Originally published by HowlRound on October 7, 2015

HowlRound readers and social media revolutionaries may remember an event that occurred in our nation’s capital in February 2014 that became quickly known as the Summit. Convened by Washington Post critic Peter Marks around the issue of gender inequity in theatre, a panel of metro-area artistic directors discussed their collectively abysmal records at producing plays by women. As the discussion proceeded, more than one panel member was called out on social media for the tepidness of his/her approach.

Lost in the ensuing shuffle was the fact that the month before word leaked to the press of what would eventually be dubbed the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an entire fall of world premieres of new plays and musicals by women. When the Summit was held, forty-four theatres signed up to participate. The total is now forty-eight, two of which are offering multiple premieres.

Despite the rocky start of this venture, the seven artistic directors from Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company formulated the idea behind the festival. They quickly regrouped and hired coordinating producers Nan Barnett and JoJo Ruf to organize the festival and reframe it as a concerted, collaborative effort to do something about the problem.

Cut to about sixteen months later, and the whole country is abuzz about the Festival, its origins, its possibilities, and its realization of world premieres by fifty female playwrights. I spoke with Ruf and Barnett; Maggie Boland, the managing director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA; and Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth. I also talked with Caleen Sinette Jennings, who is a professor at American University, a founding member of a DC playwright collective The Welders, and author of two premieres in the festival; Jami Brandli, a Los Angeles-based writer and author of Technicolor Life, which will premiere at Rep Stage; and Karen Zacarias, a professor at Georgetown University and author ofDestiny of Desire, premiering at Arena.


Poster for Technicolor Life by Jami Brandli. Courtesy of Rep Stage and Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Collaboration and Cross-Pollination
Unlike the discussion at the Summit and the media firestorm that followed, producers and artists alike gave positive, forward-thinking feedback, and, on the part of Boland and Shalwitz, were refreshingly self-critical. The story goes that the artistic directors of the Big Seven regularly get together for brunch to talk about the state of DC theatre. Following on the mild success of a citywide Shakespeare festival a few years ago, they began to discuss another collaboration to highlight the range and quality of DC theatre and to promote cross-pollination between artists and audiences.

“I think there was about ten seconds between the idea of a festival and the idea of focusing it on women. It just seemed like a no-brainer to put the focus where we could provide leadership by creating a model of something that could be part of the solution,” shared Shalwitz.

Boland puts the time between inception and definition at closer to twenty seconds, but both she and Shalwitz have found that the simple fact of working on the festival while also planning future seasons has forced them to place more of a priority on diversity. Boland shared:

“One incredible side effect of this citywide conversation is that every single conversation we have internally about season planning and about artistic vision involves a discussion of who are the artists and are we doing enough to represent a diverse set of voices.”

Signature is offering three shows by women this year and Boland expects to continue doing this many shows every year, consciously diversifying in other ways as well. She notes:

“We’re not trying to wear a hair shirt about our past, we’re just trying to do better. We’re trying to look at the talent pool that Signature is drawing from at every level of the organization, onstage and off, and make sure that we’re being thoughtful and specific about having different kinds of humans around our building.”

Yet, playwright Brandli is a little more skeptical, but still inspired:

“I’m hoping that the festival really does cause a ripple effect. I’m not ungrateful at all—this is the best thing to happen to me in a long time. But what I don’t want to hear is, ‘Well you had your festival, so now you can be quiet.’ I don’t want all us female playwrights to have our ‘queen for a day’ moment, but when it’s over, we’re told to go back into the corner, and to not bitch as much if there aren’t as many female playwrights in the next few seasons of American theatre. I’m tired of being polite about it. I know I sound pretty ornery, but you get to a point in your life where you’re like: fuck it.”

Jumping All Together


Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Shortly after hiring Barnett and Ruf, the Festival consciously included representatives from more than the originating seven companies on committees devoted to marketing and publicity, development, and programming. This resulted in a genuine community-wide effort to celebrate and promote the work of women writers. Sinette Jennings has been in DC since ’84 and from the moment she arrived, she was struck by the collaborative and supportive relationships between local playwrights. She still feels like the Festival is a game changer, saying:

“I feel like part of a mosaic to know that all of these stories are going on at the same time. It’s an amazing affirmation of our talent and the power of our stories. We have artistic directors here who have always gotten it—they didn’t need a festival to recognize the power and importance of women. But this has been a fabulous way to make other artistic directors aware that this wealth of material is out there, and it’s not all touchy feely kitchen sink drama. I’ve got female playwright colleagues who scare the pants off me in terms of how edgy and tough they are. So any assumptions people have about a woman is X, they need to throw that out the window.”

The offerings range from Woolly’s production of Sheila Callaghan’s overtly feminist Women Laughing Alone with Salad, which examines the ways sexually charged representations of women in the media effect both men and women, to a new musical at Signature called Cake Off that tells the story of the first man to win the Pillsbury Bake Off. Then, Zacarias’s Brechtian telenovela is about what happens to a troupe of actors doing a Mexican television series when the women, dissatisfied with the way their roles are written, take destiny in their own hands, and start changing the script.

Although Zacarias, a founding member of Latina/o Theatre Commons, is one of the few Latina playwrights represented in the whole festival, she is still struck by the camaraderie behind the event. She remarks:

“It’s usually a very solitary moment when a theatre does a new play, like you’re the only one jumping off the cliff, while everybody else is doing some golden nugget that you know the audiences will come to. Because we’re all taking the risk at the same time, it takes away the competitive nature of things and everybody just wants to do as well as they can. We’re all jumping off at the same time and we’re hoping that everyone makes a beautiful dive.”


Artwork for Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarias. Courtesy of Arena Stage.

Barnett is already looking to raise money to gather data about the festival and to produce a handbook for cities looking to do something on their own turf. She states:

“I want to know what the long term effects of this are. Three months from now, I want to be able to do a really great analysis of what tickets were sold. Did we accomplish the goal of making people outside of DC aware of how much theatre there is here? Did we get people to go to different theatres than where they normally go? And of course in the long run, are the DC theatres continuing to program more female writers than they were before the festival? Will we see subsequent productions for the plays that were supported by the festival? These are questions that will need to be answered. It’s important to make sure that the lessons learned are shared.”

Ruf added, “There’s already musings happening in Philly, Denver or broader Colorado, and elsewhere. I think that would be phenomenal. This is a first step towards gender parity; I certainly hope that eventually we won’t need a festival and it will happen on it’s own. But this is a good step in that direction.”

Take the Challenge
I’ll be heading to DC in October to check out as much of the festival as I can in one weekend and I’ll let HowlRound readers know whether I find the metro-area to be the Emerald City that I’ve been lead to expect, where every Dorothy has her glittering day.

In the meantime, the effects of the social media revolution that followed the Summit are obvious. Ryan Rilette, Producing Artistic Director at Round House Theatre and the receiver of the most severe Summit-prompted Twitter lashing, issued a challenge on Facebook. He’s willing to buy a drink for any and every one who sees more plays by women this fall than he does.

People, let me hear you say it: “Challenge accepted.”

At a recent summit of DC-area artistic directors, Ryan Rilette of Round House Theatre made a reference to the infamous “pipeline” of new talent that runs from New York and London to America’s regional theaters, claiming that there are not enough plays by women in this pipeline for his theater to produce. The idea of this pipeline is nothing new, but importantly, it is not inviolable.

Pre-Revolution, the colonies actually had three equally important centers of theatrical production—Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—all of which primarily presented British plays. Theater in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania was limited by the Puritan philosophy that writing your own worlds into being is an offense to God, the ultimate playwright of our theatrum mundi. New York, on the other hand, being primarily a center of commerce, managed to develop a theater culture that continued through the Revolution (even when it was illegal) and beyond.

As the young Republic expanded, theaters founded without reference to one another sprang up in other parts of the country. It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth-century, when railroads allowed the exportation of both commerce and culture, that these theaters became stops on tours of shows created in New York. Then, in the early twentieth-century, a locally-sourced Little Theater Movement began in Chicago and took hold throughout the country, spawning a generation of dramatists that did not live in New York. Federalism reasserted itself in the sixties, when local theaters of a certain size joined together under LORT, an organization based in New York, and regional theaters once again became aesthetic subsidiaries of Broadway, Inc.

Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, local artists are again asserting control over the means of production and claiming American theater for themselves. The huge Twitter response to the reference to the pipeline made at “The Summit” revealed a deeply felt frustration at the unwillingness of artistic directors to recognize that forty-year-old notions of what makes great theater are no longer relevant. Sure, New York still has more theater than most other places, but there is no longer any reason to believe that it is any better.

Furthermore, by limiting themselves to plays, playwrights, directors, and actors based in New York, non-New York theaters run the risk of presenting material that has little relation to the lived experiences of their audiences. As anyone who follows politics can tell you, inhabitants of different regions often hold sharply distinct if not altogether contradictory beliefs. The primary industries that drive the economy in America’s various regions are vastly different, meaning that the work lives of the people who live there are vastly different. Even the environment itself, from the weather to the landscape, has an influence on the thinking and values of people who live in it.

Additionally, theaters that insist on relying on talent that has already proven itself in New York perpetuate a theater that is inevitably elite. New York City is expensive. Self-producing, acting in showcases, assistant directing for free, and interning all require steady income streams from elsewhere. Very few people are able to do this without significant family support. Companies that aim to produce theater for a diverse audience cannot expect to do so while only producing plays written and directed by people born into privilege.

Of course some artists not born into privilege who work three jobs and do theater for free in New York do manage to find success in regional theaters. But even those people, unless they happened to grow up in New York, have uprooted themselves from their communities and families and transplanted themselves to one of the most difficult cities in which to live in the world. Yes, some artists are inspired by New York. Yes, some are glad to leave their previous lives behind. Others are overwhelmed and exhausted. How much American talent are we actually crushing by needlessly requiring that people spend years of indentured servitude in New York for the privilege of having their plays produced in theaters not in New York?

New York does have at least one quality that sets it apart in terms of its theater community. In New York, the big theaters pay attention to the small theaters. Even a small show can get reviewed, and if it does well, it can get the attention of the legacy theaters. The artists who created it will often be invited to remount the production at a bigger theater, or they may be hired, based on that success, to work there on something else. This is why a few emerging artists can develop a national reputation by working in New York.

But the synergy of the New York theater community is not an argument for regional theaters to only do plays that come out of New York. It is an argument for regional theaters to develop the same level of synergy with the other theaters in their cities. In fact, regional theaters could save a ton of money by developing new work with artists for whom they don’t have to provide housing and a per diem.

The lack of men of color and women in the pipeline is an excuse used to justify seasons that fail to achieve diversity and gender parity. But New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. If success there is the barometer by which plays are chosen for regional productions, LORT theaters would be producing plays developed by Intar, The Women’s Project Theater, and the National Black Theatre, to name just a few New York institutions devoted to developing work by underrepresented groups. Rather, the same dated notions of who and what makes good theater that lead artistic directors to rely on a mythical pipeline also keep them from recognizing the surfeit of diverse talent in New York and across the country.

Though New York remains the center of American commercial theater, companies across the country need not largely rely on plays created in that place for that audience. Today, the pipeline flows in many directions at once. Theaters genuinely interested in serving their communities would do well to develop twenty-first century ways of making theater.