Text of Theresa Rebeck Laura Pels Keynote Address

by Melissa Silverstein on March 16, 2010

in Statistics,Theatre

Last night I saw someone do something very brave.  My friend, Theresa Rebeck, a very successful playwright, TV writer and novelist, got up in front of a group of theatre people and talked about gender.  She talked about how her career has been hampered because she is a woman.  She talked about how she became toxic after a bad NY Times review.  She talked about the abysmal number of plays produced by women.  She talked about the missing women’s plays.

She challenged the theatre community to acknowledge that it has a gender problem and to do something about it.

Theresa has been kind enough to share her entire speech with us.  It is funny and it is important because it is the TRUTH.  Also, if you don’t know who Theresa is please check out this introduction that playwright John Weidman wrote.

Because I am someone who believes in the power of storytelling, I am going to tell you a story.  It is the story of a play, and the story of things that happened to me, because of that play.

The play is called The Butterfly Collection.  I wrote it in 1999.   It is about a family of artists, and the tensions that rise between the father, who is a successful novelist, and his two sons, one of whom is a struggling actor, and the other who is an antiques dealer.   Tim Sanford at Playwrights Horizons fell in love with this play and said he would produce it in the fall of 2000, and he talked to the guys who run South Coast Rep and they read it and included it in the new play festival that spring, so that we had a chance to work on it out there.  The workshop was great, and we were the hit of the festival.  When the play came into New York the following fall, we had a thrilling cast—Marion Seldes and Brian Murray, in their first production together, Reed Birney, Betsey Aidem, and the young Maggie Lacy in her New York stage debut.  Bartlett Sher directed, and there was enormous excitement gathering around the production.  A lot of commercial producers came, as people felt that it could potentially move.  Nine separate regional theaters were circling to produce it.  American theater magazine called my agent to ask for the script because they were interested in publishing it (in those cool inserts I was very excited I’ve always wanted one of those).   Audiences were thrilled with the play.  Lincoln Center Library was filming it for their collection.

When the New York Times published its review it was not what anyone expected.  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 to the director because he had to work with someone as hideous as me.

The review was horrible and personal and projected all sorts of terrible things on me.  I was shocked, a lot of people were shocked.  And there was real outcry in the community. A lot of letters were written to the Times—someone told me it was sixty letters, which I don’t know how anyone would know that but it made me feel better, even though none of them were published.  Apologies were made behind the scenes, none to me but to other people.  The heroic Tina Howe went to the Dramatists Guild council and read the review aloud and insisted something be done about this; she and a lot of people made the excellent point that if anyone at the Times had ever dared to publish a review as racist or homophobic or anti-Semitic as this review was, in its bigotry—well, the review would never have been published.   So there was a flurry of upset.   But with a review that bad, the play closed.  All the other productions went away.  American Theater magazine went away.   Everybody knew that that was a crazy misogynistic review.  But no one would produce the play.  Ever again.  And you should know that many people consider it my best play.  Still.

This is what happened to me in the months after that.

–People couldn’t get over it.  For about a year and a half, I had people come up to me at least once a week and this is what the conversation would be:

NICE PERSON:  Hi Theresa, how are you?  I saw the Butterfly Collection!  Wow it was so beautiful!  What a great evening of theater!

THERESA:  Thank you.

NICE PERSON:  That review was crazy!  So misogynistic! Wow, how could he write something like that?

And then this nice person would go on and on and on about that crazy misogynistic review, so I got to live through it all over again.

I cannot tell you how many of these conversations I had.  Maybe 200.  Then one day I did an interview with the great Chuck Mee, and after the interview was over, and the reporter had left, Chuck said to me, “I saw The Butterfly Collection.  It was really beautiful.”  And I said, “Thank you.”  And then I waited, for the rest of the conversation, about that crazy review, and Chuck didn’t say it.  All he said was, that play was beautiful, and for a minute, I had my play back.

The other person who repeated and heroically gave me my play back was the wonderful actress Lyn Cohen, who was really angry about what happened and who would speak to me with such courage and compassion about it that even though I didn’t want to really talk about it, she always made me feel better.

This is another thing that happened:  A whole lot of people decided I should change my identity.   This is the conversation I had with other well meaning people:

NICE PERSON:  You know Theresa everybody knows that your work is terrific but the New York critics don’t like you personally.

THERESA:  How can they not like me personally?  They don’t know me!

NICE PERSON:  Hey!  We love you.  But you know what you should do?  You should produce your plays under a male pseudonym.

THERESA:  You mean, I should pretend to be a man?

NICE PERSON:  That’s right. That’s the only way they will accept you.  Or the plays!  They would like your plays, if only you hadn’t written them!

Okay I know that sounds crazy but I swear I had that conversation at least a dozen times.  Arthur Kopit, who really is great and I love him, thought this was a hilarious idea and he had a lot of fun figuring out for me how I would pull that off, becoming a man.  We never went as far as surgery but there were lots of other clever ideas about how what I might do to trick people into thinking I was a man, which is what I needed to do, to make my identity acceptable.

This is another thing that happened to me:  One of my friends who was a producer in New York told me that this was all a sign, that I was being told by the Times that I am not welcome in New York and I should think of something else to do with my life.

This is another thing that happened:  A close friend of mine who is a theater director started screaming at me in restaurants and he told me I wasn’t an artist.

This is another thing that happened to me:  My agent said, you know Theresa, how you’ve always wanted to write a novel?  Maybe you should do that.  Which is not necessarily bad advice, but it’s also not particularly advice you want to hear from your THEATRE AGENT.  He also told me that my next two plays, Omnium Gatherum and Bad Dates, were unproduce-able and that he couldn’t represent them.

And, I couldn’t get produced.  He was right about that.  No one wanted to touch the Butterfly Collection and no one wanted to touch me.  And then I fell off of the map. I got really depressed because of all this, as you might imagine, and I couldn’t think anymore, and I was spending way too much time lying on the couch all day, and I was drinking white wine a lot, in one inch increments, I would lie on the couch and tell myself I wasn’t turning into an alcoholic because I was only drinking white wine one inch at a time.  And then one day my son, who was five years old at the time, came up to me and said, “Mom, are you all right?”  And I looked at him and I thought:  GET UP. It is your job to take care of this kid and it’s not his job to take care of you and you are not going to turn into this person.  So I got off the couch.

And then a bunch of other things happened that were equally or more hideous, it’s not like getting off the couch solved everything.  I did start writing a novel, although that’s a whole different story.  But I really was off the grid, for two years, and then one day I went to see my friend Sinan’s play up at the Longwharf, and I caught a ride back to the city with John Eisner, and we talked for three hours and he said you should come up to the Lark.  And then the next day Arthur Kopit called and told me as well, you should come up to the Lark. And the Lark saved me.  They saved my sanity and they saved my career and I thank them for everything they have done for me, and what they do for a lot of playwrights, there is no organization, in my mind, that does more.

And that is the last time I am telling that story.  I am never telling that story again.  But I tell it today because I don’t want to hear from anybody that there isn’t, or hasn’t been, a real gender problem in the American theater.  I really did think about what I might talk to you about today and I had no choice, honestly, I felt like my whole career as a playwright has been so hyperdefined by my gender—sometimes I feel like it is strangely blinding, even—and it’s time for all of us to look at this, and talk about it, without going “oh there’s not really a problem” because there IS a problem—and then start talking about what we, as a community, are going to do to solve it.

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.’

As an aside let me add, I would rather be called a witch than a man hater.  Honestly ‘man hater’ really does need to be simply off the table.  It bugs the shit out of me.  I have a husband and a son and a lot of men in my life who I love a lot and it’s creepy, that people would toss that ugly accusation at anyone in the jovial spirit of name-calling.  Someone actually called me that at a party a couple of weeks ago and I wanted to hit him.  BUT I DIDN’T.    Anyway, if you need to call me a name, the preferred insult would be “witch,” or “madwoman in the attic” is also acceptable.

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.)

Generally, over the last 25 years the number of plays produced that were written by women seems to have vacillated between 12 and 17 percent.

This is a disastrous statistic, and it is related to another disastrous statistic, which is the number of women writers and directors in Hollywood.  This year 6 percent of films were directed by women, and 8 percent of produced screenplays were written by women, or women had a shared credit on them.  That means 88 percent of all plays were written by men, 94 percent of all movies were directed by men, and 92 percent of all movies were written by men.

Women playwrights like myself have a lot of anecdotal evidence to support some pretty coherent theories about why this is the case.  People in the power structure seem more mystified and often they don’t seem sure that there is a problem. (One of them actually said to me, not to long ago, “But Theresa, where ARE the women playwrights?”  Seriously, he looked me in the face and said that.) Several artistic directors have expressed concern at the idea of “quotas,” they really don’t like the word “quota.”  I don’t like that word either.  Another word I don’t like is “discrimination” and, “censorship,” and I wish I could get them to dislike those words as much as they dislike “quotas.” “Boys club” is another couple of words I could very well live without.  But since there is so much murky territory in language, I think this discussion of numbers is very useful.

Here is what the numbers say to me:  If we lived in an ideal world, the balance of new plays produced in theaters all over America would come out to, roughly, fifty/fifty.  The Dramatists Guild—of which I am a proud member, I serve on the council and it’s a great organization, everyone who is a playwright should belong, here’s a shout out to Gary Garrison and Ralph Sevush you are excellent, and so is Stephen Schwartz our excellent president.  Anyway the Dramatist Guild tracks the percentages of women and men who enter graduate school as playwriting students, and it also tracks the numbers of people who apply for membership, and those numbers either stick to the 50/50 ratio OR there is a higher number of women.  So in the ideal world, those women and men who are over the years developing their craft as playwrights should rise though the system at an even rate.   This is not what is happening.  Women are being shut out, at different levels of development and production, and you end up with this crazy 17 percent number which seems to be the highest percentage we can get to, year in and year out.  Seventeen percent of fifty percent is thirty four percent of a hundred percent.  (Bear with me I’m not making this up I’m actually pretty good at math.)  That means that sixty-six percent of the best plays by women—the plays that SHOULD be rising to the top, the plays that in a fair world would move into the culture as the stories we are telling ourselves—sixty six percent of women’s stories are being lost.  Every year.

And I have to reiterate the premise of those numbers is that playwriting is NOT in fact a gene on a Y chromosome, and that 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 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?”

When I read all these accounts, I thought 43 percent, wow, women playwrights would be so happy if our numbers got up to 43 percent.  We would be throwing parties.  But the people who do the studies and write these reports up are in fact WORRIED that it’s not fair to the boys, that they only have 43 percent of the slots in the college population. This is a bad thing we are told, for a lot of reasons, principle among them that smart girls won’t have enough men to date.  (That is how the NY Times reported the story.)  A lot of colleges have admitted that just as they might consider race or geographical diversity in building freshman classes, they similarly look for gender parity, which means they are letting boys in over more qualified girls—which does look like affirmative action,  or shall we say “quotas,” which apparently are okay when they favor  boys.

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.”

Now let me tell you something:  A lot of people will think that what I just pointed out was a “feminist” statement.  But I don’t actually see it that way.  I see these contradictions as just kind of comical and even, well, stupid. As an indication that there is just something truly systemically unfair going on here.  That’s not a feminist agenda.  That’s the truth.

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 theater?  I just don’t think that we want to align ourselves with the backward-looking institutions of culture.  We want to see ourselves, I think, as a relevant and intellectually rigorous and culturally progressive community.  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 theaters 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.  All across America, and here in New York, there has been strong and necessary support for these voices, and wonderful writers have emerged because of that support.  I have been told so many times over the years that theaters and foundations are interested in “diversity” but that doesn’t mean women.  That needs to change. 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 up and celebrate their voices, and produce their plays.

In that context, I would like to report that this year, in New York, the following plays were produced:

Circle Mirror Transformation, by Annie Baker

Or, by Liz Duffy Adams

This, by Melissa James Gibson

The Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl

The Understudy, by me

Smudge, by Rachel Axler

Happy Now, by Lucinda Coxon

All of these plays have received wide critical recognition; most of them were extended and all of them played to packed houses.  In short, there were a lot of plays by women in New York this year, and they were not only fierce and dazzling and interesting:  They also made a lot of money.  Tim Sanford, over at Playwrights Horizons, who has long been an unacknowledged champion of women’s plays, is having a truly sensational season, in a worried, recessionary economy.   He deserves it.  Julia Crosby over there at the Women’s Project is also having a sensational season, and she and they deserve it, too.

Which brings us finally to another couple of statistics which I think are worth noting:  Women buy more tickets.  They buy 55 percent of movie tickets and anywhere from sixty to SIXTY FIVE percent of theater tickets. So opening our stages and our hearts and our minds to women playwrights is not only cool and relevant and interesting and just—it is also a sound business model.

Sir David Hare recently made news by informing the London Telegraph that “many of today’s best plays were being written by women, but that “macho” theater managers were failing to capitalize on the trend.”   That is a direct quote, and here’s another:  “I don’t think the repertory of most theaters is reflecting what seems to be happening in terms of the most interesting new theater.  We would hope to see management in theater reflecting where we think the creativity in playwriting is coming from.”

A friend of mine was worried about me after all that shit went down with The Butterfly Collection, so she got me a session with an astrologer named Coral.  So Coral did my chart, which was apparently in very poor shape at the time, like me.  And she got very specific about the names of the stars and the planets which were passing through my heavens, and apparently there’s a planet out there named Cairon, it’s not actually a planet I think it’s one of the moons of Jupiter, but Coral informed that Cairon is the wounded healer, and Cairon was just all over my chart.  Then, and now; I apparently have been claimed in every way by Cairon, the wounded healer.  And there is no question, I am wounded.  But I offer you all this information as a hope that I might actually provide one of the healing voices in this discussion. I really do believe that if enough people stand up and say this cannot go on, it will not go on. After a season like this one, where so many plays in New York were by women, and were so relevant, and important, and successful, both in what they achieved dramatically, and the way they drew in audiences, we will not go back.   We will not go back.

There is a Native American saying, “It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.”    And Walter Cronkite told us, “In seeking truth, you have to get both sides of the story.”

It’s time to hear both sides, to hear all voices, to build a culture where stories are told by both men and women.  That is the way the planet is going to survive, and it’s the way we are going to survive.

Thank you very much.


{ 78 comments… read them below or add one }

infinityxxi September 20, 2010 at 10:07 PM

Thnx for sharing :) awesome speech.

Paulette Bensignor February 28, 2011 at 11:49 AM

Yes, the men in my feild have no idea who we are as women…WE are discrimminated against. on whole levels…for example: I had an art dealer who told me,”I can get higher prices for your work if you were a male.” and another time she said to me,”The collector will not pay top dollar for your work because they, the men, believe women are not to be invested in or taken seriously”.
In school , The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art, the awards for art work were given, 1970′s, first to the men even if they had not followed directions and then the lesser award given to the female. In applying and being hired at the PAFA years later as an instructor, 1990′s, I was dismissed a day before my class was to start and replaced with male who did not have the same qulifications, that I a female had…. and he still doesn’t have…
I love men, been married 36 years to one, but they just don’t get it! We must keep trying and doing nothing – no creating says they are right we are nothing…let us give them art till they are buried in it and they open their hearts to us! P. Bensignor, artist

Nancy McClernan March 19, 2011 at 1:44 PM

That critics praise all things manly and macho can be tracked by their response to the career of Adam Rapp. The critics – overwhelmingly male – often don’t like his work, but they always say in the review that he’s a great playwright anyway. No matter how disliked his work is, he is given another chance.

I wrote about this recently:

Michael Sommers at New Jersey Newsroom provides a perfect demonstration of a standard all-is-forgiven response to Rapp’s uneven talent:

“The cumulative effect of the trilogy is negligible except to reaffirm that Rapp is a talented writer who only sporadically rises to his considerable best.”

You don’t believe me when I say they are all actively rooting for Rapp to succeed? Michael Giltz in the Huffington Post comes right out and says it:

“A trilogy of plays is inherently ambitious and it’s natural to demand sweep and greatness so you can shout to the heavens about a major new work, especially when it comes from acclaimed playwright Adam Rapp, who seems one major hit away from becoming the Sam Shepherd of his generation. But the simple truth is that he has delivered two solid, if flawed, plays that exhibit his many talents for character and dialogue. The third — Nursing — is a bit of a train wreck with its sci-fi premise and heavy-handed denouement. It’s further proof of Rapp’s considerable talent, but not the home run you long for Rapp to hit.”

Although admittedly I said male critics want Rapp to be the next Mamet, rather than Shepard, the other senior manly man playwright. And please note the sports analogy.

John Lahr, Rapp’s biggest fan, pays the highest manly man compliment – he compares Rapp’s work to sports expressed, amusingly, in Lahr’s usual effete style:

” Rapp, who played semiprofessional basketball in Europe as a young man, has, as they say in the vernacular of the sport, some terrific moves…”

And there you have it – Rapp is a jock. Not even Mamet or Shepard can make that claim. Rapp truly is the most manly playwright of them all. And thus, no matter what he writes and how badly, he’ll be with us for the rest of his natural days.


tiffany lee brown March 20, 2011 at 1:46 PM

thank you so much for this piece. i haven’t been involved in traditional theatre for years, but as a women (and feminist — i for one am not afraid to admit that i’m a feminist, e.g., a person who thinks men and women are equal — can we get a big “duh” on that?) i found all of this fascinating.

hilary clinton’s campaign certainly illustrated how in this country we tolerate discrimination and offensive speech toward women that we’d never allow toward ethnic minorities.

Tchuca March 20, 2011 at 3:09 PM

I’d like to add something to this discussion, most of the great characters are written for men. It’s really hard to find a very interesting female character. I’m not saying they don’t exist, they do in small number, but I’m sick of weak and uninteresting female characters. And there are more actresses out there than actors… I think that also says something about putting women down.

Thomas M. Kelly March 20, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Hey Theresa.
One thing I have learned in my life as a writer/playwright/producer/theatre owner is to avoid those people with an agenda adverse to mine …. unless I need them. Usually “them” are the critics. Without me, as a playwright/producer/theatre owner they have nothing to write about. Reading your essay/speech I noticed that you received the best advice from people who know and love your work. Isn’t that the ‘audience’ you are looking for? Is your audience composed of critics with an agenda? An agenda to create conflict where ever he (usually male) can. Conflict sells papers. Their agenda, at your expense is to sell newspapers and magazines. If you think that a newspaper or magazine ‘art’ critic with an agenda can really ‘critique’ a play without looking back at his agenda, you are looking for free ink good, bad or indifferent which is a huge gamble for a playwright and the wrong audience.
Have faith in your colleagues.
Five years ago I started a workshop for playwrights. I have discovered that the ratio of men to women playwrights is 50/50 in population and quality. As a result I have maintained a 50/50 production ratio in my little theatre.
We all start with one small step which leads to “one giant leap…”
Thanks for allowing me to comment.

Ed Rose March 20, 2011 at 7:00 PM

This is the most annoying, self-aggrandizing thing I’ve read in a long time.
1) “American Theatre” magazine asks for dozens of scripts from agents. They didn’t publish hers because they published a better play.
2) Rebeck’s play was not the “hit of the festival” at South Coast Rep as she would like to believe. Two plays: “Beard of Avon” by a WOMAN (Amy Freed) and Kimberly Akimbo were the hits of the festival. I know! I was there.
3) Tim Sanford “fell in love” with her play and decided to produce it? No. He probably liked it enough to produce.
4) The NY Times review was mostly accurate, and captured the spirit of her play rather concisely, actually.
5) Audiences were not “thrilled” with her play–it was both a critical AND popular bomb.
And this is just the opening paragraph. Ms. Rebeck, please get over yourself. There are a lot of women playwrights who are good and getting produced, and God bless ‘em. Write better plays. Stop whining.

Stephanie March 21, 2011 at 3:58 AM

Mr. Rose, above, makes this claim: “There are a lot of women playwrights who are good and getting produced.”

How many is A LOT?! And where are they being produced?

Drinda Rawlings March 21, 2011 at 7:57 PM

I thank the author for her thoughtful and researched insights. As a 60 year old women, I can only name 1 female playwright, Lillian Hellman, which is sad indeed. I think women have a difficult time in many arenas. My daughter is a movement specialist and fight choreographer for actors, but has difficulty getting gigs outside her university job, primarily, because most directors (male & female) don’t think a woman can do a good job staging fights. What a crock! It is particularly amusing when as a teacher, I found that male teachers and administrators never understood the intensity or nature of female fights that occur in real life. They were always taken aback which female staff understood it. I do take issue with your stance on republicans as being oppressive to women. I come from a long line of them and was always told by both parents and grandparents that women need independence, education, and freedom to choose. The ideology represented there in your initial statements seemed as discriminatory as what you are fighting. I, too, love men as well as women and believe opportunities for showcases should be available to best PERSON.

Drinda Rawlings March 21, 2011 at 7:58 PM

I thank the author for her thoughtful and researched insights. As a 60 year old women, I can only name 1 female playwright, Lillian Hellman, which is sad indeed. I think women have a difficult time in many arenas. My daughter is a movement specialist and fight choreographer for actors, but has difficulty getting gigs outside her university job, primarily, because most directors (male & female) don’t think a woman can do a good job staging fights. What a crock! It is particularly amusing when as a teacher, I found that male teachers and administrators never understood the intensity or nature of female fights that occur in real life. They were always taken aback while female staff understood it. I do take issue with your stance on republicans as being oppressive to women. I come from a long line of them and was always told by both parents and grandparents that women need independence, education, and freedom to choose. The ideology represented there in your initial statements seemed as discriminatory as what you are fighting. I, too, love men as well as women and believe opportunities for showcases should be available to best PERSON.

Stef March 22, 2011 at 7:04 AM

Rebeck is spot-on in her main analysis…too bad she has to point out among her “credentials” that she is married to a man (= straight) and the mother of two sons (= extremely man-friendll =not a man-hater =not a feminist). Unfortunately, she ends up kind of begging the question of the gender problem in American theater when she distances herself from other female playwrights (out feminists, out lesbians, etc.)

terry March 22, 2011 at 2:15 PM

I can relate all too well….My show was doing wonderfully till a certain NYT reviewer who seemed to be enjoying it hammered us in unfair way…I had friends asking was he talking about the show I saw? Also said incorrectly a number of things…but in spite of it we had a good run at Feinstein’s for the week…future bookings however …well people asked about the review…enough said. I commend you for writing this article. Thank you.

John Butterfield March 23, 2011 at 11:39 AM

My sister is thinking of submitting her work under a mans name just to get it looked at. This is not what theatre should be like.
There should have been a constant onslaught about this hack of a critic. Where was the union demanding a printed retraction? If the times cannot or will not provide a real theatre critic who respects the artists he is reviewing ban him from the theatre and withdraw your ads. the Union is there to protect us so lets start getting them to do what we pay our dues for.
this never should have happened

Rudy McLandey March 23, 2011 at 1:45 PM

I concur with Mr. Thomas Kelly.

“Critics” by nature and especially by profession, have an agenda to aggrandize themselves at the expense of people who usually have more talent than they.

Gender is only one of many rhubarbs offered in assaulting artists. Race, Religion, Politics, Sexual Orientation, and Fashion are chief among them.

When I produced and directed my own musical, “Church of the Rowdy Brethren…and Sistren” , one LA critic in particular ignored the material and the performances and personally attacked ME as “Toxic”. Fortunately, the vitriol of the review actually drew in more patrons than it drove away. The play was racially charged, and critical of an irresponsible media ethos. People of color “got” it. Many white people were uncomfortable because a straight white male had written a story which included the double standard of black racism.

Art is not always entertaining, and entertainment is not always art. The distinguishing characteristic, in my opinion, is that art challenges audiences, especially critics. The problem here is that genuine art is always intensely personal and artists tend to take the bait when critics are merely chumming the waters. Ms Rebeck took the hook and from then on she was branded as reactionary.

I wish her well and bid her put her rage back on the stage and not on the editorial page.

jaclyn biskup March 27, 2011 at 4:34 PM

Thank you to Theresa for speaking up about gender inequity in the theatre. As an artist, specifically a theatre director, my work is always addressing both directly and indirectly our society’s limited view of what a woman is and can be. I support a feminist agenda, which is to say I make theatre to increase the possibilities for both male and female bodies. I am indebted to the work of Elin Diamond, who theorizes the great power in the act of mimesis to affect change, and Linda Zerilli who taught me to see Feminism as a world-building concept,” an ideology that allows for multiple stand-points and progressive ever evolving theories to make way for growth and change in the future. It is ultimately a world building philosophy, which allows for an inclusive way of thinking. “Opening up the world in a political sense requires a public space defined by equality through plurality.”

As a theatre director, I naturally gravitate to the work of women playwrights and have directed plays by, Suzan Lori Parks, Caridad Svich, Mellisa James Gibson and Paula Vogel. I am really looking forward to reading more of Ms. Rebeck’s work.

Harlie April 5, 2011 at 12:09 PM

There is also a Navaho proverb, “You cannot awaken one who is pretending to sleep.” It will be a long struggle to get the arts establishment to admit there is inequality in the arts, but one well worth the fight.

Deborah Wade May 11, 2011 at 7:25 PM

Thank you for this amazing piece. As a playwright I am overwhelmed and saddened by the struggle you have endured. While in the midst of shopping around my own play I often think of using just my initials in front of my last name. The heartless response by Mr. Rose seems unfortunate, as though another person’s perceptions, can erase your experience and deliver it as a lie. Such an important discussion. Look forward to seeing more of your work.

Linda Faigao Hall July 8, 2011 at 3:36 AM

@Ed Rose March 20, 2011
So, let’s just say for the sake of argument, you are right about Rebeck. Does this explain the 17% disparity?
1. Are you saying all of those plays written by men (the remaining 83%) are “better”?
2. How many of the plays written by men that have been produced in NY are considered “hits” exactly? Some of them just downright suck. I know! I live in New York. I’ve seen them.
3. How many plays written by men produced in New York get terrible reviews? PLENTY. I know! I read the Times.

Mr. Rose, I want equal opportunity badly written play productions. This is the issue. There are NOT a lot of women playwrights who are getting produced – GOOD, BAD OR INDIFFERENT.

BTW if David Mamet were a woman, Edmond, an early truly flawed play, would have stopped him dead in his tracks. I think that’s why many people here are missing the point. The issue is not whether there are many dazzling plays by women that are being ignored. The issue is we should be producing the same number of women’s plays equal to that of men’s. Period. A culture should not develop plays; it should develop playwrights. That’s what this culture has done with men like Mamet. Or Shepard. Or Rapp. Their first failures did not stop them from writing many more plays. And because they keep getting produced, they got better or in the case with Rapp, will get better. How many people in the business can say this is what we do with the women?

There is no excuse for this disparity. It’s simply sexism.

If you’re a not-for-proft theater company producer, let me try this on you: why don’t you make the initial effort of producing one play written by a woman for every two plays written by men that do not make money. Okay. How about three? I’m easy.

S. Hawking August 17, 2011 at 5:13 PM

” Seventeen percent of fifty percent is thirty four percent of a hundred percent. (Bear with me I’m not making this up I’m actually pretty good at math.) ”
Really? I hope you are better at writing than at math.
100% of 200 = 200
50% of 200 = 100
17% of 50%(100) = 17
17 DOES NOT EQUAL 34% of 200; it is 8.5%. This makes your math off by a factor of 4.

Maria Menozzi August 21, 2011 at 9:08 PM

Man, reading this blog (how come I haven’t heard of this site before?) hit the nail on the head of my experiences in stand up comedy. If Rebeck thinks theater is biased, try being a female working as a stand up comedian.
This blog inspired me to write and publish an essay on my blog yesterday and with my current solo play running in Los Angeles, made me think about what I might foresee in keeping it running.
My link to my blog:

Brian January 3, 2012 at 3:17 AM

Her statistics are truly mind boggling, however she should not blame her gender for her plays failures. I’ve read them and their structures and “deeper issues” are messy to say the least. Criticism can be a good thing and a bad thing. If you are looking for a successful play, then listen to the critics. They usually have an idea for what makes or breaks a play. If your writing is for yourself, don’t even worry about it, don’t change it, do what makes you happy! I do agree there aren’t enough female playwrights and directors but I believe the potential is there. Look at Wendy Wasserstein, Lilian Hellman, Yasmina Reza, Sarah Ruhl, and Suzan-Lori Parks. They all won countless awards and praise for their plays, because they’re good plays. They have themes and super-objectives brought up in truly artistic ways. They have interesting characters. They have a correct level of humor and drama. I respect Rebeck for her apparent tribulations and congratulate her on “Seminar”, but maybe the success of it has come from the fact that it’s better than anything else she wrote….or just stars Alan Rickman.

rismatica January 7, 2012 at 8:37 AM

S. Hawking, I was caught up by that sentence for a moment too, but she’s right. She was using a ratio to calculate that of the plays created by women, only 34% were getting produced. We don’t normally use ratios with percentages that way, which is perhaps why it didn’t sound familiar, but it’s right.

Louise at Playwright's Muse January 19, 2012 at 6:37 PM


Yasmina Reza’s plays are good?? They’re terrible. Slick, facile, crowd-pleasing.

Maureen January 20, 2012 at 4:45 AM

Fabulous piece. I admire Rebeck’s bravery to tell the truth. A great reminder to us to support, support women playwrights when we do have the opportunity to see their work.
Btw, I recently had the opportunity to see Paula Vogel’s How I learned to Drive and was awed by the piece.

Nathanial Bushey January 26, 2012 at 9:50 AM

I really liked your article.Really thank you! Much obliged.

Kea January 27, 2012 at 8:27 PM

In Science, Math and Engineering, it is called the Leaky Pipeline. Very few men in Science know that the percentage of female participation drops at every level, even though it is staring them in the face every day. Blatant misogyny pervades the culture, and degrades the science itself. They delude themselves with the idea that the (more exploitable) younger women are up and coming, even though women have been trying now to establish careers, in substantial numbers, for over 40 years. In Physics, around 20% of PhDs are now given to women, but many universities still have Physics departments with no permanent female staff members. Not one. Especially the prestigious places. Most other places have one or two women, well under 10%. Even in some places where it is REQUIRED BY LAW to address the discrimination against women and minorities, they continue to hire only men, on the justification that the mens’ CVs look better, which they do, when the criteria is that a CV should look like a man’s.

mcd February 27, 2012 at 3:21 PM

Dear Theresa Rebeck, Was “Smash” an adaptation of a play with music/lyrics called “Rehearsal Hall”? All the elements of plot follow along with Rehearsal Hall’s and it is also written by a woman playwright. It does look as if three character’s plot lines were thrown into one charcter’s plot lines (the writer), but the ballerina, the adoption issue, the adultery issue, the knowing assistant (replacing a woman in Rehearsal Hall with a gay man here in SMASH) resemble it as if you had the template of Rehearsal Hall.

null April 11, 2013 at 4:44 PM

I enjoy what you guys are up too. This type of clever work and reporting!
Keep up the wonderful works guys I’ve added you guys to blogroll.

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