As we now all know, last week “The Summit” was held at the Arena Stage. And as my colleague xhirtz pointed out, “The conversation derailed very quickly when the topic of the inclusion of women playwrights and the lack of representation was brought up.” The artistic directors on the panel for The Summit, defended the lack of female playwrights by claiming that nothing was in the pipeline, and that it would take a decade before that could be rectified. The artistic directors also appeared to be afraid to take a risk on an unknown female playwright, or to take the time to find a forgotten gem from a know female playwright. When I learned all of this, my first thought was these answers are complete BS. There are plenty of talented female playwrights, who are produced across the country and on Broadway. Two such playwrights have direct connections to Boston University: Lydia Diamond and Kirsten Greenidge (full disclosure, I consider both of these artists to be mentors, colleagues, and friends). Ms. Diamond even has a relationship with Arena Stage. Arena Stage produced a production of Diamond’s Stick Fly back in 2010 for Pete’s Sake! How hard would it be to go back to her and commission a piece for a year or two down the road–rather than a decade.
This mini rant is intended to give some context to the story I heard today on NPR regarding the VIDA Count. To proceed it is important to have a basic understanding of what the VIDA Count is. From the VIDA website:
Each year women from across the country dedicate thousands of combined hours to perform an arduous task: we manually, painstakingly tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews. We do this to offer up concrete data and assure women authors (and wayward editors) that the sloped playing field is not going unnoticed. We do this to ignite and fan the flames of necessary discourse. We do this each year because our literary community can only benefit from a range of voices. Take a look at our annual VIDA Count, tell your friends, write to the editors, Count with us. We are offering up our Methodologies so you too may contribute to, deepen and complicate this conversation.
Vida has spent the past four years tracking the gender breakdown at major literary journals–this breakdown includes both authors and reviewers. Unfortunately, the news is not great on this front. Several major publications (like The Atlantic) have a ratio of 75 men to 25 women, while other publications have even worse rates of 80 men to 20 women.
Fortunately all is not lost. Steps are being taken by several publications, including The New York Times Book Review, to rectify the situation. And VIDA’s count director, Jen Fitzgerald, notes that VIDA’s numbers are changing the conversation. From the NPR story:
“We have these stark blue-and-red charts that offer up data, and there’s no negating it. When we present it, it’s no longer a question of, ‘Is there an imbalance?’ Now, it’s a question of, ‘Why is there an imbalance? Do we want to change the imbalance?’ ” (emphasis added) Fitzgerald says. “You know, the initial shock of, ‘Oh my goodness, are we really seeing 75 percent men across the board?’ to a question of, ‘Why are editors OK with 75 percent men across the board?’ “
For me, this is where the situation becomes exciting, and a direct parallel to the under representation of female playwrights can be given to the Artistic Directors at The Summit. Again from the NPR story:
“It is not hard work at all. That’s the big secret — it’s not hard,” Paul says. “There are so many good books out there by women, and there are so many incredibly good book critics out there who are women. So I actually have to say that I didn’t find it to be an incredible strain. I don’t think any of our editors at the Book Review felt that we were unduly burdened.”
Near the bottom of Vida’s list this year: The New Republic, one of the publications that was over 75 percent male. The magazine released a statement acknowledging that its numbers look “more what you would expect from 1964 than 2014” and promising that that this would change in the future.
“It is not hard work at all.” This quote applies directly to the world of publishing and book reviews, but it is applicable to the world of theatre as well. It is not hard to find strong, challenging, engaging theatrical work created by women. If the artistic directors at The Summit really considered the options available to them (instead of giving empty answers to the question of representation), it would be very easy to program works by women. Alternatively, if these companies do not like the available material, it would not take much to create a place where women could come and wright and submit work. A collaborative experience worked well for Mixed Theatre and Aditi Kapil. Kapil’s play Love Person found a great deal of success in several cities around the country as a part of a rolling premiere. Mixed Blood did not wait for the “pipeline” to magically produce a strong play by a female playwright, they worked to find a way to foster the work themselves.
Ultimately women in the arts are woefully underrepresented, and a lot of work needs to be done to address this issue. But if VIDA can change the conversation, and have an impact on publications, for the world of literature and reviewers. It should not be hard for theatre artists to find ways to produce work by women. I am so glad that VIDA understands how important greater representation is. The challenge now, for the theatrical community, is how we change the conversation, and what steps do we take to rectify this issue. Some thoughtfulness will help us find the answers–and could galvanize the US theatre community to take action.
VIDA gets it.