About Me

My photo
Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Theresa Rebeck speaks to Gender Bias...

On this blog posting at the Guardian.

Sort of hard to deny that the numbers show that, at least in terms of which playwrights are being presented on major stages, New York is male dominated, but I'm not sure what the cure to this problem is other than raising awareness.

I would have to add that the idea that what goes on Broadway or even Off-Broadway is some sort of meritocracy is highly questionable anyhow. It's not really about who is writing good plays, its about whose plays are getting chosen and why. That's my assumption anyway. There may be an unconscious male bias in the decision making...but from where does that bias spring?

Any thoughts on this? I'd love to hear them.

23 comments:

Christine said...

I do have a few thoughts, but they might be too crazy to post. New York Theatre and Hollywood are definitely boys clubs. It may just be that old habits die hard.

Freeman said...

Nothing is to crazy for the readers of ON THEATRE AND POLITICS!

Christine said...

I think that there is a pervasive mentality about plays by women that separates them out from the rest of the pack. As if it's a whole other category rather than simply another play to be considered. Something like a novelty.

RVCBard said...

I'll have to post about this on my blog.

Damn, I hate having to use my brain cells for thinking and stuff. Can't we get just get Obama to make a speech about it or something?

Christine said...

You could also simplify what I said by just saying it's sexism. I mean if we are giving thoughts as to why this happens, isn't plain enough to say that's what it is? Or are we breaking it down in some kind of way?

RVCBard said...

I think it's already pretty clear (as Christine noted) where the tendency comes from. What's of greater interest to me - and perhaps other playwrights who are discriminated against - is how to fix the problems created by it.

For me, part of the solution is more politically conscious women in positions of authority in the mainstream theater community. We need more people committed to diversifying what's available on stage. We need more people who can understand (and act on) the difference between representation and tokenism. We need more people who can relate to the works of women and people of color beyond the novelty factor and emphasize artistry of what they do instead of letting gender and/or ethnicity overshadow an artist's talent and originality.

In short, we need more producers, artistic directors, dramaturgs, and critics who see the problem and are determined to fix it.

Kerry said...

I think it goes back to the widespread notion that "women's work" speaks only to and for women, whereas work by men is "universal," even if that work is mostly about disaffected twentysomething white males in coastal urban bohemian settings (Adam Rapp, hello!). The old thing that women will go see movies with their boyfriends that putatively appeal mostly to men but men won't be caught dead at a "chick flick" or reading an Oprah-recommended book. (No brief for or against Oprah's Book Club intended, though if you think NOT reading a book simply because Oprah recommends it isn't the same thing as reading a book ONLY because Oprah recommends it, you're sadly delusional. Oprah still gets the final say, yo.)

So while it's obvious to me that there are many women writing about things far outside "female" or domestic issues (interesting too that plays of family dysfunction are genius when men do them, but assumed to be soap operas when women do them), or doing so in nontraditional ways, the fear persists that a largely female audience is an inferior one, and that women writers will mostly appeal to other women.

But one way to start is by simply pointing it out in a non-accusatory way. Talk to artistic directors you know who haven't programmed any work by women in a while and say "By the way, I noticed that though you did a whole season of new work last year, none of it was by women. Have you read any plays by X Y and Z? If not, I think you'd like them, and I think your audience would, too."

And calling out John Lahr for lines like "Mamet for girls" as in his review of Rebeck's "Mauritius" would be good, too. Though who really wants to get on Lahr's bad side?

missbanshee said...

I agree with Kerry in that it is widely recognized that stories about and written by men are universal, while plays about and written by women are simply "woman issues." To have that kind of compartmentalizing of the genre makes it easier for plays by women to be disregarded as having too small an audience, and therefore not as profitable. Because sadly, when a play is produced, doesn't it sadly come down to ticket sales and profitability?

Pam said...

I think this is an issue that transcends theatre. It permeates into all art, politics, business, what have you. Essentially I think it comes down to the fact that women are, for myriad reasons, more comfortable relating to the work of both genders, whereas many men (and I'm not saying all, but most) still feel that women's experiences aren't relevant for them. As a female, I get just as charged up listening to Robert Plant as I do to Polly Jean Harvey, or from reading JD Salinger as I do from Angela Carter. However, the average dude has loads of Radiohead in his collection, but Bjork (who was a pioneer of hybridized electronic music waaaay before KID A "changed" rock) not so much. Why is that? Because unconsciously or not, he feels like it's "chick music," and therefore, not for him. Sure, women need to be better at self-promotion, but we also need evolved men who will stop considering half the population to be "niche," and who will be open to finding themselves in our work, too.

RVCBard said...

Off-topic

Pam -

You read Angela Carter too? :-D

Christine said...

Are there very many women writing? We aren't living in a world where womens voices are being exactly encouraged. I guess if we were, there would be more female playwrights produced.

What would be interesting to know is, how many plays by women are being submitted to theatres?

Kerry said...

Christine, I think you've asked an important question. I was on a panel about women playwrights last year at Chicago Dramatists, and that question was raised as well -- I would need to dig around to find some of the stats, but I do know that a couple people there said that they had had trouble getting women to submit plays or to apply for associate memberships in organizations like Dramatists.

But then Mia McCullough, a playwright and Dramatist member, said that she had pointed out to a small company that does mostly new work that they hadn't scheduled any plays by women. The artistic director was surprised -- he just hadn't noticed. So this season, they DO have works by women. That's why I think it's important not to assume bad intent. Everyone in theater, esp. small theaters, is so damn busy and stressed that it may just be that "looking for good plays by women" gets pushed to farther down the list than "make sure we can rent on the venue for the next year." I definitely think women need to use better networking skills to get their work out there.

RVCBard said...

Kerry,

"Better networking skills"?

What's that mean?

Christine said...

The only area where there are more women than men in the theater is acting.

The solution is more women need to start writing plays!

Freeman said...

It's interesting... Pam noted to me that although she doesn't consider me a sexist, and although I write a lot of plays where women are strong and central... my favorite books, musicians, movies, plays ... all written by or created by men, or feature male leads.

Now... is this subconscious gender bias? I am, after all, a man and we all relate to the things that are "like" us. Does it behoove me to, therefore, actively seek out women artists in order to balance out my input? I'm not a huge fan of self-regulating what I enjoy in order to appear, outwardly, less sexist.

Hmmm.

I also have mixed feelings about moving in the direction codifying identity politics into our artistic institutions. Which is to say, that literary managers and artistic directors take the identity of an artist into account as a major factor in deciding if their work is produced. That SEEMS like a slippery slope.

But it's also naive to, as I've said, treat the arts like a pure meritocracy. You can't undo decades of sexism by saying "Well, now everyone's in an equal marketplace." It may be necessary to be pro-active in getting some balance on stages, even in the short term. That's the whole point of affirmative action.

Christine said...

To be honest, most of the playwrights I admire are men and Marsha Norman. When I started writing I wracked my brain for a female playwright, a prolific one in the vein of Pinter or Shepard, to look up to, with no luck (for my taste...). Who is the female Pinter or Beckett or Shepard?? Tina Howe? Carol Churchill? Where are the iconic women of theater? I asked all my female friends this question and they had no one. Not ONE of them could name a woman playwright they admired. Maybe a play they liked theat was by a woman, but not an artist as a whole.

Freeman said...

That just might be a product of their being fewer encouragements and opportunities for women in the past than those for men.

I have to say Carol Churchill is probably going to have to go on my list of great writers. Almost more for her body of work than any one particular play.

What I find a bit ironic about Theresa Rebeck's commentary driving all this, was that one of the major complaints about Mauritius that I'd heard was it sounded like imitation David Mamet. Even the lone female playwright on Broadway was basically dismissed as being in a man's shadow.

Christine said...

Freeman, re: comment about Rebeck and Mamet, yes how appalling. Sexism is insidious, unless you are Sarah Ruhl.

I think Churchill is as close as an iconic female playwright as we are going to get for now.

I think the people that should be asking themselves, why there aren't more women playwrights being produced are women. Because, as it's been mentioned, I think it comes down to not alot of women are writing and submitting work.

Kerry said...

By networking, I mean that it seems at least in Chicago that people get plays produced by getting to know people in particular theater companies, hanging out with them, seeing a lot of shows, talking about their ideas of how theater should be made, etc. Chicago is still a very ensemble-based town, and it can sometimes be hard for writers (and directors, for that matter) who are not already associated with a company to get an airing for their work until they already have a reputation. But I think the informal social associations are where a lot of connections are made. You meet someone, talk to them, they seem interesting, have some ideas that hit home with you about how theater should be done -- are you more likely to read their script closely than a submission from someone you don't know, given limited time and resources? Probably.

Of course, that also tends to work against people who have young kids at home and can't spend as much time drinking with other theater artists. To name just one impediment to getting out and meeting more fellow artists (having to work some night jobs if you're a waiter or bartender, commuting, etc.)

Note that this kind of networking is mostly at the grassroots storefront level. As far as getting more work by women done at the regionals and on Broadway, where the chance of actually making money is greater, I'm not sure what should be done there. But I definitely think that there are ways to leverage the smaller theater successes into national profiles. It worked for Rebecca Gilman -- she made the leap from little Circle Theater in Forest Park to the Goodman and the national circuit. I don't love all her work, but that doesn't take away from the fact that she was able to use her connections at Chicago Dramatists to build her career.

RVCBard said...

Kerry,

I fail to see the association between lack of women's works being produced and lack of women's networking ability.

But I have blond moments.

Kerry said...

This is one part of the discussion on networking: http://www.timeout.com/chicago/blog/out-and-about/?p=3598

It's certainly not the ONLY thing women have to do, and it's certainly not that lack of networking is the sole reason why women aren't produced -- as I said in my first comment, I think there is an entrenched attitude throughout the culture that work created BY women artists is only FOR other women to enjoy, whereas men's work is assumed to be universal.

But it's also undeniable that people tend to be more open to working with people with whom they have some sort of a personal relationship, whether it's from attending readings series or some other sort of work/social opportunity. A lot of my writing opportunities as a journalist have come about because I was in the right place and had made the right connection at the right time (the lack of women theater critics at the national level is a discussion for another day, I think). I didn't get work just by sending out clips and pitches to people I didn't know and hoping for the best. I went to events, met people, talked about different aspects of theater that interested me, suggested things in person that might make for interesting articles. (And of course, was generally good enough at it and reliable enough that they kept coming back with more work for me over time -- though I suspect that the decline in print media will bite me in the ass one of these days.)

I think the anecdote from Mia McCullough that I cited earlier also helps illustrate this: because she was on friendly terms with this particular artistic director (who is a great guy, btw), she was able to gently point out that he hadn't put any women playwrights on the schedule. That reality check from a friendly colleague helped get him thinking of ways to diversify his programming for this year. Multiply that by lots of women writers and directors talking to people they know at theaters and saying "You know, that play you did last year by that guy that was so successful? I think your audience would also dig this play by this woman. Let me send you a copy and tell me what you think." If we don't advocate for ourselves or each other, it's harder to get the word out there.

And as I said, I don't always ascribe it to bad intent or "SEXISM OMG YOU'RE ALL SO SEXIST!" At least not conscious sexism. It's just -- people get busy. Things fall through the cracks. The path of least resistance (which is also the path strewn mostly with plays by men) becomes the most common avenue.

And I've observed many women who give up on themselves early in their careers -- "Oh, so and so didn't like it, so I guess it just doesn't work." Not that insecurity is the sole province of women writers, but coupled with lack of meaningful opportunities, it can drive a lot of people out of the field before they've had a chance to really develop their voices. If nothing else, taking advantage of networking opportunities helps take the edge off the sense of loneliness and frustration that, lord knows, accompanies the writing life.

Kerry said...

Whoops! That was actually Anna C. Bahow who talked to Adam Webster about having women playwrights in his schedule. But the point is the same. And this isn't to call Adam on the carpet, because as I said, he's a great guy and he has produced plays by women in the past and is doing so this season.

Kerry said...

Sorry to keep chiming in, but this is an issue about which I feel pretty strongly (obviously), so I want to make sure I'm clear on one thing: by no means am I saying that women playwrights and artists are responsible for their own lack of representation on stages, galleries, screens, bookshelves, etc. The final responsibility of course rests with entrenched systems and thought processes that privilege male experience and male voices, and with the administrators, artistic directors, curators, producers, and publishers who continue to buy into that gender bias.

However, I am also interested in figuring out ways to combat this problem. Anna's story about Adam resonated with me because it takes this stuff down to the person-to-person grassroots level -- as opposed to the vagaries of "why can't more theaters produce more women," I suspect it might be helpful to start asking THIS theater over here if they're aware of THIS woman, and build it from there.