Sexism is a problem everywhere, even in theatre

I assign a lot of labels to myself. Among those labels are: atheist, feminist, computer nerd, and theatre artist/geek.

New Atheism and Theatre Arts are both precious to me. The New Atheist and Skeptical movements have an emphasis on objective reality, science-based reasoning, and in that way encourage, at least for me and the blogs I generally read, constant questioning of assumptions. Of course, as a feminist, it’s painful to me that atheism and skepticism have big, big, big problems when it comes to sexism. But there’s a dialogue happening, and there are some brilliant and outspoken female skeptics and atheists contributing.

It is also a problem to be a woman on the internet. A big problem. But again, there’s some excellent women out there yelling about it and showing why it’s bad.

I’m on Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s mailing list, and I was recently sent an email, linking to a Pels Keynote Address by Theresa Rebeck, since she is the writer of their upcoming play, The Bells. Rebeck’s speech, in a sad coincidence, discussed the amazing sexism in the theatre world.

This is an important point to realize: Before I came to New York and started working in the theater, I was never told that being a girl was going to be a problem for me in any way that I took seriously. It’s not like I was a stranger to conservatism. I know a lot about the Republican party and the Catholic church because I was raised, basically, in both. Both my parents were staunch Ohio Republican Catholics until some point where my mother got a clue and switched parties and now she’s a democrat and my father is still a republican so since then they’ve done nothing but fight incessantly about politics. My father, who is as I said both republican and catholic, thinks I’m insane BUT there was a moment in my childhood, when some of his buddies got into ribbing him about having so many daughters. He had four daughters and two sons, and someone apparently even expressed pity one day, the story goes, one of his golfing buddies said something like, “Poor George, what is he going to do with all those girls?” And it pissed him off, and he came home and said to my democratic mother, “Those girls can do anything the boys can do.” And that is what the expectation was, in my house. Then I went to an all girls Catholic high school where the nuns were all quietly radical liberation theologists who were secretly agitating for women’s ordination. Then I went to Notre Dame, which was more traditionally conservative, but I couldn’t take it tooo seriously because they had things like panty raids there. I thought it was just too dumb to be believed. And then I went to Brandeis, where I read a lot of feminist literary theory and considered questions like “Is the Gaze Male?” This was in the EIGHTIES, that’s more than 25 years ago, for people who are counting. And at the time there were fantastic plays being produced all over the country by Wendy Wasserstein and Tina Howe and Marsha Norman and Emily Mann, and I thought it was a cool thing, to be a woman playwright. I thought, I’m not in the Catholic Church anymore, and the world is saying we haven’t heard from the women, and now we’re ready!

And then I began my career as a professional playwright, where I was told that since I’m a woman, if I write about women, that means I have a feminist agenda and that’s BAD. I also got told that when I write about men, since I’m a woman, that I clearly have a feminist agenda, and that’s bad too. I couldn’t write about anything without hearing that I had a feminist agenda. It turned out that being a woman playwright was just in and of itself suspect; if you are a woman playwright by definition you have a feminist agenda, which was so bad, it annihilated the work itself. Apparently the other word for woman playwright might as well be ‘witch.’

So those are some of the ways I know there actually is a gender problem in the American theater. This is another way: Because so many people—not just Arthur Kopit—have told me, over the years, that in order to have a career that is commensurate with my talent, I should pretend to be a man. This is another way I know there is a problem: Because the extraordinary Julia Jordan ran the numbers for us.

Two years ago in what I think was an act of inspired intelligence and courage, Julia Jordan conducted a series of town halls at New Dramatists, which put the question of gender parity on the table for the American theater to discuss. She invited women playwrights to come and present their situation and they showed up in droves. Then she invited artistic directors and literary managers to come and confront the situation with us. And this is the situation: Plays written by women are not being produced. In 2007, the one year I opened a play on Broadway, I was the only woman playwright who did so. That year, nationwide, 12 per cent of the new plays produced all over the country were by women. That means 88 percent of the new plays produced were written by men. (Back in 1918 before women had the right to vote, the percentage of new plays in New York, written by women, was higher. It was higher before we had the vote.)

I would also like to note that in January a lot of reports came out about the recent study of the American Council on Education, which informed us that last year women earned more than half the degrees granted in every category—associate, bachelor, master, doctor or professional. The actual numbers nationwide stand at 57 percent women, and 43 percent men, and they have stood somewhere in that vicinity since the year 2000. USA Today asks, is this “cause for celebration, or concern?”

So women playwrights live in a world where we are told it is a bad thing if women are 57 percent of the undergraduate population, because that’s too big an imbalance, but it’s an okay thing if women are only getting 17 percent or 6 percent or 9 percent of the best jobs in show business (and elsewhere, in America) and if we tried to rectify that it would be unfair because it would involve “quotas.”

Painful. And inexcusable.

Now, for personal anecdotal evidence, I don’t have much. I can think of several female theatre artists in my town, who are active, sought-after, and respected. I can also think of a handful of female atheist bloggers who I read frequently who are active, sought-after, and respected, and I know there are several out there that I can’t think of because I’m not familiar with their work. However, just because I personally cannot think of times when I specifically have been discriminated against because of my gender (or at least times when that might have been the only factor — there’s a lot of reasons I might not get picked for a lot of things), does not mean it doesn’t happen. I’m not going to write a diatribe about how I get to be part of the boys’ club, therefore the state of theatre in the Western World is fine (unlike Penn Jillette’s friend Mallorie in reference to the sexism problem in atheism). I can say that I DO get frequently cat-called on the street, and I have experienced a severe decrease in the likelihood of having a decent conversation with the opposite gender at a party when alcohol is involved, or when the party is a costume party (regardless of the costume I’m wearing).

The one experience I’ve had with sexism in theatre actually involves another woman. We were talking about potential members for the theatre company we both worked for, and she mentioned that, even though she loved working with other women and some of the most talented people she knew in the field were women, she preferred having a few men involved because otherwise all the group would ever do was sit around and talk about their feelings. This is a woman who is also very talented, who have given me several opportunities that have been wonderful, and whom I otherwise have a great deal of respect for. There’s nothing wrong with having feelings, but that statement is insulting to me both on a personal level, as a woman, and on a professional level, as an artist, because it implies that I am unable to get past my personal bullshit and focus on the task at hand. Which, considering she has asked me repeatedly to work with her, is obviously untrue when it comes down to dealing with each other individually, as artists. Otherwise, why would she want to work with me instead of a man?

The problem of sexism is an overall cultural problem, and while I experience it infrequently, I still see it’s detriments. For the theatre world, losing any one voice is a detriment because our art is all about narrative and it’s personal effects. One of the greatest talents in 20th century playwrighting is Caryl Churchill, whose unique perspective on important moments, rather than linear time, created a new theatrical experience which arguably changed how plays were written. Her work is at least as influential as that of David Mamet or Sam Shepard. But how often are Churchill’s plays revived, versus Mamet’s or Shepard’s?

Another history-maker in the theatre is Joan Littlewood, whose Theatre Workshop combined Communism (both in the sense of socialism and community living) and artistry, and ended up producing some of the most important British plays of the 20th century, including A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, and Oh, What a Lovely War!, an ensemble piece. The only reason I know anything about Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop is because I went to the University of Kingston-Upon-Hull, UK, for the second semester of my sophomore year of college and took a class on modern British drama. Despite her huge influence on theatre in the 1970’s and 1980’s, she was not discussed in any of my other theatre history classes throughout the rest of my college career.

Of course, theatre has a long history of sexism. Until extremely recently, women were only on stage for a combination of shock value and sex appeal. In ancient Rome, female slaves were allowed to play women, but female Roman citizens could not; women were not on the English stage until after the Restoration; women could play in the Commedia dell’arte, but were frowned upon as whores. Even now, I have a hard time thinking of roles for women in theatre that are not stereotypical, despite the fact that I know female stage hands, stage managers, producers, directors, and playwrights.

I think the modern problem of sexism, in theatre and in atheism, is a reflection of our larger culture’s problem. The wage gap still exists; the Equal Rights Amendment has not yet been ratified; studies about gender differences are fraught with mistakes that are not reported well in mainstream media. It seems like the only way to ensure any sort of equality is to base the hiring of professors, scientists, playwrights, and staff on resume only, without even a name to tip the hiring committee off. But meeting people is important, because that’s the best way to get a sense of their personality. But! Studies with infants have shown just how gender biased we are as a culture. So meeting a person face-to-face means that we’re going to react to them based on their gender. All of us.

I live in hope that one day this can all be overcome, but it means that we all have to speak out about gender stereotypes, always, and include as many hard facts as possible. I don’t like wondering if I didn’t get cast or hired just because of my age, race, or gender, and I don’t think anyone likes wondering that. I don’t like thinking I didn’t get hired because I’m not talented enough either, but that at least judges me as an individual, and I prefer that to thinking I was dismissed because I happen to have two X chromosomes.

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