DSC_0045Originally posted at HowlRound

In just one September weekend, Los Angeles theater patrons had at least three totally different productions of Shakespeare plays from which to choose. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company‘s all-female Hamlet was running at The Odyssey Theatre; a three-person adaptation of Richard II opened at The Theatre @ Boston Court; and Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum presented an outdoor Taming of the Shrew. Each production offered an alternative way of doing Shakespeare: Hamlet was performed in Elizabeth dress on a traditional set; Richard II was a modernist/dream-play take on one of Shakespeare’s most psychology-driven plays; and director Ellen Geer turned Christopher Sly and his tricksters into modern urban archetypes who watch/present Taming of the Shrew in Elizabethan dress.

Not only was Los Angeles host to three productions of Shakespeare in one weekend (and there may very well have been more), but all three productions were directed by women—all of whom are the artistic directors of their own companies. According to Douglas Clayton at the LA Stage Alliance, there are about twenty five female artistic directors in the greater-Los Angeles area.

Though I was initially cheered, that number, it turns out, represents only about 8 percent of Los Angeles’ artistic directors. The numbers break down further in telling ways. Los Angeles’ four LORT theaters are all run by men, whereas half of the city’s mid-size companies are either run by women or are collectives that include women as part of their leadership teams, Clayton points out in an email. The number then drops to around 5 percent for ninety nine-seat theater companies.

To find out more about the women running these companies and the challenges they face, I convened a roundtable of seven fairly representative women. Five years ago, Elina de Santos co-founded Rogue Machine Theatre, which presents works that are new to Los Angeles by “up-and-coming playwrights.” Lisa Wolpe, the director and star of the all-female Hamlet, has been running The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company for twenty years. Jennifer Chang and Ruth McKee are two of six all-female artistic leaders of Chalk Repertory Theater, a multi-cultural site-specific group in their sixth year. Deborah Devine has been running the youth and family-oriented 24th Street Theater for sixteen years. Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy founded Towne Street Theatre, “Los Angeles’ premiere African-American theater,” twenty years ago. Jessica Kubzansky, director and adapter of Richard II, has been co-artistic director of The Theatre @ Boston Court since it opened its door ten years ago.

The lively discussion that ensued was as heartening as it was depressing. Everyone agreed that eight percent is too small a number, but perspective on how much progress women are currently making in the theater differed widely by generation. While Kubzansky reports discovering more and more women directors all the time, Wolpe has to take a centuries-long perspective to see any real gains. As she put it, “Women would have been killed for being on stage when [Shakespeare’s] plays were written, so I mean I can see the progress.” Likewise, 24th Street Theater’s Devine, who served on the first board of Women in Theatre (a Southern California support group for women in the arts) in 1978, said, “In thirty three years we haven’t come far enough.” Chang and McKee report that their company has purposefully and successfully provided equal opportunities for men and women at all levels.

These fearless leaders did agree on two things:

1) The reasons they began producing are not the reasons they keep producing. Ruth McKee joined up with Chalk Repertory’s other founders because, though she had a national career as a playwright, once she had children she wanted to stay near home. Five years later, she has found that “the influence I have is ultimately making a more profound impact on culture than I could having a play go up in New York for a couple of weeks.”

Kubzansky was so addicted to directing that she never wanted to be an artistic director and accepted the job only with the agreement that the theater would find her a co-artistic director to share the more unpleasant tasks like fundraising.

“When I think about the opportunity I have to potentially make a difference in the artistic landscape of Los Angeles, to influence what types of plays are being programmed at my theater, to birth a whole lot of new work by exciting new playwrights—the scope of influence feels so profound that it feels like something I have to keep doing.”

Davis-Bellamy’s experience, or as she called it, “creative evolution,” mirrored that of some of the other women who have been at it for a while.

“When I first started I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I learned I was producing. Somebody asked me, how do you do this? And I said you just do it,” said Davis-Bellamy.

“The twenty-year mark has been very reflective for us, because a couple of years ago I was ready to forget it, it was too consuming, I had had it. And then we had a recharging of sorts. We got a bunch of new members in and they were younger, they were more producer-oriented. The impact that we have is so profound, particularly for people of color in this city. We fill this large void, because LA theater is majority white. It just is,” she added.

Which leads me to my second point: 2) Despite explicit multi-cultural missions, developing multi-cultural casts and audiences is a huge challenge. Davis-Bellamy founded her theater to produce plays by all people of color, but, unable to attract the Latino audiences to the African American plays and vice versa, she narrowed the mission to producing new plays by African Americans and black classics by historically neglected authors. 24th Street Theater’s outreach focuses on their immediate neighborhood, which is fairly diverse.

Nevertheless, Devine reports that their audience remains “extremely Balkanized” because “the brown people come to the brown shows and the white people come to the white shows.”

Though The Theatre @ Boston Court’s casting notices encourage individuals of all ethnicities to audition, Kubzansky noted, “Actors don’t believe we really mean it.” Chang, an Asian American actor as well as artistic leader of her company, shared her own experience as an actor of color, “I think it’s institutionalized. I went to NYU and UCSD [for acting], and the message I got was, ‘You aren’t going to be cast as the protagonist.'” Davis-Bellamy, who is black, chimed in, “At Western Michigan University, I remember auditioning for a Molière play and the professor telling me point blank that he couldn’t cast me as the ingénue because the audience wouldn’t accept it.”

Despite gains in opportunities and representation, women—and particularly women of color—who want to have an impact on American theater have to be producers as well as actors, directors, and playwrights. Davis-Bellamy put it this way: “If you really, really want to have something, you have to create it and you have to control it.”

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Originally posted at HowlRound

Slide1It was a sunny day in May and LA Stage Alliance was hosting LA Stage Day, a gathering of Los Angeles theater folk centered around inspirational presentations, workshops, and breakout sessions. So I ventured down the 5 to University Hills, just off the 10, where participants in small group discussions like “Leading Diversity on the LA Stage,” “New Media in the Rehearsal Room,” and “Blue Sky: What Are Your Dream Ideas?” were sharing best practices, brainstorming new ideas, and challenging their own assumptions about how theater works.

As part of a day geared around questions like how to engage new, increasingly diverse, tech savvy audiences, the playwriting workshop stood out for advocating the safest route to getting produced. Led by four men and one woman, “Play!: The 60-minute Everything-You-Need-to-Know-About-Playwriting-in-LA Marathon” offered such revelatory tidbits as “cast a name actor or no one will come see your play,” “every story has to have a protagonist and a resolution,” and “plays only get produced when they have small casts and one set.” Now these things are all well and good if that’s the kind of play you want to write, but what if the best actors you can get have impeccable training but aren’t names? What if the world as you see it or as you want to show it has multiple protagonists and locations, lots of people, and conflicts that don’t necessarily get resolved? What if you want to make art more than you want to sell tickets? What if you’re a woman?

In search of more fertile ground for innovative new play development, I headed up the 101 to Silver Lake for a reading of Crazy Bitch, a new play by Jennie Webb, presented by The Playwrights Union. As if the theater gods had heard my cry, Webb’s 70-minute play has not one but four protagonists, one of which is a character called The Immortal Jellyfish who is described as 4.5mm wide and lives in a petri dish. And though the play, which is set in LA, deeply investigates questions of life and death, the actual plot is left unresolved. Asked to what extent her play was consciously created in relation to the commercialism of Los Angeles, Webb said:

I’ve lived here all my life but this is the first play I’ve set here. I just got tired of all the new plays set in New York and gave myself a challenge to set one in LA. But I’m not savvy enough to write what’s producible. I write what I write and I hope it speaks to someone. I’d rather write plays where a woman loses body parts or shoes start raining from the ceiling. I call it “domestic absurdism,” with domestic meaning everyday life, because I find that life is absurd, especially for women.

In contrast to the male-heavy representation among speakers at LA Stage Day, a full five of the seven readings done that weekend by The Playwrights Union were by women. The Union, which began in 2009 as a meeting of interested colleagues in organizer Jennifer Haley‘s backyard, hosts an annual February challenge to write a play in a month. Participating playwrights gather over a long weekend to read and talk about one another’s plays. They do another round of rewrites and then host a weekend of public readings with actors. Haley, whose own play The Nether recently premiered at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater, told me:

We have about 30 members, and there was a time when we had to recruit men in order to achieve parity. Right now it’s about even, but more women participated in the February Challenge that lead to these plays.

Asked how her writing functions in relation to the commercial culture of Hollywood and the idea of what’s “producable,” Haley offered:

I’ve worked as a playwright in Austin, Seattle and all over the East Coast. Studying at Brown with Paula Vogel, I learned to play with both experimental and traditional forms.  I think circulation in a variety of theater communities helps you look at different models… there are new Playwrights arriving all the time in LA, and it will be interesting to see if this influences the kind of work being done here.

Though many playwrights are drawn to Los Angeles to write for television, others come here to study and end up making the city their home. Brittany Knupper, a recent grad from the playwriting program headed by Alice Tuan at the California Institute of the Arts–just up the 5 from the Valley–talked to me about her first year living here as a writer:

A lot of people their first year out of school have an existential crisis. Maybe mine just hasn’t hit yet but it hasn’t been that bad. Then again I constantly feel like I’m in an existential crisis, so maybe I’m just used to it. At CalArts I felt like I wasn’t being experimental enough as a writer, but in Hollywood people think what I do is too experimental. LA is such an industry town: People are trying to do anything they can to make a connection. You can feel the desperation. It’s funky and weird and gross, and I kind of like how dirty and weird it is.

Knupper has found an artistic outlet in storytelling, a popular form of Los Angeles entertainment in which people gather in theaters, bars, and homes to hear individuals read stories, usually autobiographical but sometimes fictional. These pop-up salons feature the work of playwrights, journalists, fiction writers, and essayists and provide writers with regular opportunities to present work and receive feedback from within a supportive community.

Because the nightmare of driving in LA keeps most Angelenos locked in their own neighborhoods, writers who want to reach a city-wide audience have to create communities like these, organized around the discipline rather than through established institutions. Jennie Webb and writer/mythologist Laura Shamas formed just such an association in 2009–the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative–to coordinate efforts to get more plays by women produced on local stages. Webb related,

LA is almost pridefully inaccessible. We needed an organization that would bring women together and spread the word that women writers exist. We are focused on connecting artists to one another, supporting one another by going to see each others plays, and getting the message out that it pays to produce work by women.

Clearly LA is not lacking in women playwrights, yet a study done by LAFPI in conjunction with LA Stage Alliance revealed that between 2000 and 2010, only 20% of plays produced in Los Angeles were written or co-written by women.

Hopefully next year’s LA Stage Day will address the lack of gender diversity on our city’s stages. Organizers at the Alliance should start by asking more women to speak and conduct workshops and should include breakout sessions addressing the issue. For their part, producers need to recognize that the only way to appeal to new audiences is to tell stories in new ways, which is why I’m going to stay on the trail of the LA writing underground, where work by women–and experimental work at that–is flourishing. In fact, on Sunday I’m hosting a reading of Knupper’s play, Galatea, in my backyard. If you can make it up the 405, then come on out.

follow Holly on twitter @hld6oddblend