Arts Spotlight

Editor’s Note: In this new monthly feature, our arts and culture reporter takes a deeper look at the local arts scene, shining a spotlight on issues and trends, both local and national, and the arts makers in our community.

In 2015, the Dramatists Guild of America, the national membership association of playwrights, librettists, composers and lyricists, in collaboration with the Lillys, an outlet honoring the work of women in American theater, released The Count. The Count collected data from 147 theaters across the country, tallying the percentage of plays produced that were written by women over the course of three seasons between 2011 and 2014. By its second installment in 2018, The Count 2.0 recorded Seattle as producing the second lowest percentage of plays written by women among major theater hubs New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area, the Berkeley, California, and San Francisco area and the Kansas City area, with only Philadelphia recording a lower percentage.

However, by the most recent installment, tracking trends over the nine seasons between 2011 through 2020, The Count 3.0 showed that Seattle had the second largest increase in percentage of plays produced from women writers (behind Philadelphia), moving Seattle to fourth highest percentage among the nine theater hubs tracked. As Seattle theaters take the stage for the 2022-23 season, I took a look around the city to see how this year stacks up and examine the exciting productions that might be hidden beneath the statistics.

Now, these stats aren’t all-encompassing. The Count only included seven Seattle-area theaters in their tracked statistics: 5th Avenue, ACT, ArtsWest, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle Rep, Taproot Theatre Company and Village Theatre. But stats around whose work is produced on stage are also hard to come by, especially for the regions outside of New York City, where there aren’t many organizations dedicating time and resources to tracking the efforts of theaters to move away from seasons dominated by white male playwrights.

I won’t pretend I can do anywhere near as exhaustive a study as the Dramatists Guild-funded Count, but seeing such a marked increase for Seattle in The Count 3.0, I was curious what information could be learned from the upcoming season, especially if I took into consideration 10 additional local theaters. This upcoming season, by my rough count, will see a slightly lower percentage of women writers produced compared to The Count’s most recent mark. Now, I tend to trust The Count’s numbers more than my own, but taking a look through the announced seasons around the city, it’s easy to see why the numbers may have dipped a bit, especially with revival-heavy seasons featuring mainly male writers coming from 5th Avenue and Village Theatre.

What’s tough about these numbers is that they can’t quite capture some of the more nuanced work toward progress happening on stages. These numbers can’t reflect how outstanding it is for 5th Avenue’s upcoming production of “The Wiz” to center a nonbinary performer (Kataka Corn) as Dorothy. They can’t capture the work of Reboot Theatre Company’s efforts to throw gender binaries out the window in classic (white male-written) productions like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “110 in the Shade.” And they certainly can’t capture the work of folks like The Williams Project bringing Seattle two oft-overlooked productions from James Baldwin (“The Amen Corner”) and Lorraine Hansberry (“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” with Intiman Theatre). 

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Local theaters are doing an intricate balancing act right now as they try to invite audiences back into their spaces: How do you balance popular fare that will get audiences back in the building with new and adventurous work that might not have the same name recognition. “The Wiz,” “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Les Misérables” as the final four shows at 5th Avenue is a heck of a popular lineup. Especially after the 2021 death of Stephen Sondheim, his works (like “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd”) are likely to be popular throughout the country.

“Every Brilliant Thing,” which will be produced at ACT next March, was listed by American Theatre magazine as one of the most produced plays across the country during the final full season before the pandemic. And Village Theatre’s season, which kicked off with the now-running “Little Shop of Horrors,” includes popular musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and “Hello, Dolly!” alongside its world premiere of “How to Break.”

Seattle Rep’s season is sneaky popular while also being adventurous, with names that may not have made waves in the city (yet), but who are certainly writers to watch if you chat with folks around the country. For instance, Tina Satter’s “Is This a Room,” running at Seattle Rep next April, might be the most exciting show coming to town this season after it received rave after rave during its 2021 Broadway run for turning a verbatim transcript of the FBI’s interrogation of Reality Winner, the former Air Force linguist charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference into U.S. elections, into a thriller that pushes the boundaries of what a Broadway play can be.

Yet as I looked over the Seattle-area theater season, what I found most exciting was the dedication to productions created in the last decade and shows from artists of color. Around 73% of plays and musicals produced this season in the area premiered in 2011 or later, including at least 14 world premieres, and over 46% of shows produced this season will come from creators of color. 

As The Count 3.0 showed, even before the pandemic, Seattle theaters were making major strides toward better balance when it comes to whose work is making its way onstage. It’s too soon to really start patting folks on the back, but diving beneath the numbers and taking a closer look at what the city has in store for audiences, it’s hard not to be excited about what’s on the horizon.