Last Monday, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, one of the largest and most respected regional theater companies in the country, announced its 2012-2013 season. Of the twelve shows that will run on its two main stages, not a single one was written by a woman. Only one will be co-directed by a woman. This discrepancy quickly aroused a considerable amount of outrage, starting with Leah Cooper, the executive director of the Minnesota Theater Alliance, who took to Facebook and public radio to slam The Guthrie and its artistic director, Joe Dowling, for their lack of diversity. This in turn got the attention of us dramaturgs and literary managers, and, as we are wont to do, we busted out the statistics and got down to debating.
This is not exactly a new controversy. As one dramaturg joked on a theater message board, “Aren’t we a little early? We aren’t due to have this argument until May?” But that doesn’t make it any less important, and the last week and a half has generated some really interesting additions to the ongoing discussion. It’s a discussion that touches on the inner workings of theater companies and arts organizations, specifically the ways in which seasons are planned and the motivating factors behind those choices, as well as grazing up against some potentially touchy matters like women’s rights and affirmative action. So I walk into this essay with my hands behind my head and my fingers interlaced. I’m not carrying a weapon. I mean no harm. Just a well-meaning dramaturg, trying to do my part.
In the time I’ve spent in or around regional theaters, I’ve discovered that season planning almost always amounts to a negotiation of some sort between business and artistic concerns, between shows that can make money and keep the lights on and those that advance the company’s mission. For instance, if the theater has a six-show season, then maybe there are two musicals (always money-makers) and one classic (also fairly reliable at the box office) to go along with three contemporary pieces that more directly address the world around its audience but that represent a much larger financial risk. Of course there are all kinds of extenuating, logistical circumstances here too, like the availability of performance rights or the relative budgets of the shows. Interestingly, Dowling’s defense of his season hinged somewhat on these kinds of circumstances. He defended the lack of female directors by saying that some of the best just weren’t available. Even more interesting is that his defense did not touch on either business nor artistry (unless you count this bullshit-tinted quote to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in response to the criticism: “I’m sympathetic to some extent but it is too narrow a perspective to see bias in one particular season,” a quote which reeks of half-assed evasiveness). The reason why Dowling did not defend his season along business or artistic lines is because he could not.
In a now famous (within the theater world, that is) 2009 study, Princeton economic undergrad Emily Glassberg Sands set out to figure out why women writers were underrepresented in the national theater scene. On the one hand, Sands found that there were twice as many male playwrights as there were female ones and that these male writers tended to be much more prolific. Thus, it’s not very surprising that more plays written by men are produced. There are simply more plays written by men. But on the other hand, in looking at Broadway shows, Sands found that plays written by women were on average more financially successful, to the tune of 16% more tickets sold per week, leading to 18% more profitability over all. So it’s actually the economically advantageous thing to do to produce plays written by women.
Connect that last set of numbers with statistics saying that women buy around 70% of all theater tickets sold and make up between 60 and 70% of audience members, and we can come to some even grander conclusions. Women constitute the majority of theater audiences. Theater audiences are spending more money on plays written by women. Thus, audiences respond to stories that speak from their own point of view, that allow them to see themselves reflected back, not only in the characters but in the storytellers. This is what engages and resonates and fulfills. We exist to create that set of responses. So it’s actually the artistically responsible thing to do to produce plays written by women.
Now, the fact that The Guthrie is going nearly all-white-male in their coming season does not mean it’s full of mouth-breathing misogynists. In fact, I’m sure it’s not. Part of the fun of season planning is constructing a series of plays that can tell their own story. In the theater world, where subjectivity is always a valid defense, it’s quite possible that Dowling and co.’s vision for the 2012-2013 season at The Guthrie, the story that they were building, did not include any women writers purely by happenstance. As another dramaturg put it while defending a female board member at The Guthrie for not stepping in, “maybe she thinks the plays are good.” Maybe that’s all that’s really important. But once again, we return to this matter of learning to listen to our community, of not dictating to them what it is we think is best, of letting the audience lead us.
About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of needtheater and previously served as their resident dramaturg and literary manager. Production dramaturgy credits for needtheater include: Fatboy, Mercury Fur, Scarcity, tempOdyssey, and The Web. He also directed needtheater's world premiere production of Guided Consideration of a Lamentable Deed. He is the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where he runs the advanced playwrights lab and helps to oversee new play development. He is also an associate artist with the international, new script development group LoNyLa, and works as a script consultant for theaters, including The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, and Native Voices at the Autry. He trained for two years under a dramaturgy fellowship at Centerstage in Baltimore and is a graduate of Wesleyan University.