Always the Bridesmaids, Never the Brides

I felt as giddy as a bridesmaid to learn that Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays was settling in for a cozy run at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City. As a proponent of same-sex marriage who has written on this complex topic, I was eager to see what other theater artists might have to say about one of the crucial civil rights issues of our time.

Conceived by Brian Schnipper in Los Angeles shortly after Prop 8 was passed in California in 2008, Standing on Ceremony was initially developed as a series of staged readings with celebrities to benefit marriage equality organizations. A few more incarnations, including one at New York Theatre Workshop in 2010, tested the waters for a longer run. The current production, comprised of nine short plays, opened November 13. A portion of the ticket sales will benefit the work of Freedom to Marry.

The time is absolutely right for such a production, and anchoring it in Manhattan has already helped shine more light on the issues because of the many significant media sources based there. So my hat—as well as my garter—were off to Schnipper, director Stuart Ross and lead producers Joan Stein and Richard Frankel.

But as I scanned the names of the playwrights on the program, I had a familiar sinking feeling. Jordan Harrison, Paul Rudnick, Doug Wright, Neil LaBute, Moisés Kaufman, José Riveraand Wendy MacLeod and Mo Gaffney. Two plays by women out of nine. Rudnick had two. Ok, he’s pretty damn brilliant and I would like him to be my new best friend, but seriously, only two plays by women for this flagship production?

Why does this continue to happen? The production team is doing so much right. They even spearheaded free performances of the script at more than 40 theaters across the country a few weeks ago. With so much thoughtfulness and good will, how did gender parity get overlooked? What was the submission and curatorial process? What happened to the plays by women from the earlier versions in Los Angeles and at New York Theatre Workshop, which included well-known theater artists such as Susan Miller, Constance Congdon, Kira Obolensky, Kathy Najimy and Holly Hughes? I would love to have watched the plays that they wrote.

Heck, I wish they had asked me. I have a full-length play called The State of Marriage about people crossing state lines to get married that I would have been happy to adapt and shorten. Or, I could have written something new, like Neil LaBute was asked to do.

But they don’t know me. And maybe they don’t know a lot of women writers—although we are out here, all across the country, being produced in regional theaters and small alternative spaces. We even have an international cyber community called the International Centre for Women Playwrights, and you should check out the lively discussions on that listserve.

I found myself shifting further in my seat when the cast filed onstage. Craig Bierko, Mark Consuelos, Polly Draper, Harriet Sansom Harris, Beth Leavel and Richard Thomas, all notables from the world of theater or television. Harris (Thoroughly Modern Millie) has chops to rival comedy icon Carol Burnett, and Richard Thomas is an outstanding dramatic actor who has long since eclipsed his status as John-Boy of “The Waltons“. An excellent ensemble, really.

But with the exception of Mark Consuelos, not another person of color in the group. And again, I say, how does this happen? Am I the only person who is noticing this? It kind of feels that way because when the reviews came out in New York, and there are many of them, and mostly and deservedly positive, there is no mention of gender inequity or racial bias.

As much as I hate to raise these issues, to criticize when I would so prefer to cheer, I feel compelled. Racial awareness and gender parity are not just symbolic. When you limit participation by people of color or women, you lose a whole range of perspectives that they bring to the table. We all lose.

There is much good being done here. Straight men freely playing gay couples on stage, lesbian relationships being explored. Things you just don’t see in the theater often enough. And the short play format is perfect for a project of this kind–ideal for our attention-deficit times and a way to showcase many perspectives that then speak cumulatively in relation to each other.

I congratulate Standing on Ceremony on its engagement and wish it a long and happy life. Tickets are on sale through February 26. In the program, the producers noted that future performances will include work by Jenny Lynn Bader, Karen Hartman, Tanya Saracho and Regina Taylor. This is good news, indeed. But why wait to rotate in more work of women at some future point? Why does gender equity continue to be an afterthought? I have high hopes that the fine team behind this groundbreaking production will recognize the relationship between LGBT rights and artistic opportunities for women and people of color. I will be the first to buy another ticket to see a bill with more women writers, and this time maybe I’ll even bring rice.

Photo from flickr user lavarue under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. I am a lesbian-feminist who believes, as many radical second-wave feminists initially did, and my current radical queer community also believes, discusses and disseminates writing and other work about, that marriage is an inherently oppressive institution that cannot be redeemed.

    Having seen “Standing on Ceremony” and written about it myself, I am in total agreement about the appalling lack of gender and racial representation. It’s utterly disappointing, though not at all surprising, that a play about a supposedly enlightened topic by supposedly enlightened people, is produced, cast and presented in a totally unenlightened manner.

    Lack of women and people of color in artistic milieus is nothing new, that’s the problem: artists and activists who believe they think and act progressively actually don’t when it comes right down to it. Not being inclusive when casting, producing, displaying, representing and otherwise making “art” is a show not only of poor judgment, but also highlights the total lack of interest in being inclusive-and even the fact that so many white men (and white women) don’t even understand there is an issue. In the mainstream lGbt movement, there is really no place for women or people of color as anything but understudies.

    The continuing problem of gender and racial disparity both on stage and off problematizes any attempt to send a larger message of marriage quality. It’s embarrassing—or should be—to the producers of ‘Standing on Ceremony” as well as to the so-called marriage equality folks, to even use the term “equality” in the names of their organizations, their theatrical productions, etc.

    Equality does not exist in the lGbt movement, or in the arts. It never has and never will until we all, like Joan Lipkin has, question gender inequity or racial bias at every turn–and actively work to eradicate it

  2. Lipkin is the ultimate feminist. Leave it to her lens to see beyond the veneer of a gay marriage play and to really notice who is missing. And speak out for inclusion.

    Her plethora of artist creations raising the consciousness of us all continues to grow.

    And we are all the better for it.

  3. Courtney Stirrat says:

    I blame Betty.

    As it stands, a lot of feminist lesbians find themselves pulled in two directions politically and professionally – both in the arts and in the boardroom. Had the nice ladies at NOW not been so opposed to the lesbians with their mist at the beginning of the movement, we might have developed a strong collective consciousness that enveloped race,sex,sexual orientation, and class. As a woman on the cusp of the third wave, I see other lesbian feminists who pull it off, but so often in such small, grassroots communities that they escape attention. But then, and now, feminist lesbians seem condemned to tag into male-dominated straight and gay organizations (HRC?) or to work on feminist issues we support because they affect the women around us, but largely do not affect our lives. It seems striking to attend a local LGBT political brunch and find the percentage of women roughly approximates the percentage of women at a legal seminar in a male-dominated practice. I’m a happily married feminist lawyer who tries to remain active in both LGBT and feminist organization and wonder why our community struggles for equality as much, if not more, than the straight circles I run in. It seems to be the worst in theater and the arts as I try (and fail) to find representations of women like me. I suppose we’ve still only just begun.

  4. Esther Newton says:

    Amen Joan, well put.

  5. Thank you for pointing out how segregation, unfortunately continues to flourish, on so many levels in our culture.

  6. The small number of women playwrights represented in the production is a bit of an eyebrow raiser, given (as Joan correctly notes) how many active women playwrights there are in the theatre as a whole these days. Could this simply be a reflection of male dominance of the theatre scene in New York? Artistic communities, like other communities, can tend to become insular, with current members excluding (or simply not thinking to include) those who are not exactly like them.

    I think this sort of thing operates at an unconscious level both in individuals and, to some extent, in the culture as a whole – which makes it that much more difficult to address it. I doubt that “Standing on Ceremony” was intentionally made predominantly white and male, but it’s interesting (and a bit discouraging) that it turned out that way,

    That said, I’m not sure how much the question will ultimately matter. With America apparently hell-bent on converting itself into a theocratic police state yoked to a third world economy, it may only be a matter of time before anyone who isn’t a white male heterosexual pseudo-Christian fascist will have to duck and cover simply to survive, much less worry about whether or not their group is represented on the stage. The arts flourished in the Weimar Republic, after all, and we know how well that turned out.

  7. Thank You Joan Lipkin. Again, overlooked and underutilized. All of us who write. All of us to put it on. I just produced myself as a 7 year old, every sunday night. I had to. Who else was going to do it? Now, it would be the same. Even our own do not find a way to get us in the black box. So, people like Joan, and others self produce. They have to. But there is more here, look deep, and its the game played over and over again. Women in our own community get overlooked and not pursued. We can do better and we must. OCCUPY WOMEN”S WRITING AND THEATRE.

    • Thank you, Joan for speaking on behalf of second-wave feminists so eloquently. And for speaking out about racial inequality. I’m so tired of speaking up out here on the Left Coast that I sometimes don’t. And yet we must. It’s wearying to hear how “it’s not intentional” how no one meant to leave us out, how it’s simply that they just liked the other guy’s play and it happened to be the one they picked up first because they knew him, or had heard of him, or were standing next to him at the urinal. And they never thought of casting a person of color, or a blind person, or a person in a wheelchair, because the play didn’t call for it, and why would they? Give me strength.

  8. As I sat down to watch Channel 13’s Theatre Talk interview with four of the male writers for “Standing on Ceremony,” my immediate reaction was: Where are the women playwrights? Where are the lesbians? Where are the gay people of color? Nope. Standard issue. White men. More must be written about this. We must all speak out until people start noticing. Thank you, Joan! (And thank you for the plug for the International Centre for Women Playwrights. New members always welcome!)

  9. Andrea Lepcio says:

    Well said, Joan. And thank you for speaking out. Consciousness raising started out as something women needed to do for themselves. Then and now we need to encourage everyone to raise their consciousness so that important events like this are conceived with an eye to gender and racial equality.

    I was delighted to find Martin Denton’s review saying exactly what you say.

    Martin is a feminist and humanist who is out to raise consciousnesses. Let’s all keep talking the talk till everyone walks the walk.

  10. Our organization, Womens Way of Ohio/Kentucky (not part of the Philadelphia group) has been working for the past 5 years to promote women artists by booking venues for events, supporting women that want to publish their work, giving artists places to display and sell their artwork, find finishing funds for docmentaires on women centered movies and encouraging women artists to “come forward” with your work.

    One of the major events for us this year is the International Swan Day event held on March 31. It will kick off a month long calendar around the world supporting women artists. Here is their website, Take a moment to read about this project and then get involved. Look around your city. Build a womens art collective so you can produce your own events. Call around to local businesses and ask for a donation. Set up your own nonprofit. It might cost around $400 total but once its done you are on your way.

    I am sure many of you have seen “Missrepresentation” the movie. If not bring that to your area using their offer to hold screenings. This is a great film to kick off your new organization.

    The point is not that we are not properly represented as playwrites but in all areas of the entertainment world from in front of the camera and behind the camera. I believe to make change we have to create our own events, films and productions from the ground up. We need to become our own church.

  11. Rodney Wilson says:

    I think the commentator struck a perfect balance here. Lots of praise and promotion — and two significant issues that indeed always need to be brought front and center to remind us to keep conscious about equity and just representation. She didn’t beat anyone up — that never helps — instead, she gently and peacefully reminded us all to do better and to be better.

  12. Thank you, Joan, for pointing out this all-too-common disparity. I’m a member of the International Centre for Women Playwrights, and I’m grateful for your words.

  13. Joan,

    Thanks for bringing up the topic of unequal opportunities for women playwrights. Too often lip service is paid to the importance of promoting gender equity on the stage, while plays by women about women are overlooked, their subject matter deemed less important than the issues in plays by men about men.

  14. Susan Apker says:

    Thanks, Joan, for your fair and honest review of a very worthwhile venture. Too bad it fell short of the mark.

  15. Linda Evans says:

    Well done, Joan. One thing about Neil LaBute, you know ahead of time that he’s not going to be boring. I think we need more “OMG, did you see that!” female writers. We need a couple times to shock them all and we will be asked to return. Note to self: If you do get asked…write an OMG did you see that play!

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