According to a recent study, only 22 percent of plays produced in the United States are written by women. That means, if life worked like theatre, 4 out 5 things you ever heard would be said by men. But a Los Angeles-based gang of badass women playwrights and theatre makers are attempting to rewrite this narrative.
For the last two years, The Kilroys—a group of rising stars including Zakiyyah Alexander, Bekah Brunstetter and Sheila Callaghan, to name a few—have published The List, an annual inventory of the year’s best new plays by women and trans playwrights as decided by the most influential theatre tastemakers from across the country. With The List, as well as Cake Drops, delicious cakes gifted to theatre companies committed to gender equality, The Kilroys (named after the iconic graffiti tag “Kilroy Was Here“) are not only taking action to flip the script for women in theatre and achieve parity—or better—on America’s storied stages, but also celebrating the voices of women who just need a venue to be heard.
And it seems as if artistic directors at theatre companies nationwide are finally listening. As of June 2015, 31 out of 46 plays on the inaugural Kilroys list have been produced in 53 productions overall. Playwrights such as Jiehae Park, Martyna Majok and Janine Nabers, whose stars have been on the rise since The List’s publication, credit the Kilroys for raising the profile of their scripts and applaud, as Majok put it, the “collective change” in theatre companies’ approach to season-planning brought about by the consciousness-raising power of The List.
Recently, the Ms. Blog had an audience with Joy Meads, Kilroy and literary manager at L.A.’s Center Theatre Group, to talk about the obstacles in the way of women-driven productions, the critical need to include women and people of color in American theatre, and The Kilroys’ contribution to the ever-growing community of artists and activists re-imagining the theatrical world to reflect the real world as it truly is.
Ms. Blog: What inspired The List?
Joy Meads: One thing that we had noticed in all of the years that we had seen these conversations about equity happening is that when a producer or an artistic director was asked why they don’t produce more plays by women, they would say one of two things. They would say either, “Of course, I want to [produce plays by women], but the plays just aren’t there,” or they would say, “Well, I just produce the best plays.” Now, the first answer is obviously untrue. There are many, many plays written by women every single year. The second answer, I think, is more pernicious. If year after year, the artistic director is programming mostly plays by men and saying, “Of course gender equity is a goal, but my foremost responsibility has to be to quality,” when you look into that statement, then the only logical explanation [is] that men are just better at writing plays—and we know that to be untrue. [Actually,] I think artistic directors would blanch at that logic if it was pointed out to them, but these false answers were getting in the way of [the theatre community] seeing what the true obstacles were.
How does The List address American theatre’s stubborn gender-parity problem?
[We imagined The List] would allow us to move the conversation past those false answers and would also be a tool for people who want to produce plays by women. It’s a way of saying to these artistic directors, “You’ve been saying all these years that you want to produce plays by women. Great! I believe you want to produce plays by women. Here’s this list. The plays are here and easily available to you and they’re also plays that have been recognized by your peers as [being] of excellent quality.” I think sometimes people get in patterns of where they look for plays and that kind of inertia can be a way of perpetuating inequality. They just don’t look in different places. They go to their old sources and they produce the kind of plays that they’ve been producing for years. Having this new resource allows them to look in a different place to find that next play that they want to produce.
Why are so few plays by women ever produced?
I don’t think any of this is a result of intentional or willful prejudice. I think it’s just unexamined patterns [and] a lot of unconscious bias. We have had patterns of inequity going back a very long time, and even though there was a study that proved that plays by women tend to do better at the box office on average, people have seen more examples of successful male-driven and male-centric plays. So I think, unconsciously, that shapes their expectations about what a successful play looks like. Unconscious perception of risk may feel different when they review a play by a woman or a play by a man. [For example,] we’ve seen studies indicating that people in the corporate world tend to hire male applicants based on their potential and female applicants based on their proven record of achievement and I expect that some of the same things are true in the theatre world.
[Book writer of Fun Home] Lisa Kron told the story of speaking to [a friend who is an] artistic director and asking him to think back on the last new play that he produced by a man and the last new play he produced by a woman and what was he excited about and what was he nervous about in each case. He realized that whereas he was seeing exciting potential in these male-authored new plays, he was concerned about lack of experience in the female authors. The playwrights themselves weren’t much different, but his perception of their work was much different depending on gender of the playwrights. I think that’s the work incumbent on all of us to do, to realize the ways unconscious bias [has] shaped our judgments—even against our will.
Across creative industries, few women and people of color are afforded opportunities to share their stories. Why is their representation so important, particularly in the theatre?
It’s a survival imperative. When you’re producing only, let’s say, white men again and again and again, [whether or not you acknowledge it,] the message you’re sending out as a theatre is that you believe the stories of [white men] are more significant, more worthy, more deserving of attention, and you’re sending a message to audiences of color that they’re not really welcome at your theatre. Right now, the population of Los Angeles is [less than] 30 percent non-Latino white, [so] 70 percent of the potential audience of Center Theatre Group is not white. If [in our programming] we’re only targeting our white audience, we’re not going to survive.
It’s [also] a moral [obligation] for two reasons. [The first thing] is that nonprofit theatre companies are subsidized by tax dollars. We don’t have to pay taxes and that means everybody else has to pick up the bill for the taxes we’re not paying. [But] it’s not just the white audiences that are paying those taxes—it’s everyone. So it’s our job to serve everyone. The second thing is [the] power of community building that happens within a theatre, this power of radical empathy, of seeing yourself through another character’s perspective and understanding [what their life is like] emotionally, cognitively, physically. There’s a tremendous power [in] deepening understanding, of the discovery of shared values, of strengthening the muscle of empathy and discover[ing] our shared human experience. That’s what happens if you produce a diverse slate of programming. [When] you produce the same voices again and again and again, you’re actually reinforcing an old inequity. You’re saying, “It’s very important we understand this person’s experience of the world because it means more or it matters more than everyone else’s.” So who we put at the center of our stories matters.
What needs to happen in order to create a more inclusive space for women playwrights and playwrights of color?
[First of all,] I want to see the population of each city reflected on its stages, in terms of gender identity [and] racial diversity. That has to happen. I do see progress, but not as fast as it should be. Throughout my entire professional life I’ve been hearing very passionate rhetoric about equality, which I haven’t seen manifested into action. Or I have but it’ll be in these ancillary programs and not on the main stage. It’ll be like a festival of women’s voices or writers of color on a second stage, but not on the main stage. But, I think people are [grasping] in a real way more than ever before that it’s not enough to simply state the quality of the goal and assume the rest will take care of itself. It has to be an actively held goal. It’s something you have to work for. It’s not going to happen on its own.
The other thing is—it’s such a simple thing, but it’s actually quite radical when you really think about it and try to implement it—[that] the plays that are produced are not necessarily those that have whiteness and masculinity at its center. For example, when you’re looking at the spectrum of plays that are written by playwrights of color versus what gets picked up, you’ll notice that it’s far more likely that a play by a playwright of color will get picked up for production [if it’s] set in the past and the drama of the characters is in relation to whiteness. [If you] look at reviews for a play where the characters [of color] are just doing their thing and are not defined in any way according to whiteness, you’ll notice often reviewers are kind of confused by that fact. There’s a play called Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them written by A. Rey Pamatmat that got a review [in which] the reviewer wished that the Filipino American characters’ culture was put more “on display” and that he found it odd that they didn’t experience discrimination at high school. That’s not the story the playwright was telling, [but] in order for this reviewer to find a way into the play, he had to A. have the characters’ culture explained to him, so to [assume] whiteness as the default audience and B. have some kind of relationship to whiteness be important to the characters in the play.
[One day,] I think we’ll see a world in which everybody has that kind of dexterity and flexibility to make the empathetic and imaginative leap to see the world through another perspective and I think that it will make for more interesting, exciting and more ethical art on our stages. The aesthetic will be better and it will be morally more sound, we’ll be living in accordance with our shared values.
Are you encouraged by the activism building around women’s representation in theatre?
There’s so many people working on this issue right now. The Lilly Awards [Foundation] produced a reading series of plays from our first list and after every reading, there was a talk back that was moderated by the people behind The Interval, an online journal that consists of interviews with incredible women working in the theatre. The Lillys [also] worked with the Dramatist Guild this year to release The Count, which is this huge study of the productions [by women and people of color] across America, and the statistics that they came up with were incredibly valuable. There are also these amazing essays [by playwrights and theatre professionals] that were published with [The Count]. It’s very inspiring to us and really I think when we see change, it’s going to be because of all this.
How can theatre makers lend their talents to raise the curtain on women’s work?
[The] first year that we did The List, we kind of just did this in our spare time and we didn’t have any official structure and we didn’t have any money, and then at the end of the year we tallied up what we had spent and it came up to something like $220. [It took] a lot of elbow grease [and] a lot of time, but we saw an issue, we thought of something we could do to address it, and then we just spent a lot of time and a little bit of money and we made something happen. I have to say I’ve been feeling frustrated with these issues for so long and it was the best way to use that frustration.
I’m still impatient for change, but I’ve been able to switch from feeling frustrated to feeling powerful. I just want to encourage anyone who’s feeling the same kind of frustration I was to find your own little corner of the problem that could use addressing. Like the women at The Interval being like, “You know what? I don’t see enough really high-quality interviews with women where it’s not all about the fact of them being a woman and really talk in-depth about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” so they went ahead and put up this website. I find that really inspiring. That’s exciting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Caren at thekilroys.org