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How One Group Of Women Plans To Fight Sexism In Theater

The Kilroys are a group of playwrights and producers who want to close theater’s gender gap.

Theater has a gender problem, and in recent months, it’s made news. Though 2014’s Pulitzer Prize winner went to a woman (Annie Baker, for The Flick), none of the five plays nominated for the Tony Awards’ Best Play and only two dramas in Broadway’s 2013-2014 season were written by women, and these were decades old; none of the new plays this season were written by a woman or a person of color.

The Kilroys are a group of Los Angeles-based playwrights and producers who want to address that massive gap. To start, they’ve created a centralized list (called The List) of 46 new plays written by female-identified persons, all of which were recommended by industry professionals. The hope is that by making these works more visible, and more easily accessible, theater planners will include them in their upcoming seasons.

BuzzFeed spoke to Kilroys member Annah Feinberg by email.

How does sexism manifest itself in the theater world? I’m sure it shows up in a lot of the same ways it shows up in other fields/the world, but I’m curious what particularities there might be in theater.

Annah Feinberg: We work in a field of idealists: The regional theater movement took hold in the ’60s under the utopian belief that community access to works of art was a right for all people. The leaders in our field have repeatedly and earnestly expressed their belief in gender equality. The sexism that exists is not conscious or intentional. And yet, women in our field experience the same bias that researchers have documented in parallel industries: accidental omission, unconscious condescension, and implicit bias. Due to all these forces, producers often deem plays by women “riskier,” though an overwhelming majority of ticket buyers are women. There’s hypocrisy in the inclusive ideals versus the exclusive reality, even with the best of ambitions.

I think “We just don’t HEAR from women” is a common trope that pops up when institutional sexism is pointed out — do you think there’s any truth to that? Is there an element of willful blindness?

AF: We don’t have numbers on whether women are submitting their plays less frequently than men. But our group includes two longtime literary managers, who each read hundreds of plays by women submitted to them every year. Even if women were submitting their plays less frequently than men, it would be very surprising if the disparity in submission matched the huge disparity in production. In the 2012–2013 season, 10.5% of plays on Broadway, 21% in D.C., and 22% in L.A. were written by women. Those are dismal numbers. The mission statements of theater companies consistently claim to “illuminate the human experience” or “reflect the world onto itself.” If that is the goal of the theater, these numbers show a major failure in achievement. I think it’s an accidental blindness, rather than a willful one. No one sets out to exclude or squash the voices of another group of people. Almost all of the people programming theater in America do so because they genuinely love and believe in the power of the form. There’s not enough money in it not to. They have the best of intentions, but the unconscious nature of the bias makes it even more difficult to combat. As humans we’re programmed to exclude, and it’s our responsibility to make inclusion a conscious act. The Kilroys want to help bring conscious attention to this accidental omission, to help theaters achieve their admirable intentions.

Do you think there’s something about “women’s playwriting” — whether these generalizations are at all based in reality, or just perceived — that makes institutional leaders want to dismiss it? (I’m thinking specifically of the way “women’s stories” in other venues, like books, movies, etc., are automatically considered “unserious” because they might be smaller in scope, or simply describe life issues that men don’t consider important.)

AF: A lot of the same biases against “women’s writing” that exist in other forms exist in playwriting as well. There’s the idea that women’s plays are only relevant to women while men’s plays are universal. There’s the idea that women’s plays are smaller in scope and weight, that they are domestic and therefore not vital. But these same assumptions aren’t made of men writing family dramas: No one is going to tell Tracy Letts that his dining room play August: Osage County is small. I’d be very curious to see what would happen if a woman had written that exact same play. I imagine it would not have become a success on Broadway and would not have been adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep. And there are similarly problematic biases against plays by trans and genderqueer people, and people of color. There’s the perception that all plays by African-American people are either about slavery or the ghetto, and that all plays by genderqueer and gay people are therapy plays about coming out. It’s simply not an accurate sample of the widely dynamic playwriting landscape that exists today.

What inspired you guys to organize? How did you meet/know the other members?

AF: The Kilroys came together both out of a shared frustration about this issue, and a shared respect for one another’s work as artists. Many of us had worked together before, either through writers workshops or theater companies. We had all been part of conversations about this issue that didn’t lead anywhere and we were sick of it. We were sick of the same panels quoting the same statistics. We wanted to take positive action in a way that could have tangible results and make actual change in the field. The Kilroys have a two-pronged mission: to harness the power between us to support the artistic careers of our 13 members, and to support greater gender inclusion within the theater field. The List was our first action as a group.

Can you tell me more about The List? How did you decide which works to include?

AF: The List consists of 46 industry-recommended plays by female-identified authors. We had all heard a lot of excuses from theaters about why they do not produce more plays by female and non-binary people: 1) The Quality Dodge: “We produce the best plays, no matter who wrote them.” 2) The Pipeline Problem: “We don’t have access to great plays by women through the typical ways of finding plays.” 3) The Invisibility Fallacy: “Great plays by women don’t exist.” We wanted to take these off the table, because we knew from our cumulative 100-plus years working in the theater, they weren’t true.

The List is an answer to those excuses: The plays are right here, in front of your face, vetted by respected leaders in the field, and you can’t ignore them anymore. To build the list, we surveyed reached out to 250 respected artistic directors, literary managers, professors, producers, directors, and dramaturgs in the American theater who read more than 40 new plays a year as part of their job. One hundred and twenty-seven of them anonymously identified three to five plays he or she had loved in the past year that were either unproduced or had only one professional production. Between them, they identified more than 300 excellent new plays, all of which are listed on our website. None of The Kilroys submitted nominations. Some of us were nominated and some of us were not. It is our hope that The List will be an important resource for theater leaders in season planning, increasing gender inclusion in the American theater. We plan to release The List annually, so the cumulative inclusivity will only increase.

What kind of responses have you seen to the project?

AF: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. There was clearly a desire for an answer to this problem, and the simplicity of the idea made it possible to reach a lot of people with it. We’ve already heard from artistic directors of major theaters who have started considering plays they never otherwise would have. We’ve heard from playwrights who are on The List who are being read by theaters that they never would have been before. We’ve heard from playwrights who are not on The List for whom it has inspired a new urgency to submit their work to theaters. We’ve heard from TV and film executives in Hollywood who are excited about developing these plays for other media. We hope that the attention will result in more opportunities for female-identified and non-binary playwrights throughout the industry, whether they are on The List or not. We hope the #parityraid will keep going!

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