This year Hedgebrook, a retreat on Whidbey Island for female writers, celebrates the 20th anniversary of its annual Women Playwrights Festival, with free public readings from new scripts by five notable female scribes. It also held a “summit” meeting of those working to get more plays by women on American stages.
Since 1988, Hedgebrook has hosted leading and upcoming female writers of many genres, including such award-winning dramatists as Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage and Danai Gurira (whose play “Familiar” just completed a run at Seattle Repertory Theatre). Housed in woodsy cabins, they’ve enjoyed the “radical hospitality” of this bucolic women’s literary retreat center on Whidbey Island, and the quiet and space to develop and craft new scripts.
But have female playwrights of merit progressed enough? Despite the evidence that new plays by women are being staged more frequently in theater-rich cities like Seattle, why are their voices still a slim minority in the chorus of contemporary works produced nationally?
This year Hedgebrook celebrates the 20th anniversary of its annual Women Playwrights Festival, with free public readings from new scripts by five notable female scribes. The in-progress readings will be held at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 3; and at Seattle Repertory Theatre at 7 p.m. Monday, June 4.
This year’s crop includes Seattle resident Cheryl West’s “Lady Jazz,” inspired by female swing bands of the 1940s. Another entry: Wendy MacLeod’s “The Laugh Track,” supported by Seattle’s ACT Theatre and inspired by Madelyn Pugh Davis, a groundbreaking female comedy writer who co-wrote the “I Love Lucy” show.
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However, this year’s festival began with another agenda: a “summit” meeting of female dramatists and theater administrators from around the U.S. who are engaged in the campaign to get more plays by women on American stages. At Hedgebrook over several days in May, participants gathered for lively discussions of what progress has been made through their efforts — and what needs to happen next to achieve if not a 50-50 balance, at least something closer than the current ratio: roughly one modern play by a woman, to four or five by men, are presented in professional regional and New York theaters.
According to Hedgebrook executive director Amy Wheeler, the summit was an opportunity to share information, brainstorm strategies and forge new bonds, because “everything that happens in theater is through relationships.”
“The world is in such a mess – environmentally, socially, politically,” said Wheeler, who is also a playwright. “We’re at a critical crossroads in our culture where we need to hear from everyone.”
The drive for parity, she said, “is not just about women, but about expanding the dialogue in general. We have to reach across what divides us, and have more conversations. Theater is a great forum for that.”
The campaign for gender equity in theater is not new. But it has gathered steam in recent years, thanks to more awareness of the gender gap. According to a 2016 survey by American Theatre magazine of 380 American regional companies, just 21 percent of plays presented in the 2015-16 season had female authors, with 67 percent written by men and 12 percent having been co-authored by writers of both genders. By the magazine’s 2017 survey, the numbers for women had risen somewhat: 26 percent by women, 62 percent by men, and 11 percent co-written by female-male teams.
This gap has persisted despite a number of touted women’s plays generating productions at multiple theaters. A recent case: the freewheeling adaptation of the Jane Austen novel “Sense and Sensibility” by Kate Hamill, which was mounted by seven different regional companies around the country in 2017 alone. (Her zany reboot of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” was mounted at Seattle Rep last fall.)
Hamill, a festival participant who is working on her adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” at Hedgebrook, was among the more than 20 women (and several men) who spent a long weekend discussing the parity issue in meetings, over farm-to-table meals whipped up by the Hedgebrook chefs, and during walks around the retreat center’s 48-acre spread near Langley.
Among the invitees was Joy Meads, the literary manager of the Center Theatre Group, a constellation of three major Los Angeles theaters. She is also a member of The Kilroys, self-described as “a gang of playwrights and producers in LA who are done talking about gender parity and are taking action.”
Their action? Generating an annual list of new plays by women, recommended by a “mighty brain trust” of (male and female) theater insiders. The list contains only the most-nominated plays. (The group’s name was inspired by the graffiti slogan “Kilroy was here,” used by American GIs during World War II.)
“We were tired of years of panels, studies and discussions of parity, but little progress on getting the numbers up,” noted Meads. “No one consciously wants to keep plays by women off the stage, but a common complaint by artistic directors was that there just weren’t enough great plays by female writers available. The list is a way to make the abundance of good work more available, and more visible.”
The Kilroys have no figures yet showing whether their lists have yielded productions. But anecdotally, according to Meads and others, the lists have generated a lot of positive exposure for women scribes.
“I don’t think there’s been an evil plot to exclude women’s plays,” agreed MacLeod, the Midwest-based author of a dozen works, among them “The House of Yes” (also the basis of a 1997 movie). “It’s just that men are conditioned to respond differently to different stories.”
But MacLeod suggests women writers shouldn’t be pigeon-holed, pointing out that just as some men write richly authentic female characters, the opposite is true also. For instance, her seriocomedy “Things Being What They Are,” which debuted at Seattle Rep in 2003 with a two-man cast, focuses on middle-aged male angst.
Numerous Seattle theaters have been stepping up for gender parity. Seattle Rep, ArtsWest and Book-It Repertory Theatre, for example, will stage half or more of their planned 2017-18 productions with plays by women. And ACT Theatre’s calendar-year 2018 season continues with works by Dael Orlandersmith and Lauren Weedman.
New funding measures are also supportive. At the Hedgebrook summit, Denver Center Theatre’s director of new play development, Douglas Langworthy, reported that in 13 years, the Women’s Voices Fund has enabled the Colorado company to produce 33 plays by women, commission 20 female playwrights and hire 31 female directors. (Women directors have been in the minority too, at many theaters.)
Other topics discussed at Hedgebrook: The need for theaters to provide child care for female artists with children. The ongoing struggles of women playwrights of color, and now transgender writers, to get their work on the boards. The #MeToo issues of sexual harassment coming to light in numerous American theaters.
Seattle’s West is one of the most-produced modern playwrights at both Seattle Rep and Washington, D.C.’s prominent Arena Stage, yet expressed frustration that as an African-American woman she’s still often viewed as a “promising” artist.
“We’re emerging forever, but a guy can write one hit play and he’s a major playwright,” West stated. “So when do we get to the level of established or master playwright? When do we earn that title? The field has definitely changed for the better for women since I began my career 30 years ago. But we still have a ways to go.”
This story has been updated with the correct names of the plays Cheryl West and Wendy MacLeod are working on at Hedgebrook.