Theresa Rebeck is not getting angry: She's getting even

Theresa Rebeck quote
Photo by John Moore from the Playwrights’ Slam at the 2015 Colorado New Play Summit.

Theresa Rebeck wishes the topic of gender disparity in the American theatre would go away. But for that to happen, gender disparity would have to go away. And it seems to Rebeck and other prominent American playwrights not to be going anywhere.

“There seems to be something intractable about it,” Rebeck said last month while attending the DCPA’s Colorado New Play Summit in Denver.

theresa-rebeckRebeck has been talking about gender disparity for years. She was talking about it in 2007, when she came to Denver for the world premiere of her play Our House. The problem is: She’s pretty much been talking to herself.

“I would love for the discussion to happen, but it’s still not happening,” she said. “And then – nothing happens.”

And when nothing happens, the only recourse is to take matters into your own hands.

So Rebeck, whose play The Nest has been selected for its world premiere as part of the DCPA Theatre Company’s 2015-16 season, started The Lilly Awards with Marsha Norman and Julia Jordan in 2010 as a way to honor the work of women in the American theatre. Why?

“Because we are being completely shut out of the (other) theatre awards,” Rebeck said.

All this month in New York, the Lilly Awards are presenting an inaugural reading series spotlighting new works by female playwrights. And the festival opened March 9 with a play familiar to Denver audiences: The Comparables, by Laura Schellhardt. Inspired in part by Jean Genet’s The Maids and all things David Mamet, The Comparables takes a biting look at competition among women in the workplace. It was a featured reading at the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit. It’s now having its world premiere at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

American Theatre correspondent Nicole Serratore, reporting last week from the festival opening in New York, thought it deliciously apropos that the play – and the reading series – opened with the Madeleine Albright quote, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” 

Video: A quick look at ‘The Comparables,’ when it was presented as a featured reading at the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit.

How real is the problem of gender disparity? According to American Theatre:

  • 68 percent of the Broadway audience and 51 percent of the American population are female.
  • The 2014 Pulitzer Prize and all finalist nods went to women. But there was not even one play written by a woman presented on Broadway during the 2013-14 season.
  • Only about 24 percent of all plays produced across the country this season were written by a woman, living or dead.
  • Of those 24 percent, only two female playwrights (Amy Herzog for 4000 Miles and Nina Raine for Tribes) landed on the annual list of the 10 most-produced plays of the year.

(Note: 4,000 Miles, starring Benjamin Bonenfant and Billie McBride, who both just appeared in the DCPA’s Benediction, opens March 26 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Tribes will be presented by the DCPA Theatre Company opening Oct. 9.)

The numbers, Rebeck said, are unacceptable. And they are a national epidemic. But she takes heart that the DCPA has been an exception to the rule.

Theresa Rebeck quote

Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson is commissioning women playwrights, Rebeck said. He’s hiring women directors. He’s presenting two world premiere plays next season written by women. Retiring DCPA Chairman Daniel L. Ritchie has added the DCPA’s Women’s Voices Fund to his will.

The Women’s Voices Fund is one of the nation’s largest theatre endowments, having recently exceeded $1 million in donations in just its 10th year. The Fund enables the DCPA Theatre Company to commission, workshop and produce new plays by women. More than that, it empowers the DCPA to rally fundraising efforts by celebrating women. (Click here for a complete list of all the artists who have benefited to date.)

“Kent Thompson absolutely walks the walk,” Rebeck said. “And to me, the thing that is electrifying about Kent is that he went out in front of everybody 10 years ago and said, ‘We are not doing enough plays by women. Women are more than half our audience and more than half the human race.’ And for some reason, the rest of the American theatre is still catching up with Kent’s vision on this. Before anyone else was doing anything for women writers, Denver had the Women’s Voices Fund.”

The Women’s Voices Fund has enabled the DCPA to produce 24 plays by women (including nine world premieres), commission 14 female playwrights and hire 18 female directors since 2006.  And perhaps ironically, the big three leading the charge are men – Thompson, Associate Artistic Director Bruce K. Sevy and Literary Manager Doug Langworthy. Rebeck doesn’t care what gender they are. She cares about what they are doing for female playwrights.

“Kent doesn’t talk about it much at all. He just does it,” Rebeck said, “and it has made an enormous difference.”

Rebeck stopped talking about this issue for a time, because it only led to frustration.

Jessica Love and Kevin Berntson in 'The Nest' at the 2015 Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John Moore. “One of the things I discovered is that people are terrified of women being negative or angry,” Rebeck said. “And I would think, ‘Jesus, we have been shut out of the storytelling of the American culture on such a profound level for so long – in theatre, in film, and in TV – why wouldn’t we be angry?’

“I am sort of curious that in the face of something that is clearly a spooky injustice, no one wants to engage in real emotions around why it is happening. What is it? In New York, I think there is a comfort level about people working with people they have worked with before, or who look like them.”

At the reading series in New York, there has been talk of women playwrights being overlooked “less because of overt discrimination than more insidious forms of prejudice,” Serratore wrote for American Theatre. The Tall Girls playwright Meg Miroshnik implied more of an unconscious bias in the way theatre producers choose plays and playwrights. “There are not shadowy cabals sitting down to program seasons consisting entirely of plays written and directed by white men,” Miroshnik told the magazine.

But Rebeck can’t shake the feeling that something more sinister might be at play.

“I actually deeply believe it has something to do with issues of power, and the power structure in the American theatre,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can say, ‘I don’t want to produce women writers because they don’t sell tickets.’ That’s not in the discussion, and it wouldn’t be true if it were. So is it a terror over the loss of power? 

“I don’t feel like audiences care what gender a playwright is. I don’t know anyone who goes to see a play because it was written by a man or a woman. I think audiences are happy with plays that engage them. Most of the time, audiences don’t even know who wrote the play  – they just know if they liked the play.”

So apparently, Rebeck is talking about gender again. 

“I really don’t mind talking about,” she said, “but I don’t talk about it very much anymore because I am kind of bored with how unimaginative the discussion remains.

“But I will say that Kent and Bruce and Doug like to stand in the face of all that and say, ‘We’re taking action.’ And that is a really great thing. I wish more people knew about what is happening in Denver. I hope that this gets out.”

Video: A quick look at ‘The Nest,’ when it was presented as a featured reading at the 2015 Colorado New Play Summit. it will get a full production on the 2015-16 Theatre Company season, with an opening set for Jan 26, 2016.

Part 1: The Nest, by Theresa Rebeck
Part 2: The There There, by Jason Gray Platt
Part 3: Holy Laughter, by Catherine Trieschmann
Part 4: Fade, by Tanya Saracho

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