The gender and color gap persists in theater — in Baltimore and beyond

In 1977, a young playwright and Yale drama student named Wendy Wasserstein wrote her first play, “Uncommon Women and Others,” featuring an all-female cast. “I can’t get into this,” said a man in the audience. “It’s all about girls.” Wasserstein went on to win both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for drama before her untimely death in 2006. It’s easy to look back now and laugh at that unenlightened time, when the Equal Rights Amendment, guaranteeing equality regardless of gender, was also being hotly debated across the United States.

Sadly, however, the ERA failed. And Wasserstein, despite her enormous success, turned out to be the exception that proved the rule: Women playwrights had relatively little chance back then of getting their plays produced in comparison with men. The odds have changed somewhat over time, but not nearly as much as they should or could. The gender gap in theater between men and women, and between white dramatists and dramatists of color, persists today across the country — and in Baltimore.

Let’s look at the numbers. Baltimore playwright Brent Englar recently analyzed 114 plays and musicals produced in Baltimore in the 2017-‘18 season (with at least five performances of each show) and found that 69 percent were written by men, 29 percent by women and 2 percent by people identifying as gender nonbinary. And most of the plays, 78.5 percent, were written by white authors (men and women). A meager 12.5 percent were by black writers — in a city that is 63 percent black.

To be sure, these rather woeful statistics are a modest improvement over data compiled for the 2015-‘16 season, when fully three-quarters of all the plays and musicals produced in Baltimore were by men, and 81 percent by white dramatists, but that’s not saying much. The data for nonbinary dramatists, and for Asian-American and Latinx dramatists and those of other ethnicities, are in low single digits for all years.

Nationally, the story is not much better. In fact, Baltimore’s lack of gender and racial equity in theater roughly parallels the nation’s. The Dramatists Guild of America’s newly released analysis, known as The Count 2.0, found that nearly 71 percent of shows produced last year in the U.S. were written by men, 29 percent by women, and just 15 percent by writers of color generally.

Any way you look at it, these numbers are disgraceful and disappointing across the board. Nationwide, 60 percent of students enrolled in a bachelor’s degree programs in theater are women (including women of color). So it would not be accurate to suggest that more men participate in, or train for, theater careers (excluding male-dominated technical trades such as lighting and sound) than women. Yet men — and white men in particular — continue to represent a disproportionate share of work that is produced on stage.

Which brings us to the all-important question of why. Why do men continue to win the playwriting sweepstakes? Why are dramatists of color so tremendously under-represented? There is no single answer, but all the likely contributing factors point to structural biases that are prevalent throughout our culture. For instance, the directing pool is still dominated by men, who are likelier to select works by men, whether consciously or not. In Baltimore, more than two-thirds of last year’s productions were directed by (overwhelmingly white) men.

Most theaters are operated by white people with assets that many communities of color may lack. Theater boards, too, are dominated by asset-rich white people, and boards in general skew male. Plus, many theaters continue to produce plays by dead white men in great numbers — not just Shakespeare, but O’Neill, Williams, Shaw, Ibsen, Wilde and so on — at the expense of contemporary works by more diverse writers.

There is some good news to be found amid a sea of discouraging data, however. Just as the women-led #MeToo movement has raised our collective consciousness about the deep injustices underlying sexual harassment, assault and abuse, women artists have led the charge to escalate awareness of gender and racial inequity in theater over the last several years. The efforts include the advent of the annual Kilroys list, highlighting the best unproduced plays by women, and the deliberate celebration on social media of productions dominated by women.

Little by little, theater producers and directors in general are recognizing that they need to do a much better job of bringing women and writers of color into the fold. Still, we must continue to press for real change within theaters in Baltimore, and everywhere else. And we should not stop until the work we see on stage tells stories that truly reflect the deep and enriching diversity all around us.

Amy Bernstein is a playwright and independent consultant in Baltimore. She may be reached at alb457@gmail.com. This piece is supported by more than a dozen local dramatists who live and write in Greater Baltimore.

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