the world the way male playwrights have authority to write about the world. But we see the world from a different vantage point.”
The persistent gender disparity in the theater is odd, says Molly Smith, the artistic director of Washington’s Arena Stage and an organizer of the women’s theater festival, because when it comes to ticket buyers, as much as 70 percent of the audience is women. She points to a system of sexism that’s both visible and invisible.
“This festival is an opportunity to put a very bright spotlight on women’s plays,” Smith says. “The impact will only be known five years from now when we see how many of the plays that are produced in Washington, D.C., are then done in other parts of the country.”
Perhaps things are already changing. Now when a theater announces a season of plays by all male writers, it can draw scrutiny, as with the Manhattan Theatre Club’s recent move to add a female playwright’s work to its season that was otherwise composed of all white men.
“There’s a huge amount of talent out there, but there still hasn’t been a sense that women writers are as commercially viable as men writers,” says veteran theater director Michael Kahn of Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. “I think that’s changing.”
Fun Home was revolutionary, Kahn says, in its writing, music, theme and its basis on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about growing up in a funeral home with a closeted dad.
After her success with this year’s best musical, Kron is challenging theater directors to make a commitment to achieve gender parity in their schedules over five or six years. Then old habits and assumptions may begin to change as more women are given opportunities to develop their work.
“In raw numbers, there are more plays by men than there are plays by women,” she said. “But there are certainly more than enough strong plays, very strong, accomplished women playwrights producing work than there are production slots.”
For information on the festival, visit www.womensvoicestheaterfestival.org.