Putting the Spotlight on Female Playwrights in America
This International Women’s Month, we are putting the spotlight on female playwrights in America. Read the following blog by Cambridge University Press author Christopher Bigsby to find out why this is the opportune moment for celebrating these talented female writers.
This is a good moment to celebrate American women playwrights, though it is worth noting that there has been a battle waged in the theatre as elsewhere. Of the seventy Tony Awards for Best Broadway Play just one has been gone to an American woman, one-and-a-half since Frances Goodrich was joint author of The Diary of Anne Frank, and this despite the fact that the award is named after a woman, Mary Antoinette Perry. Things are better when it comes to the Pulitzer, though not much. Of the eighty-six Pulitzer Prizes for drama awarded in the last hundred years only fifteen went to women. There was one in each of the 1940s and 50s, none in the 60s or 70s. Then, as the women’s movement gained energy, there were five in the 1980s and 90s.
Since then there have been a further five awards in seventeen years, though with an additional sixteen nominated. In my most recent book, Twenty-First Century American Playwrights, seven of the nine writers are women though in the draft of the follow-up volume that is reversed so that I end up with a ratio of ten to eight in favour of men. This was not because I had an agenda but simply because these were the writers I was drawn to write about.
Yet, in truth, for all the success of some, women playwrights are still under represented. Why? Perhaps it is worth looking at other aspects of the American theatre, the environment which encourages, or otherwise, women to tell their stories. Tony Awards for directing began in 1960. Of the 58 awards just four have gone to American women directors. However, all won in the present century so something is clearly changing, if only slowly. The truth is that barely a third of directors are women while over 70% of stage managers and assistant stage managers are. Of thirty new productions on Broadway in 2016-17, only six were directed by women even as 68% of Broadway audiences are female. In 74 Resident Theatres 80% of artistic directors are white men, as are 74% of executive directors. As for women reviewers, they are not so much an endangered species as a virtually non-existent one. For decades there was only one mainstream theatre reviewer in New York, Linda Winer on Newsday, joined in 2009 by Elisabeth Vincentelli on the New York Post, who then left in 2016, and she is French.
Incidentally, or perhaps not, women represented just 4% of directors of major Hollywood films over the last eleven years, 84% of them never directing a second film. They represent 24% of producers and 13% of writers.
Of those I have written about, or am writing about, two are African-Americans, one Taiwanese-American, one a Puerto Rican-American (Quiara Alegria Hudes, who co-wrote a musical with Lin-Manuel Miranda), and another that rarity, a self-described socialist. It is not that women writers are only concerned with gender. At the same time, the stories they tell, in radically different ways and styles, have broadened our sense of the America they address as well as the world beyond America’s borders. They are as various as they are impressive. It only awaits doors to open wider for women artistic directors, directors and producers, who determine what we see, to encourage more writers whose prospects are not determined by their having one x and one y chromosome.
Find out about Christopher Bigsby’s new book, Twenty-First Century American Playwrights here.