Women's voices in theater: Who gets to tell our stories?
March 6, 2016 12:00 AM
Pittsburgh playwright Tammy Ryan
Joniece Abbott-Pratt was Nina in Dominique Morisseau's "Sunset Baby" at City Theatre last year.
Laurie Klatscher, left, David Anthony Berry and Jamil A.C. Mangan star in Tammy Ryan's "Lost Boy Found at Whole Foods" for The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Tami Dixon in her one-woman show "South Side Stories" at City Theatre.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tammy Ryan, Pittsburgh’s most successful contemporary playwright, has plays on stages in St. Louis and Portland, Maine, success that would seem to defy the odds as determined by “The Count,” a survey of three seasons in the lives of more than 1,500 nonprofit regional theaters.
With the focus on gender, race and nationality, the survey by the Dramatists Guild of America and the Lilly Awards sought to answer the question: “Who is being produced in American theaters?”
Among its conclusions: Women buy 68 percent of theater tickets and write 22 percent of our plays and musicals.
“If life worked that way, four out of five things you had ever heard would have been said by men,” explained playwright Marsha Norman, who wrote an introduction to the survey and also is the book writer for “The Bridges of Madison County,” opening Tuesday at the Benedum Center.
“I don’t think it’s a theater problem. I think it’s a systemic problem about who tells stories in this culture,” Ms. Ryan says. “Human beings are obsessed with stories. That’s how we talk with each other, so controlling the story controls the narrative. I see it breaking down, though. With social media, with the Internet, many more voices are getting out there and being heard.”
PG graphic: Diversity in theater (Click image for larger version)
Ms. Ryan, 55, a part-time faculty member at Point Park University and the mother of two, has had ups and downs in a career that has seen productions of a dozen full-length plays, seven published, and monologues appearing in multiple publications.
Her play “Molly’s Hammer” has its world premiere Wednesday at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. It’s the story of Molly Rush, the Pittsburgh homemaker and mother of six who, as a member of the Ploughshares Eight, protested the buildup of America’s nuclear arsenal by taking a hammer to a warhead.
Ms. Ryan’s other current production, the Pittsburgh-set “Lost Boy Found at Whole Foods,” was nurtured here at Bricolage Productions and The Rep, Point Park University’s professional company, before winning the American Theatre Critics Association’s 2012 Francesca Primus Prize.
“On some level I have wondered if being a woman helped me in Pittsburgh, because the Pittsburgh Playhouse adopted me,” she says, noting support from The Rep’s Ron Lindblum and Sheila McKenna, chairwoman of the Point Park theater department.
“The Count” survey includes three Pittsburgh theaters — Pittsburgh Public Theater, City Theatre and Pittsburgh CLO — within its parameters of regional nonprofits with a 10-year history of at least three professional productions annually.
Under artistic director Tracy Brigden for the past 15 years, City Theatre has a track record of diverse offerings that include the Andy Warhol mystery musical “POP!” by Maggie-Kate Coleman and Anna K. Jacobs, and Tami Dixon’s solo show “South Side Stories.” Among the current season’s six offerings, half are by women.
This month, Ms. Brigden is doing her third crossover gig at Ted Pappas’ Public Theater, directing the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced.”
Gender blind or by design
Professional Pittsburgh companies that didn’t make “The Count’s” cut but could boost the survey’s numbers include Virginia and Hans Gruenert’s Off the Wall Productions in Carnegie, which as part of its mission statement is dedicated to “empowering women theater artists from our area and beyond to … explore new ideas and develop new works.”
PICT Classic Theatre introduced a new work by local playwright Lissa Brennan to kick off its 2014-15 season, and Saturday marked the eighth annual SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) Day presented in Pittsburgh by No Name Players. The international holiday was founded in 2008 to celebrate female artists from a variety of disciplines.
A four-show season at Quantum Theatre, in its 25th year, has a work created or co-created by its founder and artistic director, Karla Boos, including this season’s collaborative Baroque opera, “The Winter’s Tale.”
Ms. Boos said she is guided by her artistic impulses, and, “I am drawn to collaborate with all kinds of people, and I am curious about the world and about working with people I don’t understand, who are very different from me.
“Of course, I’m a woman, and I’m telling my story,” she added.
City Theatre’s next two productions are “Sex With Strangers” by Laura Eason and “The Last Match” by Anna Ziegler, a playwright on a roll. An August feature in The New York Times listed U.S. productions of three of her plays besides “The Last Match,” which is ending a run in San Diego this week before it opens in Pittsburgh. Her play “Photograph 51” had a starry London production in 2015, with Nicole Kidman as a biochemist who unlocks the mysteries of DNA.
“While we are certainly conscious of having gender parity on our stages at City Theatre, the point is, it doesn’t take that much effort,” said Ms. Brigden. “Every season’s crop of new plays I have read has an abundance of exceptional plays by women to choose from, and it is only a matter of selecting which ones can fit into the season. The disconnect comes when an artistic director — consciously or subconsciously — feels that a play by a woman, or about a woman, is an outlier to the human condition and therefore is an anomaly in the season, not standard fare.”
Clare Drobot, director of new play development, said diversity in all phases of theater is an ongoing conversation at City Theatre, which earlier this season presented “Sunset Baby” by award-winning writer Dominique Morisseau.
“It’s slowly beginning to change through organizations like the [L.A.-based women’s group] Kilroys or the Lilly Awards,” she said, “and it’s important to keep having those conversations.”
Strides and setbacks
The conversation about gender disparity hit a fever pitch in 2012, when the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota announced its 50th anniversary season without any works by women or minorities.
At the time, under the pressure of outrage within the Twin Cities and elsewhere, Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling fanned the flames when he was quoted as saying, “This is a self-serving argument that doesn’t hold water.”
Since then, the Guthrie and other theaters and organizations have made strides to address the issue.
In New York this season, the new musical “Waitress” is getting attention as the first Broadway play or musical in which the entire creative team is made up of women. Already making its Broadway entrance is the acclaimed play “Eclipsed,” starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and written by “The Walking Dead” actress Danai Gurira, about five women caught up in Liberia’s 2003 civil war. The producers of the play have launched the “10,000 Girls Campaign,” in which women ages 16 to 24 from the New York area will have an opportunity to see characters described in The New York Times’ review as “superheroes.”
Just as “The Count” recently invigorated the discussion about women’s voices in theater, the wide-ranging 2009 Sands study spurred action when it concluded that many more men than women were submitting scripts for consideration. The League of Professional Theatre Women began the “50/50 by 2020” initiative, which caught on with the National Theatre Conference and benefited artists such as Ms. Ryan.
In 2011, she was contacted by Michael Hood, the dean of Indiana University of Pennsyvania’s College of Fine Arts and an NTC member. IUP produced Ms. Ryan’s coming-of-age play “Lindsey’s Oyster,” and the contact created a continuing relationship between the playwright and the college.
“Universities are one of the best places to develop your work,” she said.
Attention is being paid
From her own experience, Ms. Ryan said women have to work harder for a longer period of time to achieve the same success as male playwrights. When attention is paid, though, more and more cracks appear in the glass ceiling.
In her Point Park playwrighting class, she is a participant in the initiative “History Matters, Back to the Future,” in which university instructors teach at least one woman playwright in a semester. Students then write a play inspired by what they have learned and are eligible for the Judith Barlow Prize, which includes a cash award for student and teacher.
There are more reasons to be optomistic. On Feb. 15, Arena Stage announced that its 2016–17 season would feature seven titles by women.
“I think that change is happening,” Ms. Ryan said, “because that’s why we are talking.”
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.
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