NATIONAL INITIATIVE TO CELEBRATE AMERICAN WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS
In 2010 the NTC launched its Women Playwrights Initiative with the following letter to the membership:
NATIONAL THEATRE CONFERENCE Announces Its NATIONAL INITIATIVE TO CELEBRATE AMERICAN WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS
We at the NTC believe there are currently an extraordinary number of playwrights working in America. We recognize however, that production opportunities are becoming more difficult to find for all playwrights, and that Women Writers especially face even greater challenges in getting produced. Accordingly, we would like to announce a new National initiative and urge all our members who are affiliated with producing entities, be they professional or non-professional, to join together and pledge the following:
For the next three years*, we will dedicate at least one production slot per year to a Contemporary Female American Playwright.
1. This will be a full production in line with what you normally do. Not a reading. Not a workshop.
2. Even though current financial conditions are daunting, we encourage all members to make a residency available to their writer during their production.
3. This need not be a World Premier. It can be, if you so choose, but most writers will tell you what they really need is that critical second or third production that really allows them to finish their play.
4. This need not be a “New Emerging Writer.” Again, it can be, if you so choose but it can also be the work of a mid-career dramatist, or a mature writer. There are lots of writers out there who were once (and ever so briefly) the “new writer.” They haven’t gone away, they’ve just gotten better. They need productions, too.
5. The only other stipulation is that it cannot be a play which has had a Broadway production in the last five years. Those plays are already being done. Let’s spread the wealth around!
6. We ask that those of you participating insert the following statement in your playbill for each play produced as part of this initiative:
“This production is part of the NTC National Initiative to Celebrate American Women Playwrights. The National Theatre Conference (NTC) founded in 1925, encourages and supports the American Theatre through its initiatives, awards, and colloquy. For more information, see www.nationaltheatreconference.org”
Please inform us of your intent to participate as soon as possible but no later than January 31, 2011, with updates as to playwrights, plays, dates, etc., as soon as they can be made public.\
The letter was written by a committee made up of members Robert Schenkkan, Kathleen Conlin, and David Fuller, with the support of President Dan Carter, the NTC Officers and Board of Trustees.
In fall 2011, Patricia Waters, Editor of the Omaha Herald, wrote the following piece about the initiative:
National Theatre Conference (NTC) Challenges Theatre Community on Women Playwrights
BY PATRICIA WATERS, EDITOR, THE OMAHA (NEB.) WORLD-HERALD
The genesis of the Women’s Playwright Initiative was a challenge by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Robert Schenkkan at last October’s meeting of the National Theatre Conference.
“Can’t we do more to promote and highlight the work of women playwrights in America?” Schenkkan asked representatives of the 86-year-old organization, whose members are a select group of people working in the profession.
Cindy Phaneuf, president-elect of the NTC, said his words had an immediate and visceral response. “The reaction was, ‘Of course! How appropriate, and how generous of you to suggest it.’”
Schenkkan’s call to arms galvanized the 120-member National Theatre Conference. The long-term goal of the Women’s Playwright Initiative is that by the year 2020, fifty percent of the plays produced in the U.S. will be by women. As of September 1, fifty members and a number of affiliated organizations had pledged to support the Initiative’s targets: To dedicate at least one production slot per year for the next three years to a contemporary female American playwright.
The NTC effort is only the latest to embrace this goal. The others: a campaign announced by playwright Julia Jordan; “50/50 by 2020,” by New Perspectives Theatre Company, headed by Melody Brooks; and a third from the Dramatists Guild, led by playwright Marsha Norman.
Playwriting is a challenging art form for all writers, but particularly so for women. In 2006, 12.2 percent of all plays produced on Broadway were by women, a decline of .6 from 1906, when 12.8 of the Broadway plays were by women. Professional regional theatres fare only slightly better, with 17 percent of the productions written by women.
Individuals within the theatre world have noted, fretted over and condemned this worrisome statistic frequently over the last 10 or so years. A watershed and much-cited study prepared for the New York State Council on the Arts in 2002 confirmed the general perception: Progress for women seeking to participate in theatre was inconsistent and slow. Referencing that study, Tony and Pulitzer Award-winner Marsha Norman said in a 2009 speech titled “Not There Yet” that women “are welcome at the front door of the theatre but not at the stage door.”
Phaneuf said the NTC, with the Women’s Playwright Initiative, is joining like-minded organizations and individuals in seeking substantive change. Supporters hope the endeavor’s concrete, measurable goals, along with the National Theatre Conference’s connections and influence in the university, professional and community theatre sectors produce success, or at least progress. “Everyone in the group is someone who influences theatre. (Everyone is committed) to making American theatre all it can be,” Phaneuf said.
To be sure, even male playwrights historically have suffered for their art, with only a few achieving the kind of fame and recognition more commonly achieved by novelists. Sixteenth-century essayist, poet and playwright Ben Jonson scandalized the literary world by publishing his plays along with his essays and poetry. “(Playwriting) was considered inferior writing,” said Phaneuf. For women, though, the impediments also were related to gender: Playwriting was considered unsuitable, improper and vulgar. Women in theatre today are where women in general were four decades ago, before Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” “pulled the trigger on history,” as Alvin Toffler wrote in “Future Shock.”
In March 2010, playwright Theresa Rebeck gave an impassioned speech at an ART/NY Curtain Call presentation detailing how she and one of her plays The Butterfly Collection were victims of gender bias. Of the work about a family of artists and the tensions among them, Rebeck said: “There was enormous excitement gathering around the production. … and people felt that it could potentially move. Nine regional theatres were circling to produce it. American Theatre magazine called my agent to ask for the script because they were interested in publishing it … Audiences were thrilled with the play. Lincoln Center Library of Performing Arts was filming it for their collection.”
Then came a ruinous New York Times review.
“The reviewer, who shall remain nameless, dismissed the play—which was about art and family—as a feminist diatribe. He accused me of having a thinly veiled man-hating agenda, and in a truly bizarre paragraph at the end of the review, he expressed sympathy with the director because he had to work with someone as hideous as me.”
Rejection by the theatre world and a period of mental depression followed. “I couldn’t get produced. …No one wanted to touch The Butterfly Collection, and no one wanted to touch me.”
For Rebeck, there is no question that women are being systemically shut out of American theatre because of their gender. Playwriting, she said in that 2010 speech, “is NOT in fact a gene on a Y chromosome, and we are NOT losing women playwrights because they decided to run off and have babies. The reason we lost all those women playwrights is: we buried their work, and we sent them away.”
“I never had an agenda. I just wanted to write plays that told the truth. Some of those plays told the truth about what it is like to live on this planet as a woman. Why would that be off the table? Why would that story be something that they only do in fiction, or on cable TV? Why can’t we do that in the theatre? …It’s past time to acknowledge the fact that that means welcoming the voices of women into the cultural discussion.
“There are a lot of ways to do this. Primarily, I think, we need to encourage theatres and producers and foundations and boards of directors to extend to women playwrights the kind of excellent programs which have been put in place to encourage the work of minority playwrights. …We need to stop discussing why the numbers are so bad, and stop asking where are the women playwrights, and we need to start recognizing them where they are—which is right in front of us – and hold them them up and celebrate their voices, and produce their plays.”
That’s exactly what the Women’s Playwrights Initiative aims to do. As Phaneuf says, “Just say ‘yes’ to a female playwright. I can’t change the world, but what’s my sphere of influence?”
In her case, it’s Caridad Svich, whose 12 Ophelias will be produced this fall at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Svich said finding champions like Phaneuf, is a “gift.”
“It means the world.”
“As an artist, no matter how resourceful and enterprising you are, at the end of the day, it helps to have other passionate and talented people in the field talk about the work to their colleagues,” she said.
Visual artists are covered extensively by journals, magazines, and the mainstream and non-mainstream press, and critics interpret each work in relation to the artist’s body of work. But that rarely happens in theatre in the United States, she said. “Theatre is such an ephemeral art form.” The playwright is appraised only through the prism of his or her current work. Each play is seen, judged and then dismissed.
“So much depends often on ONE newspaper review, on ONE critic. It’s very hard to build context, and actually educate an audience about an artist’s work that way. So, often, the theatre maker is constantly building a body of work and presenting it as if it were a one-off. … It’s a very skewed world in which to present work.”
Svich’s In the Time of the Butterflies, based on the novel by Julia Alvarez, currently is playing at Repertorio Espanol in New York City for an extended run. In addition, The House of the Spirits, a play based on the novel by Isabel Allende, which won the 2011 ATCA Francesca Primus Prize, will be seen at Vortex Theatre in Albuquerque this fall. It also will be performed at the University of Missouri-St Louis, Florida International University-Miami, and at Arizona State University-Tempe.
“Disparity is something I’ve wrestled with for a long time,” Svich said. “I’m a woman, I’m a Latina, and I wrote plays that aren’t always what is expected of a woman or Latina to write. As a writer, I abhor categories. …I write plays. All kinds of plays. I write the stories that compel me. Period.”
That said, the glass ceiling does exist, she said. “As a female Latina writer, I can name over thirty terrific colleagues who are also female and Latina, and we’re all seemingly fighting for the same slot. There is this rather peculiar culture of star-making exclusion especially for artists of color. There can only be ONE who snags the big prize or the big Broadway show or the big movie, etc. There’s only room for ONE.”
Svich has made myriad sacrifices for her craft. More than men? Who knows, but she has temp jobs, struggles to make ends meet and delayed having children and a more “stable, settled life.”
“I see many of my colleagues after twenty years in the business still cobbling together jobs, still struggling for the next paycheck, myself included. There’s no guarantee. But then again, there never is. Is it easier for male artists? Maybe. But I think the artist’s life is just difficult. That’s the territory.”
Svich doesn’t regret her decision to choose art, or perhaps her decision to say “yes” when it chose her. Still, she would like to see more opportunities for her and her sister playwrights. There is cause for hope, even on Broadway, where the pressure for commercial success can make the situation even more dire for women. “This season on Broadway will see, among others, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, Lydia Diamond’sStick Fly, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar,” Svich said.
“I don’t want 2011-2012 to be remembered in the commercial world as THE banner year for women, and well, that’s that. …Hopefully, what the rise and rise of powerful, diverse, interesting, radiant women’s voices in the theatre will teach us all is that women can and do write all sorts of plays, all sorts of different plays, and that there is no ONE model to follow.”
Since 2010 over 150 plays written by American women playwrights have been produced under the banner of the NTC initiative. For a listing of many of them, click below:
The NTC Women Playwrights initiative was originally intended to run for three years ending with the 2013-2014 season. At the 2013 Annual Meeting an extension of two more years was recommended by the Board of Trustees and approved by the membership. We have committed to another 150 plays written by American Women. If you have not yet participated, you still have a chance to help encourage and develop American women playwrights.
If you have already participated in the initiative, please share your experiences. Please submit in Word format and we will add to the linked post above.
In either case, contact NTC Secretary Michael Hood at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.