We asked essayist and playwright, Abbey Fenbert to answer the question, “Why do we need more women in theatre?” This essay is her response. Her response inspired Project Y Theatre and the Women in Theatre Festival to change our thinking and move from #GenderParity to #BeyondParity.
by Abbey Fenbert
I. ARE THERE WOMEN?
“It’s good to have more men in the class,” my professor said when he waived the newcomers’ prerequisites. What a good thing! Theater, everyone knows, is for girls, and theater classes are full of chicks, so it’s good to have less of them, and more of men.
Maybe the professor forgot that our classes had always been gender-balanced or skewed towards men. Maybe he saw “any women” and interpreted it as “too many.” It’s good to have more men.
The stats agree. Data from a three-year study of regional theaters across America (“The Count,” published by The Dramatist in December 2015) show that only 22% of plays produced were authored by women. For an intersectional perspective, American white women fared better than American men of color: 14% to a measly 6%. The theory “it’s good to have more men” often translates, in practice, to “it’s good to have more white men.”
“We need to have a conversation,” people say, but the conversation is ubiquitous, in the way that women’s work is not.
Here is the thing we are supposed to say:
Nobody’s asking for quotas or lowered standards. This isn’t about exclusion. All we want is parity. We deserve equal representation. 50/50. These stories need to be told.
And here my primal howl:
SCREW THAT, GIVE ME 80/20 WOMEN’S VOICES, NOW, TODAY, THE ARTS SURVIVED CENTURIES OF PATRIARCHY BET THEY CAN OUTLAST A HOT SECOND OF FULL-ON MISANDRY, BETTER THE HELL YET MAYBE THIS WILL DRAIN SEXISM FROM THE THEATER, LET’S FLOOD THE POOL WITH OUR STORIES TIL THE POOL RUNS RED WITH ART AND MENSES, VICTORY OR DIE MOTHERFUCKERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!
[Warning: At no point in this essay do I walk any of that back.]
Theater needs more women. That’s why The Kilroys promote their list of new works by women every year, and the Lilly Awards honor female theater-makers and the International Centre for Women Playwrights exists. There are festivals for female artists and theaters that have pledged to prioritize diversity in season planning. There are also those who view these efforts as suspect because they traffic in identity politics and willfully exclude men. Parity would be great “in theory” but… art’s not about playing fair.
That’s true. Fairness doesn’t mean much in the arts. So I’m done playing fair.
Parity’s fine, but we may as well advocate for majority and saturation because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from men, it’s that women would definitely get paid more if we were just more aggressive negotiators. It’s best to be confident and ask for the maximum!
And it’s important to create space in the community imagination for solutions beyond parity. Because I believe that behind this fear of plays having to be by women lie certain unexamined assumptions:
1) men’s work has greater merit
2) women are not fully human
3) it’s good to have more men.
II. WHAT ARE WOMEN?
Here are some typical notes from those theater classes with more men:
She’s extremely beautiful (My classmate, when I asked him to describe his female protagonist’s personality)
It’s hard to write female characters (Translation: It’s hard to imagine you guys as people!)
More manipulative (Another man in the class — repeatedly — on how our female characters should behave)
Feisty (Professor, describing my analytical response paper)
The time workshopping a male classmate’s script meant an actor had to cold-read “I wanna fuck you, YEAH I WANNA FUCK YOU” at the women in the class.
The time a female professor’s feedback addressed a student’s use of racist and sexist tropes, and the student walked out. (Prof later apologized.)
Also, this conversation:
DUDE: I love [redacted]. It’s great that she’s strong, but without trying to like, be a man.
ME: Wait, what does that mean?
DUDE: Come on…Surely we all know what that means.
ME: Not really? Could you explain what ‘trying to be a man’ would look like to you, in this context?
DUDE: OKAY FINE OBVIOUSLY I TOUCHED A NERVE.
[turns away in huff]
Remember, women don’t have ideas, we have ‘nerves!’
The problem with “more men in the class” is that women must constantly defend their humanity when they’d rather focus on their craft. And don’t forget to cosset men’s feelings as you go, lest they get huffy, storm out and demand apologies.
The problem with more men in the theater is that it normalizes these ideas. My classmates weren’t frothing Men’s Rights Activists on the hunt for a sex war. They were theater-lovers exposed to centuries of silent, pretty girls. To them it was all so…normal. Show don’t tell, tease out subtext, women aren’t regular humans, don’t be “on the nose.” Women are beautiful, manipulative, feisty, and gosh, we’re just discussing art here, why are you making it political?
The problem with parity is it’s not enough.
We feed a generation a canonical sausagefest each semester. We say “let’s have more men in the class.” We invoke ‘artistic merit’ whenever the question of gender in our industry comes up, as if to say, “If chicks were any good at doing plays, maybe the numbers would reflect as much.”
In addition to women being bad at plays, probably, here are some other reasons* for the lack of parity:
The way women write plays.
The frequency with which women submit plays.
“The metrics of The Count are flawed and misleading and actually, women write 300 percent of plays.”
Not enough historical women wrote plays in history, and all the laws that say you must keep producing plays from the 1600s.
The way women want to raise babies instead of plays.
The way they go to the bathroom in groups of plays and vocal fry their plays. Gee, it’s a complex problem, we gotta have a conversation about this!
*The actual reason is structural patriarchy.
Women are over-noticed and undervalued. While parity is a noble goal, in some ways the 50/50 argument reinforces the othering of women. Parity doesn’t mean much if men see women as mystic sex aliens. It’s not numbers I’m after, it’s the full measure of humanity.
It would be good for theaters to have more women. And yes, I mean more women than men.
III. HOW MANY WOMEN IS OKAY?
[Enter an INCREDULOUS BLOKE, Stage Left. The Stage can be built on a comments section or conference panel or seminar or Facebook thread. He wears grim resolve and elbow patches.]
INCREDULOUS BLOKE: Surely the Identity Police don’t belong in the sacred realm of art! Would you really want to see some, I don’t know, QUOTA SYSTEM, demanding plays be produced not on merit but only because the author is a woman???
[Raises eyebrows to peak incredulity]
To be honest, most of us have been Incredulous Bloke at one time or another. He appeals to our gaping egos and hatred of labels and love of free expression. Yes! Art is art and should be free! You tell ’em, Bloke! No quotas for us! Just regular old patriarchy, which is natural and merit-based. A director shouldn’t produce a black person’s play JUST because they are black, which is definitely what you’re asking them to do, clearly you aren’t suggesting that a play can be both good and written by a black person, or a woman, or even, I don’t know, let’s do the thing where we tie together a string of identity modifiers to highlight how silly we find this, like “a black queer Muslim disabled transwoman,” haha, as if such a person could even exist, hahaha (they do exist, one hundred percent, you’re a dick), brb got egos and elbows to patch.
Here is what I say to women and allies across the spectrum of gender identity: Let’s call the patriarchy’s bluff. Let’s tell them no solution that gets women’s work made and seen and taken seriously is too zany to be discussed.
Thought experiment: What if a theater company did implement quotas? What would be the end result? Plays by women get produced? Why is that horrifying?
White-guy horror is extra weird because women and writers of color live in the reality of inequality, not the rhetorical exercise of it. Responding to the grim stats in The Dramatist, playwright Jonathan Reynolds writes: “the establishment of some sort of mandated, enforceable quota system based not on merit but on the gender, race, ethnicity of the artist…should be anathema to any artist.” I mean sure, okay, but what about the existing disparity? That thing that is not in your imagination but is actually real and screwing lots of us over? What are we gonna do about that? “The numbers of [The Count] don’t concern me as much as what may be done in their name,” Reynolds admits.
Okey-doke, bloke. The inequality that benefits me is not a concern. It is good to have more men.
There is no number of plays by women I would consider ‘too many.’ Women are Caryl Churchill, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Young Jean Lee, Kirsten Greenidge, Melinda Lopez, Dominique Morrisseau, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Sarah Ruhl, Meg Miroshnik, Lisa Kron, Annie Baker, Jen Silverman, Aditi Brennan Kapil, so many, many more. You will have a way more awesome time at the theater with these women than at the whateverbillionth run of a White Man Explains Sexual Harassment or a White Man Explains Gentrification or a White Man Bangs His Mom.
Women are not “half the human experience.” Women are an entire human experience unto themselves. Our stories aren’t special secrets locked away and revealed under the midnight glow of the blood moon. They are stories, comic, tragic, violent and epic, and they belong to all of us.
Oh, how I have adored literature and plays by men. How I have identified with the men they created. I have looked at them and seen not a missing vagina but a body of shared parts — I have recognized the communion of our brains, our longings, our hungry stomachs and dancing feet, our livers, spines and lungs. Some of these men held ideas hostile to my very existence yet I feasted off their work, an empathic vulture, knowing what they did not: My humanity is just as true as yours, just as true as yours.
I want there to be more women. I want everyone to see women as people who reflect a complete range of emotion. Not half, but whole.
I want men to see themselves in women. To be nourished by the art of women.
I want men to fucking get used to women being around.
I want them to get so used to it that when they look at a season of plays by women, or an ensemble cast of women, or a classroom full of women, their first observation isn’t “artistically dangerous lack of dick.”
I want them to realize how normal, how human it is to be a woman.
Learn more about the Women In Theatre Festival (WiT), now thru July 24, 2016!
Abbey Fenbert holds an MFA in Playwriting from Boston University and a BA from NYU. Her work celebrates empathy, comedy and women having lots of lines. Her play Sickle, which features an all-female cast, was a Finalist for the 2016 National Playwrights Conference. She is from Detroit, MI and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Visit Abbey’s website
Connect with Abbey on Twitter: @AbbeyFenbert
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