Drama Queens: Exploring the Gender Gap in the Valley's Theater Community

Mastroieni and the cast of TAS' The Heiress.
Mastroieni and the cast of TAS' The Heiress.

Women and their stories are not being adequately represented in American theater -- not here in the Valley, nor on Broadway, nor points between. At least, that's the message that's recently gone viral in various social media outlets, in a public conversation sparked by the announcement of next year's seasons from Phoenix Theatre and Arizona Theatre Company, both of which feature plays and musicals written only by men.

Gender inequality in the arts isn't news. The theater has, like so many other entertainment industries, long been dominated by men. More plays are written by men than women; more are chosen by male artistic directors and directed by males. Yet, according to most sources, more tickets are purchased by women. In a 2014 study conducted by the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry, it was determined that 68 percent of all tickets purchased for Broadway theatrical productions were bought by females.

See also: State of the Arts: 10 Things Phoenix Needs to Do And yet creatively, in both regional and national theater, women continue to come in second. The Los Angeles Female Playwright Initiative reported last year that only 20 percent of that city's local productions from 2002 to 2010 were authored or co-authored by women. Perhaps more damning is this tidbit: While each of the finalists for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama was a woman (Annie Baker for The Flick; Madeleine George for The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence; Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron for Fun Home), there wasn't a single new play by a female author on Broadway in the 2013-14 season.

Women working in local theater have taken note of these daunting demographics. Late last year, thespians Brenda Jean Foley and Tracy Liz Miller launched the Bridge Initiative to address the issue of gender disparity in Arizona theater. In January, the newly founded organization was awarded a $6,000 Arts Tank seed funding grant by the Arizona Arts Commission. Foley and Miller, both theater professionals recently transplanted from New York City, joined forces with actress and businesswoman Lizz Reeves Fidler and Mesa Encore Theatre, a small East Valley house that will provide fiscal sponsorship, a place to perform, and access to the company's nonprofit status.

The group plans to host quarterly networking events, offer master classes in playwriting, and create an awards program that will mount a production of its first-place play. In the meantime, Foley and Miller are hoping to match the seed funding grant with additional funds from a crowd-sourcing project. That money will be used to promote the Initiative, pay artist and production salaries, and produce free public programming.

"We want to educate on all levels," says Miller, who worked with the New York City-based Women's Project, an organization started 30 years ago by women's theater activist Julia Miles and dedicated to developing, producing, and promoting the work of female theater artists. "We're not just asking producers to consider more female talent and more women's stories, but we want to help audiences see this imbalance, too."

But does an audience know or care, for the most part, the gender of the playwright or of the director of the play they've come to see? An informal survey taken during intermission of a recent performance of Steve Yockey's Pluto at Stray Cat Theatre suggests they don't. Of 23 people interviewed, 18 admitted they never looked to see who directed any theater performance they attended. Twenty of those said they were more concerned with the quality of the production than with the gender of the director or the author of the play or musical.

"Part of the imbalance is that the general public doesn't notice the disparity," Miller agrees. Another part of the problem, she says, is that women working in creative fields are often afraid to speak up on their own behalf. More than half of the respondents to a survey she and Foley conducted chose to remain anonymous. "There's a fear of making waves," she says. "We had one theater professional warn us, 'Tell women not to make a stink that they're earning less than men in their field, or they probably won't get hired or cast in a next show.'"

But things may be looking up for women in theater in the Valley, where some companies appear to be mindful of gender parity. There's the Arizona Women's Theatre Company, which hosts a women's playwriting festival every year. Childsplay offered a season of plays for kids and adults in which four out of seven productions were written or adapted by women. Stray Cat Theatre optioned The Flick before it won the Pulitzer last year. (Stray Cat artistic director Ron May "really has his eye on what women playwrights are saying," Miller points out.) And the recently shuttered Actors Theatre promised a final season in which two out of four productions were directed and written by women.

"We look at the bigger companies as leaders in the industry," Miller says. "But what's missing from most of their seasons is the American female story. Also, there are a lot of plays that get produced again and again here in the Valley. The record is stuck."

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Don't tell that to Steven Mastroieni, co-founder of Theatre Artists Studio. Nearly half of that company's current season this year is written by women: Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn and The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz (directed by TAS co-founder and artistic director Carol MacLeod). Later this season, they'll present Tina Howe's Painting Churches.

"We choose plays in part based on how they speak to our constituency," Mastroieni says. "But you have to consider this: If a play defines a demographic category, does it also broaden or narrow a company's options? You end up thinking about whether art should be chosen for merit, or for better balance. And then you're left wondering which audiences should help create that audience: Native American? Black? Gay? Female? If we approach our selections this way, are we being fair to the artists, or to the audience?"

Is art meant to be fair? None of this theatrical gender disparity is done with willful malice. If much of the audience that goes to a play neither knows nor cares who wrote or directed what they're watching, is it important to train them to notice, and to care?

Miller thinks it is. But she's not certain this heightened awareness will ever happen. "I'm hopeful but realistic," she says. "Julia Miles thought she would make a difference 30 years ago. And, really, nothing has budged."

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