Steal This Stage

The State of Women in Theater, 1999

"Is she a fat, cheesy slut?" That's the question audiences ask whenever a woman gets onstage, argued playwright and performance artist Deb Margolin, at a roundtable on women and theater organized by the New York State Council on the Arts last fall. "You have to answer that question with your performance," Margolin added. "Unless you steal the space of the stage."

Even in 1999, it's not hard to agree with Margolin's analysis. This was the season, after all, when the biggest excitement on Broadway was that guys were packing binoculars and paying Knicks prices to catch a glimpse of Nicole Kidman's flesh in the New Times Square. (In the old Times Square, of course, such thrills used to come a lot cheaper.) Indeed, for all the gains women have made in the theater— and in general— over the last couple of decades, there's a sense of crisis today.

The Women's Project and Productions, the 21-year-old company, recently opened its own 199-seat theater in order to assure the presentation of plays by women. The Guerrilla Girls, whose satirical antics skewer the sexism of the art world, have started to train their sights on the stage; a sticker they've been slapping up in theater bathrooms declares: "In this theater the taking of photographs, the use of recording devices, and the production of plays by women are strictly prohibited." In September, American Theater magazine published a special issue on women, prompting some critics to ask why such ghettoization is still needed, or even allowed. (When no women are featured in a magazine, after all, it's not identified as the special men's issue.) And in October and November, NYSCA hosted six roundtable discussions among dozens of directors, playwrights, performers, critics, producers, academics, and other theater folks, all focusing on an increasingly vexing question: Why, a generation after an explosive feminist movement, are women still getting such a paltry deal in American theaters?

Performer Deb Margolin in Oh Wholly Night: an argument for collective ambition
Dixie Sheridan
Performer Deb Margolin in Oh Wholly Night: an argument for collective ambition

To be sure, no one was overlooking the substantial achievements of hundreds of artists, from Zelda Fichandler to Suzan-Lori Parks. Nonetheless, a "Report on the Status of Women Directors and Playwrights in the New York City Theater," commissioned by NYSCA and conducted by Suzanne Bennett and Celia Braxton, paints a bleak, even shocking, picture. It notes, for example, that "women make up 62 percent of the Broadway audience, occupy 48 percent of all managerial and professional positions in the U.S.," yet "their participation in paid professional theater is approximately 22 percent." More specifically, while women make up as much as 40 percent of students in M.F.A. playwriting programs and playwright service organizations, they account for less than 20 percent of the plays produced in New York.

Directors don't fare any better. The stats from their union, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, tells the dismal tale best: Women account for 44 percent of the associate members, those in the early stages of their careers. But they compose only 23 percent of the full members, those who have worked on a major Broadway, Off-Broadway, or regional theater production. In other words, women who start out directing in small venues and in graduate programs don't get the same breaks as their male cohorts. And that, in turn, continues the cycle of male-dominated repertoires: It's hot directors who often have the power to bring new plays into major production.

Déjà vu all over again? Such numbers have been tracked for years. Indeed, women have tried to do something about them since even before there were statistical analyses to back up what they knew from experience. It was 31— yes, 31— years ago that Maria Irene Fornes, along with Roslyn Drexler, Rochelle Owens, Megan Terry, and others, established the New York Theater Strategy to provide what Fornes called "a theater without compromise and sexism." If our theaters have not lived up to that eminently reasonable demand, could it be because we've become ever more drenched in compromise, and the sexism that attends it, in the general wave of acquiescence that has been sweeping over the culture since the Reagan years? Have we lost our utopian verve, our vision of a way to make things better while we battle the seemingly certain prospect that things can only get worse? Have we given up on collective action and absorbed the movement-destroying '90s rhetoric of "individual responsibility"? Have we succumbed to the national/corporate definition of culture as mass entertainment?

There's no need to rehearse the details of the dominion of Disney or the endless attacks on noncorporate arts in general, from the "obscenity" trials of the NEA to the real estate crunches that have squeezed the life out of countless theaters, but one can't talk about the challenges women in theater face without recognizing this larger context. Suffice it to say that Giuliani's budget for fiscal 2000 proposes cutting the Department of Cultural Affairs by a whopping 20 percent and completely eliminating ongoing support for nearly 500 cultural organizations in the city. All such factors, obviously, make most theater institutions— and, eventually, audiences— more conservative, and thus more likely to seek the sure hit, or at least the known quantity. So perhaps it's not so surprising after all that, according to Bennett and Braxton's study, since 1975 the percentage of plays by women has stayed virtually the same on Broadway (16 percent) and increased only marginally Off-Broadway (from 13 to 21 percent). Never mind that the study found that nearly two-thirds of ticket buyers are women. Often they're trying to drag their reluctant husbands or boyfriends along to the theater, and winning them over means insisting that the play in question will appeal to their male sensibility. (No wonder the misogynist Oleanna was one of the most-produced plays in the history of regional theaters.)

Off-Off venues are harder to track, but one trend is clear: the smaller the budgets go, the greater the likelihood that theaters are producing plays by women, hiring female directors, or are even run by a woman. And in performance art— a form arguably invented by feminists— women may be a majority. Nevertheless, as soon as real cash gets involved in, for instance, Uptown transfers or HBO specials, the pesky pattern returns. It's not that Danny Hoch and Eric Bogosian and John Leguizamo, say, don't deserve wider audiences and real paychecks. But so do this year's Obie winners Lisa Kron, Peggy Shaw, and Carmelita Tropicana. (Need one point out that they are doubly distanced from the cash flow by virtue of being lesbians?) That these are the women whose writing rocked the Obie committee this year (a committee of four women and three men), while the playwrights we acknowledged are all men, reflects exactly the findings of Bennett and Braxton's study.

As for more conventional plays— the sort that elicit yawns from Obie judges and accolades from Uptown critics— there's still a principled plea to be made for women, isn't there? Don't women have as much right to be boring and mediocre as men? It's obvious enough that the numerous dramas by men playing on Broadway right now (not counting those by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and Arthur Miller) are hardly superior specimens of theatrical literature. The Weir? Closer? Amy's View? Can anyone really argue that there's only one woman— Yasmina Reza, the author of Art— who writes as well? Strangely enough, in ages past, it was easier for women to get produced in commercial theaters. Grab any best-plays-of-the-year volume off the shelf from the '20s, '30s, '40s, or '50s, and you'll find a far healthier showing of women than you will today— Rachel Crothers, Susan Glaspell, Sophie Treadwell, Hallie Flanagan, Lillian Hellman, Clare Boothe, Alice Childress, Mary Chase, Lorraine Hansberry. What happened?

The '50s, for one thing, which pushed women out of the paid labor force and into the suburban kitchen. And the '60s and '70s for another, which offered women countercultural and feminist possibilities that deliberately defied the decorum of the Great White Way.

By the time the Women's Project and Productions was established in 1978 to try to restore the balance, there were divergent ideas about what women might demand from the theater: were they, as in the corporate realm, pressing for parity within a given structure, or were they, rather, gunning for new paradigms? Did they want to move women up the ladder into those top directing posts, or did they want to develop a whole new collaborative way of working? Could mothers insist on day care during rehearsals, or could they imagine that fathers would share equally in child-rearing duties? Was the point to shatter the glass ceiling or to change the world?

In those heady days a generation ago, the answer, of course, was all of the above. What's different now is that all those more radical propositions seem to have dropped out of the discourse. To be sure, there are women who are living them every day, but typically without health insurance or pension plans, and, tragically, without a movement that supports— and agitates for— such a vision.

At that October roundtable discussion hosted by NYSCA, Deb Margolin remembers, "I ended up with a certain despair. We had had a provocative, intellectual, convivial conversation about the existence of the problems, but when time was running out and we asked what we are going to do about it, one woman said that we must not be afraid of our ambition. Absolutely, we should work toward full personal achievement. But the trouble with ambition is that it is singular and noncommunal. The only way women are going to have power is if we flex it collectively."

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