The Sexism of the Theater World 

Female playwrights are disproportionately underrepresented in theater. Shotgun Players aims to change that with its 2015 all-lady lineup.


The well-known and well-regarded Tony Awards represent the highest achievement in Broadway theater. Yet, despite being named after a woman — Antoinette Perry — startlingly few Tonys have been awarded to female playwrights: three, to be precise.

Three! Since 1947! In 2014, men wrote all five dramas nominated for the Tonys' top prize. What accounts for this discrepancy? Clearly it's not because ladies haven't been writing plays for the last sixty years. It's also not due to low ticket sales. The New York Times reported in 2009 that Broadway plays and musicals by women were 18 percent more profitable than plays by men. The lack of female-written theater productions is especially perplexing when one considers that women make up the bulk of theatergoers (70 percent, according to a demographic study by The Broadway League). Thankfully, Shotgun Players in Berkeley is paying attention. For its 32nd season, the community playhouse has chosen to produce only works written by women, including six full productions and six staged readings.

Shotgun's artistic director Patrick Dooley said that the idea to create a season devoted to female playwrights came about when the company members began to notice that local and national companies "would put out seasons of plays and not have a single female playwright on the roster. Momentum from within our community to have a larger conversation about this started to gain steam. ... Our entire staff is female except me. Women are a profound voice in this company and my life."

"Sadly, the lack of productions for women playwrights isn't even a trend. It's the status quo," wrote Larry Dean Harris from The Dramatists' Guild, in response to a study conducted on Los Angeles theaters, which revealed that, of the plays produced or presented in workshops or readings for a ten-year period, less than 20 percent were written by women.

"It is telling when announcing an all-women playwright season feels radical," said Marisela Orta, one of the local playwrights Shotgun is producing this year. "I think it's wonderful that Shotgun decided to produce an all female playwright season. They are making a bold statement on the lack of parity in the field."

As for female visibility in the Bay Area theater world, Orta said the past few years have been a "hotbed of conversation about gender parity. One of Shotgun's company members — Fontana Butterfield Guzman — founded the 'Yeah, I Said Feminist' theater salon in response to this very issue. That salon has become an invaluable network for so many actors, designers, playwrights, directors, and other theater artists."

Orta also pointed out that Theatre Bay Area regularly convenes a committee on the issue of gender, adding that "it's heartening to know that our local service organization here in the Bay Area is listening to its members." Further adding to that conversation is Bay Area actor Valerie Weak's Counting Actors project, which gathers statistics on how Bay Area productions are faring when it comes to gender parity. "It's a tremendous amount of work to gather that data. I am so grateful to Valerie and all those who volunteer time and information toward that project," Orta said.

"I think we all had to acknowledge how radical [an all-female lineup] felt, and that it didn't feel all that radical when someone presented a season of all male plays — it felt a little tone-deaf," said Dooley. "We all had to take responsibility for that reaction. Are we just trudging along with the status quo? Do we just accept that most plays are by men? Why is that? What can we do to try to change that? We wanted our audience to acknowledge how 'bold' it seemed and then realize that it shouldn't be so bold. My ultimate wish is that in a few years no one will even register the choice as a big deal."

As to why such a gender discrepancy exists in the theater world, Orta surmised that theater "has a lot of the same problems that our larger society grapples with. I think that's because unconscious biases are ingrained in the very systems and infrastructures of organizations. Additionally, it's hard to see the problem unless someone is keeping track — that is, being reflective about who's getting productions and who isn't."

Orta thinks that the lack of gender parity in the field should be faced head on. "These problems won't fix themselves, nor will they go away if we simply ignore them. We have to do the work."

"I would bet most folks would think the East Bay or greater Bay Area is more inclusive to women," said Dooley. "After looking at ourselves a little more closely, I think many of us were surprised at how far we still have to go. Hopefully, this effort has moved us a step or two closer."  

Dooley was optimistic, however, about the fact that works by female playwrights are in demand. He noted that when putting together Shotgun's lineup "one of the issues we came across is that really hot new plays by women are now also highly sought after by the larger regional houses." He continued, "We were on the hunt for Anne Washburn's play Mr. Burns for many years. Before that show, her work was mostly produced by theaters our size or smaller. I was stunned — and also very happy for her! — that ACT [American Conservatory Theatre] swooped in and grabbed the rights to that play."  

In addition to Orta's play, Heart Shaped Nebula, which will premiere on Shotgun's Ashby Stage in May, and which she described as a "love story of cosmic proportions," Shotgun's season includes a broad range of works: Antigonick, a dance theater piece by Anne Carson; Top Girls, an experimental piece from the early 1980s by Caryl Churchill; a reinterpretation of a Greek myth (Eurydice) by Sarah Ruhl; The Rover, a 1677 comedy by Aphra Behn; and an Agatha Christie murder mystery (Mousetrap), which Dooley is directing. "Our audiences have eclectic tastes, and we like our season to reflect that. Give 'em a little bit of everything," he said.

Orta's advice to theatergoers who want to support female playwrights is to "go see plays" and to "make your voice heard."

"You know those surveys that theaters give you when you go see a play? Fill them out," she said. "Thank theaters that are producing women playwrights. And those who aren't producing women in their season, let them know that you notice the lack of women playwrights and encourage them to produce women. A lot of people don't realize that they can offer such encouragement. Theaters are very interested in providing programming that their audiences want to see. So let them know what you'd like to see on stage."

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