Why Don't We See More Plays by Women?

Playwrights craft stories that sweep us up, wring us out, and leave us wiser. Plays dissect human relations and distill social issues. But studies show that women writers are still underrepresented on the American stage. We asked Wendy MacLeod, the James Michael Playwright-in-Residence, to map out the problem and speculate on why it persists.

Okay, maybe this isn't a burning question for you, but it is for me. And, really, it should concern everyone, because it raises questions about how and why opportunities still elude women, both in the "real world" and at colleges like Kenyon.

Writing recently in American Theater magazine, playwright Marsha Norman noted that in the seventies, she, along with Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, and Ntozake Shange, thought they were the vanguard, blazing the trail for a more equitable American theater. Yet here we are in 2010 and it seems nothing has changed.

As recently as last season, theaters produced six plays by men for every play written by a woman. (Plays by women in which the leading character is a man have a slightly higher chance of being produced.) Only one in eight plays on Broadway is written by a woman, despite the fact that the plays by women made 18 percent more money. The numbers are similarly lopsided for female directors, set designers, and other stage professionals.

Then consider a recent study conducted by a Princeton economics student and highlighted in the New York Times. In one part of the research, an identical play was sent around to theaters, with half of the plays credited to a male playwright and the other half to a female playwright. When the play was written by Michael Walker, it got significantly better responses than when it was written by Mary Walker.

Moving from the macro to the micro, I'll point out that this year only four of my twelve playwriting students at Kenyon are women. In the screenwriting class being taught by my colleague, Ben Viccellio '98, four of the fifteen students are women. I'm about to teach a television-writing course, and it appears there will be only two women in the class.

What's happening here? I asked a talented female drama major, someone who graduated with distinction after doing lots of acting and directing at Kenyon: "Why didn't you ever take the playwriting class?" She told me that she was afraid of being bad at playwriting. But everybody's bad at playwriting, at anything, when they first begin; that's why they're taking a class!

The Princeton study uses a term called "prophetic discrimination" to explain why women literary managers and artistic directors are in fact less likely than their male peers to recommend a play by a woman. They're anticipating a bad response from critics, audiences, and their own boards. Are women using "prophetic discrimination" about their own talents?

Mel Gussow, the former drama critic of the Times, once told Marsha Norman that "people like the plays of yours where the women have guns"—that is, the plays that were most like the plays written by men. Crazy? I looked up at my wall, at the poster for The House of Yes, arguably my most successful play, and there was Parker Posey with pistol in hand.

When I was in graduate school at Yale, I remember solemn conversations about "large" plays versus "small" plays. Plays about men—their wars, their politics, their violence—were always considered more ambitious in scope.

So we have a series of troubling mathematical equations. A play written by a woman plus guns equals a play written by a man. A play written by a woman that makes 18 percent more at the box office equals a play written by a man. A play written by a woman, with a man's name on the cover, equals a play written by a man. A play written by a woman, in which the leading character is a man, is greater than a play written by a woman about a female character. A woman's story doesn't seem to compute at all—unless a man writes it.

Let's hope the equation changes for those four women in this year's playwriting class.

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