Lots of Guys, Too Few Dolls
By PIA CATTON
The Wall Street Journal
When I left Theresa Rebeck’s play Seminar, back in November, I felt it was among the best of the season. So I was surprised when the Tony Award nominating committee completely ignored it. Maybe I shouldn’t have been.
Looking back at the history of the awards, in light of Ms. Rebeck’s omission, one is reminded of a sad truth: While Tonys are equally bestowed on male and female stars of the stage, there’s a colossal gender gap in the honors given to the men and women who create the shows.
This year—as in the vast majority of seasons since 1956, when nominees were made public for the first time—no plays written by women earned nominations for Best Play. Since the Tonys began in 1947, female winners have been scarce. In 1956, Frances Goodrich shared the award with her husband, Albert Hackett, for the dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank. In 1989, Wendy Wasserstein won for The Heidi Chronicles. Yasmina Reza won twice, for Art in 1998 and God of Carnage in 2009. That’s three women in 65 years.
Female directors have gained some momentum in recent years, but the numbers are still slim: Garry Hynes in 1998 for The Beauty Queen of Leenane; Mary Zimmerman in 2002 for Metamorphoses, which she also wrote; Anna D. Shapiro in 2008 for August: Osage County; and Marianne Elliott, who shared the award with Tom Morris in 2011 for War Horse.
In musicals, Julie Taymor won for her direction of The Lion King in 1998 and Susan Stroman won in 2001 for The Producers. This year, two women are nominated for musicals (Kathleen Marshall for Nice Work If You Can Get It and Diane Paulus for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) and one for a play (Pam MacKinnon for Clybourne Park.
Of course, looking exclusively at the Tonys does not accurately reflect the theater industry as a whole because it excludes Off-Broadway and beyond, where more diverse work thrives. That fact, however, is part of the issue. Among the most consistent points made on this topic is that the presence of women is inversely related to the budget of a project or an institution.
“The higher the budget, the fewer women directors and the fewer number of plays by women,” said theater artist Susan Jonas, who explored the matter in a 2002 New York State Council on the Arts report on the status of women in the theater.
Why the imbalance still exists, especially in an industry that ostensibly prides itself on progressive thinking, is a question to which every answer seems partial at best. But many women in the theater are done asking why.
“I’m not interested in the things that are wrong. We know what they are,” said Lisa Rothe, director of offsite programs and partnerships Lark Play Development Center. “What are the things that we need?”
Analysis has given way to activism. In 2009, Ms. Jonas joined theater artists Melody Brooks and Julie Crosby to launch “50/50 By 2020,” a grassroots group advocating parity for female theater artists by the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. “We drew a line in the sand,” she said.
In the same spirit, playwrights Julia Jordan, Marsha Norman and Ms. Rebeck founded the Lilly Awards (named for Lillian Hellman) in 2010 to honor women in the theater.
Ultimately, wider acceptance, parity and Tonys can only come if more women are in a position to decide which productions make it to the stage. For many, there’s a DIY solution.
“When women can’t get produced, they start their own companies,” said Ms. Jonas.
Director Rebecca Patterson did it. When she encountered industry reticence to her all-female versions of Shakespeare plays, she launched the Queen’s Company (“I said, ‘Fine, I’ll produce it myself’”), and because she did, her well-crafted take on As You Like It is at Walkerspace through May 20.
Playwright Susan Mosakowski, who co-founded the SoHo-based company Creation Production in 1977, has her Escape at La Mama starting June 7.
“Having a company is one way,” she said. “You don”t have to wait around to be chosen.“
Do efforts like these add up to wider recognition? They did for Ms. Zimmerman, who funded her first show for $800 and has since directed productions at the Metropolitan Opera, in addition to winning a Tony. “The idea is not, ‘How many tickets can I sell?’ It’s, ‘Can I make something?’” she said.
It may be a long trickle-up effect, but it can happen.