Last month, Facebook and the Twittersphere lit up with stinging comments aimed at the Manhattan Theater Club, which had scheduled a season for its New York audiences consisting of seven plays written by men.
Such incidents help explain why there's an extraordinary enterprise called the Women's Voices Theater Festival, launched this month and stretching into November. More than 50 companies in the Baltimore-Washington region are participating in the festival, presenting more than 50 world premieres by female playwrights, almost 20 percent of them women of color.
The ambitious venture resulted from the collaboration of seven major D.C.-area organizations, including Arena Stage, Ford's Theatre and Signature Theatre.
"It was serendipity," says Ford's Theatre director Paul Tetreault. "The seven of us originated this 2 and 1/2 years ago, before the volume was ratcheted up on the whole gender issue — parity, compensation. We didn't set out to start a movement. What has happened is that the gender parity issue has been brought to a fever pitch, whether it's Hollywood and the Oscars, or Broadway and the controversy about the Manhattan Theater Club."
The festival adds to the drumbeat started in 2013 by the Kilroys, a self-described "gang of playwrights and producers in [Los Angeles] who are done talking about gender parity and are taking action." That action is a now-annual Kilroys List of unproduced plays by female or transgender writers, recommended by several hundred theater company directors, producers and dramaturges. This summer, Baltimore's Cohesion Theatre Company got more than 15 area ensembles to join ParityFest Baltimore 2015, which offered readings of plays from the latest Kilroys List.
Such activities have brought the theater world's gender issue into clearer focus at a time when, according to recent studies by the Dramatists Guild of America and American Theatre magazine, the percentage of plays by women produced in the United States is between 22 percent and 24 percent.
"The relentless advocacy of theater artists, women and men, is making a difference," says Jen Silverman, an award-winning New York-based playwright. "The Kilroys List is a symbol of that. It encouraged a conversation. I think many people may have a limited sense of what a play by a woman is, what women write about and what women want to say. I think [the Women's Voices Theater Festival] has the possibility of being a game-changer."
Some local companies are very much a part of that change. Rep Stage in Columbia, for example, is devoting its season to works by female playwrights (next month's premiere of Jami Brandli's "Technicolor Life" is the company's festival entry). At Single Carrot Theatre, producing a play by a woman is nothing new.
"I think it's because we've always been a mixed-gender ensemble," says Single Carrot managing director Alix Fenhagen. "We care about parity on every level — people of color, LGBT. Gender is the one we can address in this festival, which I hope will launch more female playwrights into the spotlight."
Single Carrot's choice of a work to showcase as part of the Women's Voices Theater Festival is Silverman's "Phoebe in Winter," opening Wednesday. The author describes it as "a dark fable" about "how a war that seems very distant comes home."
"When we first read this play as a group, it was inherently exciting to us," Fenhagen says. "There's lots of political relevance without beating you over the head with it. It's very well-written and funny, and it has these amazingly powerful female characters. Plays with such wonderful female characters are hard to come by."
Finding works with such characters has been a longtime goal of Susan McCully, a playwright and specialist in feminist theater who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where, a few years ago, she launched a festival called GRRL Parts to commission new plays by women. Her own plays include "Kerrmoor," which will be premiered for the Women's Voices Theater Festival in a collaborative staging by Baltimore's Interrobang Theatre Company and Strand Theatre Company.
"I just decided to be brave and write about Appalachia, where I come from," McCully says. "It's a place full of amazing, noble people who are all about sacrifice, and at the same time are insular and xenophobic. It's a dangerous mix. ['Kerrmoor'] is an Appalachian Greek tragedy. I like to think that if William Faulkner came back as a middle-aged white lesbian who transplanted to Baltimore, he would have written this play."
McCully is not new to the struggle for parity in the theater — "We were talking about it in the '80s and '90s, too," she says — or the disappointments.
"Women artistic directors are not any more likely to do female playwrights than male ones," McCully says. (Manhattan Theater Club has a woman at the helm.)
The extent of the Women's Voices Theater Festival should help counter any lingering notions that there aren't enough plays being crafted by women today. And what about quality? Playwright Lisa Kron, who earned Tony Awards this year for her musical "Fun Home," was a key speaker at the launch of the festival. She was asked what parity would look like.
"She said, 'When women are allowed to fail at the same rate men are allowed to fail,'" Tetreault says. "If you're going to put on 50 plays, you can't add the pressure that those are going to be 50 'Deaths of a Salesman.'"
Baltimore playwright Amy Bernstein, who wrote a work for disabled actors that was performed last week in Towson, sees theater in context with the wider world.
"There's a tendency to assume that the arts are far more tolerant and multicultural than other industries, but the same biases exist," she says, "whether it's gender, color, ethnic background or disabilities. It's a reflection of who has the power. But, little by little, it gets better."
Bernstein's festival entry is "Raw," produced by the women-centric Venus Theatre Company in Laurel. The play was inspired by a New Yorker magazine article about raw dairy production.
"Some people are absolutely passionate about what nature intended, pasteurization notwithstanding," Bernstein says. "I put a cow front and center as protagonist. The cow can't understand what the big deal about bacteria is. The play's about standing up for what you believe in."
Alabama-born Audrey Cefaly, who recently relocated from Linthicum to Bowie, draws play material from her roots.
"I'm just trying to write the most exciting theater I can," she says, "and go beyond the predictable. I write about the Southern experience from a perspective and a style that is unexpected. When people try to do Southern, it usually comes out insulting, with lots of caricatures. I keep it very, very real. And I build in a lot of silence and let the audience fill in the blanks."
Cefaly's "Maytag Virgin," to be premiered at the Bethesda-based Quotidian Theatre Company and directed by the playwright, focuses on a recently widowed Alabama schoolteacher and her new male neighbor.
"I don't rail about gender inequality," Cefaly says. "But I do recognize that there is disparity. I don't think theaters will still be able to get away with that [expletive], though. Social media is going to bury them. I think there's definitely a greater awareness of this whole issues every year."