With the box office and critical success of Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, Nora and Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore, and Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy, the past year was an especially stellar one for female playwrights.“The bump we had this past year [of female-penned plays getting produced] in New York City was substantial, over double the previous year’s percentage. Around 15 percent, up to nearly 40 percent of subscription houses,” says playwright Julia Jordan.
Of the 40 nominees for Best Play between 2000 and 2009, five shows were written by women, and only one won.
Jordan is at the forefront of a growing movement aimed at closing the gender gap in playwriting. While women are well-represented at smaller theater festivals like the New York International Fringe Festival, which begins in New York City on August 13, they’re still having trouble breaking into larger theatrical venues. This isn’t only a question of prestige, says Julie Crosby, Artistic Director of Women’s Project, a theater dedicated to producing female playwrights. “At the risk of riling up the folks in the downtown scene, what happens is women are not getting paid [as much as men],” Crosby says. “There are shows that run downtown for three weeks, and they’re put together with a great deal of love but very little money, and that’s where the majority of women work. When you go to the larger venues, what you see is this absolute crashing glass ceiling coming down, where women are just not seen.”
Nowhere was this gap more noticeable than at the Tony Awards in June. One only had to glance at the nominee list to see the lack of women being recognized, despite the rise in productions of female-penned plays in the 2009-10 season. Rapture, Sherie Rene Scott's semi-autobiographical one-woman musical, was nominated for Best Book of a Musical. Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play was nominated for Best Play. Both lost. Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking was overlooked entirely, while Lucy Prebble was only nominated for Best Original Score for Enron, the musical for which she wrote both book and lyrics. This is hardly unusual for the Tony Awards, though. Of the 40 nominees for Best Play between 2000 and 2009, five shows were written by women, and one— God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza—won. Reza was also the only woman to win Best Play the decade prior, for 1998’s Art.
“It’s a little dreary, the level to which women’s work is excluded from the other awards,” says playwright Theresa Rebeck. “This year there was so much great work from women, and when it happened again, I contacted other people who I knew were concerned about it. I rang the bell and the firetrucks came.”
Those firetrucks were the first annual Lilly Awards, named for playwright Lillian Hellman ( The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes). The Lillys are the brainchild of some of the most prominent women working in theater today, including Jordan, Crosby, and Rebeck, as well as Marsha Norman ( ‘Night, Mother). The ceremony, held in May at Playwrights Horizons, honored everyone from newcomers like Annie Baker, whose Circle Mirror Transformation made a splash Off-Broadway last fall, to Mary Rodgers (composer, Once Upon a Mattress).
Unsurprisingly, Gloria Steinem got a standing ovation for her invocation. In it, Steinem addressed the issues women have long had breaking into theater behind-the-scenes. “Wherever more money and cooperation are required, there are fewer women,” Steinem said. “There are more artists than architects, more poets than playwrights. When the cooperation of more money and many people is required, the insurgent group—whoever the insurgent group is, not only female people—is fewer.”
The Lilly Awards clearly struck a nerve in a community that’s primed to address the accusations of gender discrimination. “The women we honored were such integral parts of the theater community, and it is a community, their friends wanted to see them finally be recognized,” says Jordan. “The turnout was so overwhelming, people from all kinds of theater, men and women. Terrence McNally came just to sit in the audience and applaud.”
There may be some future Lilly nominees hitting the stage this month at Fringe, which showcases the work of emerging artists in small productions across Lower Manhattan. Some notable Fringe alumni include Urinetown: The Musical, which transferred to Broadway, and the off-Broadway hit Dog Sees God. It’s encouraging to note that just under half of the new works presented at Fringe are by women. It’s not a surprise that women succeed there—the festival has a very DIY-spirit, with playwrights and directors raising their own money for their productions. With no potential loss of money to consider, the Fringe producers can easily pick the plays they feel are best, without worrying about whether the playwright is enough of a marquee name to fill a larger venue. Even a smash hit at Fringe, however, won’t guarantee an aspiring female playwright will be able to pay her bills anytime soon. “It’s very difficult for women to have a career in theater because they’re working without a contract, or they’re working in venues where there’s absolutely no pay, so how can you sustain a career?” Crosby says.
Aside from the Lilly Awards, there have been several other attempts by the theater community to address the gender disparity among playwrights, including two separate studies—one by NYSCA in 2002 and one by a Princeton economics student—which set out to prove women really do have a harder time getting their plays produced. And Crosby, along with other prominent women in theater, founded the 50/50 in 2020 project with the aim of raising the visibility of women in theater by organizing outings to female-penned shows and maintaining a profile database of female playwrights. “No one wants to have another discussion about trying to prove there’s a problem, it’s gotten tedious,” Crosby says. “It’s where we can come up with positive, forward action is what’s going to make everybody feel empowered.”
Despite opening up about her personal struggles during a keynote speech for an Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York event in March, Rebeck says she still finds this a difficult topic to discuss. “It makes me uncomfortable to talk about this stuff sometimes, because people are uncomfortable, and because of that hostility,” Rebeck says. “Women are really trying to find the right language to talk about it and help the community see how serious this is, and that we need to move ahead. It’s time for the world to change around this. It’s time.”
Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.