Playwright Julia Jordan Not So Excited by Broadway’s Year of the Man

Everyone agrees that Broadway’s glass ceiling has never been shinier. Whistle blowers JULIA JORDAN and SARA SCHULMAN believe that talking about the issue at town meetings will point toward a solution.

The pair originally conceived the meeting as a small social gathering where they could discuss gender bias with 20 of their playwright friends. But their thinking struck a chord. The email invitation became viral, gave rise to a Facebook group, and soon, Jordan and Schulman were playing hosts to over 150 people.

Their second meeting last week included OSKAR EUSTIS, artistic director of the PUBLIC THEATER, representatives from the ATLANTIC THEATER, THE MANHATTAN THEATER CLUB, SECOND STAGE, the MCC THEATER and PLAYWRIGHTS’ HORIZONS. So we’re talking key industry players — not a disgruntled fringe element gathering to stitch ‘n bitch.

Interesting numbers have come out of both gatherings: SARAH BENSON, artistic director of the SOHO REP (which recently extended SARAH KANE’s BLASTED), told Jordan that 50 percent of her submissions come from female playwrights. And yet, the New York Times reports that of 50 new plays in the 14 largest Off Broadway theaters this season, only 10 are by women. Across the country, 17 percent of plays produced are written by women, who are also responsible for 35 percent of the most financially successful productions in the past 10 years.

What’s even more depressing: According to this piece by THERESA REBECK, “In the 2008/2009 season, as it has been announced, the number of plays written by women on New York stages will amount to 12.6 percent of the total. Want to know the same figure for the 1908/1909 season? Let’s see, it was … 12.8 percent!”

It seems we’re more Oregon Trail than Great White Way for two primary reasons: misconceptions about audience interest and bias on the part of those evaluating new plays.

While some attribute the playwright gender disparity to a greater public interest in stories told from a male perspective, but Jordan points out that “according to TCG, of the 24 most successful plays of the past ten years…14 had female protagonists, only seven had male protagonists, and the remaining three plays were true ensemble works.” She also notes that women make up the majority (an estimated 60 percent) of the theater-going audience.

A blind submission process might level the playing field for unsolicited scripts as it has with musicians, but would be impractical for solicited ones, which form the bulk of produced plays. Jordan argues that the American theater world “needs a solution that respects the need for theaters to discriminate based on mission, aesthetics and their artistic hearts while minimizing, to the best of our abilities, the biases based on other factors that are human and present in all of us.”

Sounds great, but how? According to Jordan increasing awareness of bias among not only artistic directors, but actors, directors, writers, literary managers, audiences, boards, donors, journalists and critics is a good start: “If you read a play by a woman and think it’s good, take a look at it again to make sure it’s not excellent.”

– Natalya Krimgold

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