Gender Bias in Theatre — Digging a Little Deeper

by Melissa Silverstein on June 30, 2009

in Uncategorized

Snapshot 2009-06-30 10-02-16Last week I attended the release of an economic study done by Princeton undergrad Emily Glassberg Sands entitled Opening the Curtain of Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theatre.

Usually an undergraduate thesis does not warrant a couple of hundred people showing up to hear the results.  But this was no average thesis and Glassberg Sands is no average undergrad.  This young woman is seriously impressive and was advised by Cecilia Rouse who is now working for the Obama administration and is the co-author with Claudia Goldin of Harvard of the famous study Orchestrating Impar-tiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians about how blind auditions increases women making it out of auditions by 50%.

None of this would have happened without Julia Jordan, a playwright, who got tired of not being produced and decided to find out if there was bias.  The thing to understand about theatre is that everyone knows there is sexism and it’s a joke because nobody is willing to do anything about it.  Here’s what Jordan says:

I know that there is a lot of joking going around where people say ok we have our 4 plays and we have one slot left it’s the race/girl slot.  Everybody knows that’s how it works.  The sexism is a bit of a joke.

And playwright Theresa Rebeck said:

It’s not like the men in the system don’t know it’s happening.  It’s sort of interesting to me when you go to a new play festival everybody admits that it is happening and kind of shrugs and says what can you do.

This is not funny.  Jordan smartly used economics which everyone can understand.  No more anecdotes of discrimination.  Here are the real facts.  If you want to read Jordan’s introduction to the event, click here.

So here’s what we learned:

1- More plays written by men get produced in NY.  The figure is 82% male to 18% female.  So the overall question is: are there more plays written by men and are why are there too few female written plays in the pool?

The news is (based on a playwrighting database) that there are more male playwrights and plays written by men.  Yet scripts by men and women get produced at equal rates.  So even though there are fewer plays by women they get produced at the same rate as men.

2- Women write more plays about women and those are ones least likely to be produced.  The more female parts the less likely they are to be produced, so women write smaller plays.

3- Glassberg Sands sent out 4 plays by female playwrights and changed the names to have half female names and half male names to theatres across the country to see what happens to the same play is written by Mary and Michael.  Turns out the same play with a female moniker is treated differently than one with a male moniker.

This is called an audit study and I find the results fascinating.  When the play is purported to be written by a woman the scripts are deemed to be of overall lower quality and the characters are perceived as less likable and those plays are perceived to have poorer economic prospects including less chances for prizes.

The strange part of the audit survey is that women seem to be harder on women playwrights.  When Emily said that I knew that was going to be the lead of the story.  Women discriminate against women.  But it’s not that simple.  Here’s what Julia Jordan says about this issue:

People need to look closely at the audit study at what it does and what it doesn’t say.  What it says is that women judge the excellence of the script whether it is purported to be written by a man or woman as equal.  That’s not where the discrimination came in.  Where the discrimination really came in was with questions like do you think it will win a prize? Do you think it will be financially successful?

So let’s dig a little deeper here.  Plays by and about women get produced less.  So those plays with women characters have to be amazing in order to get through.  (Keep in mind that none of this research focused at all on the predominance of male critics)

Do I believe that women are harder on women playwrights?  Yup.  Do I believe that they do it because they don’t want women playwrights to be successful?  Nope.  Here’s what I think.  Women are harder on women.  Always are.  I am betting it’s still pretty hard to be a female leader at a theatre around the country and if the perception is that women’s plays don’t do as well as men’s.   On top of that it is harder to find women’s plays because as the study showed earlier there are more plays by men floating around.  So when you are a woman working in a theatre and want to put forward a woman’s play for consideration it had better be an amazing play because no one wants to be known as the person who championed a play that did not live up to expectations.  The standards for women’s plays are so much higher and harder.

Here’s what playwright Francine Volpe has to say:  **This quote has been changed from an earlier version where I misquoted Volpe.  I apologize to her and to the theatre companies who have worked to develop and produce her work.**

I have always known that when I write my masterpiece I’ll have something closer to career I really want in theater. But I look around at my male peers and they haven’t written their masterpiece either and in the meantime, they are more consistently produced. These productions are helping them to become better writers and deepening their relationships with other artists.

And Julia Jordan adds:

And they are learning from it.   And the are building relationships, and they are building an audience and they are paying their bills.  And it’s leading to film and tv work.

This is a vicious cycle.  More male plays get produced.  These guys make money for their agents and their agents plug them.  When women don’t get produced they get dropped by their agents and there is no one championing them and sending out their material.  The fact that women artistic directors are harder on women makes sense because it is harder for women.

But here’s the most important thing to note.  Plays with women characters, the ones that are the least likely to be produced, are the most successful financially. So with all the discrimination women are still successful.  Only 11% of the plays on Broadway over the last decade were written by women BUT those plays made more money and had higher revenue by 18%.  Yet even though those shows are doing better they don’t run longer.  Producers are actually losing money by not running these shows longer and by not producing more plays about women.

So what does this all mean?  I think that this study could be the beginning of something really big.  Why don’t we do the same study of how women’s screenplays are treated?  I’d love to see and audit study of how scripts with women characters are treated.  I think it’s going to be even worse that the theatre.  But what this study has done is finally unmasked the sexism on the part of the business that plays by and about women are not successful.  People want to see plays by women.  Women buy over 60% of all the tickets.  Theresa Rebeck said: “Women are buying all the tickets and plays by women make money.  Theatres can no longer afford to hang on to the shreds of old thinking.”

Women need to be supported and told that writing about women is OK.  That stories about women are ok cause they do make money.  You would never tell a guy that he shouldn’t write plays about men because they can’t be successful and now we can’t tell women that either.  Cause the bottom line is money and women make money.  So here’s the deal.  Anyone who says they are not producing a woman because her play won’t make money can no longer get away with it.  The argument is gone, over and should be unmasked as what it is – sexism.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

AVB June 30, 2009 at 10:07 PM

I found this study fascinating and wondered what the numbers would be like when it came to screenplays. I will admit, when I read film/television scripts that have a female lead, I read very closely. The writing has to be incredibly strong and tight right out of the gate in order for me to send it up the food chain. When writing about men, you can sometimes get away with plugging up the cracks in the character/story with chewing gum, but with female characters/story lines, it takes spackle and cement. You need a solid foundation if you want someone to buy it. If I’m representing my gender and putting my job on the line, it must be for a story and characters I believe in completely, and without question.

I don’t know why women are a harder sell, but I’ll keep searching for the right script by/about a woman before settling for something mediocre just because it was written by a woman or centers around a female lead. Is this gender bias? Probably. But when I do find what I’m looking for, I fight for it with everything I’ve got.

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