Gender Inequality In The Theater

Originally written in December 2016 as a final assignment. 

Audra McDonald. Patti LuPone. Bernadette Peters.

These are some of Broadway’s brightest stars.

LuPone and Peters have become household names through their prolific careers, McDonald became the first actor in history to win a Tony in each of the four acting categories.

It is not hard for them to find roles on stage.

Julie Taymor. Garry Hynes. Cyndi Lauper. Lisa Kron. Jeanine Tesori.

These women work on the creative side of the theater, as directors, lyricists and composers. Only recently, they have had the opportunity to become more successful and recognized for their work.

The opportunities are less abundant as a female creative in the theater.

The fight to close the gender gap in the theater is a fight on two fronts: one for the women on stage and one for the women who make their livings as directors, choreographers, writers and composers, or as a designer in one of the major disciplines.

While there is a struggle for representation on both fronts, behind the scenes less progress is being made. However, great strides have been made in the past two complete seasons.

Kron said it best following her 2015 Tony win, when she told the press that “people take chances on men based on their potential and they take chances on women based on their accomplishments.”

How unequal is gender representation actually?

Each Broadway season closes the gender gap a little bit more, at least on stage.

Of 68 people surveyed, 66.2 percent believe that having strong female characters on stage creates equality.

Kate D’Alessandro, a theater major at the University of New Haven, thinks it cannot create equality on its own, but it is a step in the right direction.

“If a little girl sees only one musical and it inspires her as to what type of woman she would like to be, it is much more important for her to see Angelica Schuyler [from Hamilton] and feel empowered than to see Hedy LaRue [from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying] and think that’s what she has to be,” she said.

Schuyler is an intelligent, empowered female who makes choices for herself, while LaRue is dim-witted and another character’s mistress.

In 2015-2016, Broadway welcomed 16 new musicals and 20 plays. Half of the works in each category centered around a female narrative, Playbill reported. Many of the new characters introduced to the world during that season were strong women.

Characters like Waitress’ Jenna, The Color Purple’s Celie and Bright Star’s Alice were compelling and empowered through their stories.

“These three shows and the women who led them proved that more stories from the female narrative are essential and able to deliver financially.” said Samantha Stephens, the editor-in-chief and founder of Stage Door Dish. Stephens says this season was great for women on stage.

In the realm of straight plays, Eclipsed was thoroughly a female story – told by a milestone all-female, all-black cast.

Female representation doesn’t end with the leading, show-stealing ladies. The supporting and ensemble females are just as vital.

Something Rotten!, a new musical from two seasons ago, doesn’t have a lead female; instead, there are two featured women who drive the plot in unexpected ways. Without the supporting women, the plot and conflict never would have happened.

The reception to the new female characters on stage have not all been positive. A panel of New York Times theater critics criticized some characters, finding them to be more anguished than happy. They cited the shows with these “strong” female characters, namely Bright Star, Waitress and The Color Purple, as only being “strong” as a product of abusive men, while the shows centering around men involved deep and complex themes.

Even off-stage, women are further back from equality.

Playwriting, composing, directing, and all of the behind the scenes creative jobs are all male-dominant fields.

51 percent of the population is female, and only about 24 percent of all plays produced across the country in 2014-2015 season were written by a woman, living or dead, according to American Theatre Magazine.

Men are the ones writing the women’s stories in a lot of cases.

“I’m tired of all the happy men who rule the world,” is a line from the Broadway musical Falsettos, sung by the female lead. It sums up the female experience as a creative member of the theater and unsurprisingly, it was written by a man – Bill Finn.

“Creatively, there are only a small handful of women leading the crusade for gender equality in terms of art.” said Stephens.

The survey results fit with Stephens’ statement, 18.7 percent said Tesori when asked to name any female member of a creative team. Tesori is one of musical theater’s best known modern composers, with two Tony nominations and one win.

21.3 percent could not name a female creative.

When looking at the Playbill credits from many of the shows mentioned earlier, women still fall flat in the creative category.

Something Rotten! has eight on-stage women in various roles, but only one behind the scenes: Milagros Medina-Cerdeira, the make-up designer.

In the past two complete seasons, three groundbreaking productions were mounted. All of them made Broadway history.

Fun Home was the first of them. Written by Kron and composed by Tesori, Fun Home told the story of “lesbian cartoonist” Alison Bechdel. When it won Tonys for best score and book, it became the first time an all-female writing team had taken home that honor.

In March 2015, Eclipsed, a play by Danai Gurira, made its Broadway premiere. Liesl Tommy directed, with two additional female creatives. This is in addition to an all-female cast. Eclipsed made Broadway history for being the first play written, directed and acted by not only all women, but a team of African Americans as well.

Perhaps the biggest of these groundbreaking productions is last spring’s Waitress. It is Broadway’s first all-female creative team, with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, a book by Jessie Nelson, direction from Diane Paulus and choreography by Lorin Latarro. The only major designer that is not a female is Scott Pask, who designed the set.

Waitress marks the first time a musical was written, directed and choreographed by all females. When Elizabeth Swados premiered Runaways in 1978, she performed all of these creative roles, but Waitress is the first where four different females took on creative roles behind a musical.

Bareilles has said that having an all-female creative team was not a gimmick. She simply decided to work with the people she felt were best equipped to tell the story, and they were three women.

“By mentioning an all-female team every time Waitress is discussed or written about seems to make it a milestone instead of something that should have potential to happen with many productions.” Stephens said.

While these shows make great examples of strides forward, other statistics show that not much has changed behind the scenes. Playbill reported that of last season’s 20 plays, three were written by a female and three were directed by a female.

Of the 16 new musicals there was one director, two book writers, three composers and four choreographers that were female. Waitress accounts for one woman in each category.

The 2016 Tony awards only recognized one female director in their nominations – Tommy, for Eclipsed. Gurira was the only female writer nominated in either the best play or best book of a musical category.

Though the creative contributions by females are not abundant, they are recognized even less. The Lilly Awards were created in 2010 to change that. The Awards website states they were created as “an outlet to honor the work of women in the American theater.”

In 2016, ten awards were given out, though the categories and amount of honorees vary every year. The acting and playwriting honorees in 2016 were involved in 2 of the major female productions of the season – Waitress and Eclipsed, respectively.

The Lilly Awards launched a study called The Count, which analyzed three years of theatrical data for the demographics of all the works in an attempt to create conversations about equality.

“There need to be more female playwrights, lyricists and directors in theatre who are heard on an equal level as men,” said Stephens.

The struggle for female creatives making their voices heard can be summed up with this finding from The Count: “If life worked like theater, four out of five things you had ever heard would have been said by men.”



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