Though each year we see incremental progress in the quest for equal representation in theatre—onstage, backstage, on the creative team—the industry has a mountain to climb until all things are equal.
According to the first-ever diversity study from Actors Equity Association, which examined the casts of new productions which opened between 2013 and 2015, women and members of color are underrepresented throughout. Of the union’s highest-paying contracts (the Production Contract for Broadway and select national tours), women account for only 35 percent of principal roles in a play, 42 percent of principal roles in musicals, 44 percent of ensemble jobs, and 37 percent of stage manager contracts. Off-Broadway, women fair better, but pay is less, accounting for 40 percent of principal roles in plays, 47 percent of principal roles in musicals, 54 percent of ensemble roles, and 65 percent of stage manager jobs.
Research from the Lilly Awards and Dramatists Guild showed only 22 percent of theatre produced in American was written by women. A study out of the U.K. determined women accounted for 39 percent of actors, 36 percent of directors, and 28 percent of playwrights in British plays from 2012 to 2015.
Ensuring the future of female voices in the theatre begins with knowing who those voices are. The Women’s Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., presents new work by women playwrights to cast a national spotlight from the nation’s capitol on gender parity in American theatre and the valuable works of female artists. From January 15–February 15, a conglomerate of 24 D.C. theatres each present a work by women playwrights, including Danai Gurira (AMC’s Walking Dead and Marvel's Black Panther), Theresa Rebeck (creator of NBC’s Smash), and Pulitzer nominee Sarah DeLappe (The Wolves). Emmy and Golden Globe winner and Tony nominee Allison Janney serves as the Festival’s honorary chair.
In anticipation of the month-long celebration, we asked some of the playwrights to share whose work they’re watching and why.
Known for: NBC’s Smash, Omnium Gatherum (Pulitzer Prize finalist), and Broadway’s Mauritius, Seminar, and Dead Accounts
Playing in the Festival: The Way of the World (regional premiere at Folger Theatre)
What her play is about: Mae is a sweet-natured woman with just a little baggage—a $600 million inheritance. When her womanizing boyfriend Henry dallies with her aunt, the world seems too much for her. Both women become the object of ridicule and scandal—but Henry has a plan to win the heiress back. In the Hampton’s 1 percent, where money and status determine everything, can love conquer all? Freely adapted from William Congreve’s classic play, The Way of the World is a sparklingly witty physical comedy illuminating the foibles of the upper-class.
Who she’s watching: “I love director Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s work. She is sort of sublime and everything is so clearly etched and subtle at the same time. Kristine Nielsen, who I’m privileged to be working with, is I think one of our greatest actresses. People tend to see her as merely comedic but that’s ridiculous; she’s never merely anything. She is always magnificent.”
Known for: NAACP Image Award, The Detroit Projects including Detroit ’67 (Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama), Paradise Blue (L. Arnold Weissberger Award and Edgerton Foundation New Play Award), Skeleton Crew (OBIE Award), Off-Broadway’s Pipeline
Playing in the Festival: Skeleton Crew (Maryland premiere at Baltimore Center Stage)
What her play is about: Skeleton Crew, the third play in Dominique Morisseau’s acclaimed Detroit trilogy, tells the story of four workers at the last exporting auto plant in Detroit struggling to survive as their way of life disappears. Set around 2008, this play vividly portrays the modern struggle in a changing America and reveals the real people on the factory line. This skeleton crew—the bare minimum number of staff needed to function—is made up of people who keep the vital operations of the plant running in the face of obstacles, rumors, and, eventually, the confirmation of their worst fears. Loyalties are tested and boundaries are crossed as this vibrant team of loyal and proud workers navigate an uncertain future.
Who she’s watching: “Michelle Wilson. Because of her gentle leadership and generosity as an actress. A story ambassador. She genuinely blows me away.”
Mary Kathryn Nagle
Known for: Manhatta (William Saroyan Prize for Playwriting and the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award), Sliver of a Full Moon
Playing in the Festival: Sovereignty (world premiere at Arena Stage)
What her play is about: Some wounds refuse to heal. Mary Kathryn Nagle’s daring new work travels the intersections of personal and political truths, historic and present struggles. Sarah Ridge Polson, a young Cherokee lawyer fighting to restore her Nation’s jurisdiction, must confront the ever-present ghosts of her grandfathers. With shadows stretching from 1830s Cherokee Nation (now present-day Georgia) through Andrew Jackson’s Oval Office to the Cherokee Nation in present-day Oklahoma, Sovereignty asks how high the flames of anger can rise before they ultimately consume the truth.
Who she’s watching: “I’m watching Madeline Sayet. She is a brilliant director who (thankfully!) recently returned from overseas where she was pursuing a PhD. But we desperately need her on this side of the ocean. As a citizen of the Mohegan Tribe, she understands that the fight for tribal sovereignty begins with our fight to reclaim the sovereignty of our stories onstage.”
Caleen Sinnette Jennings
Known for: Inns & Outs (Helen Hayes nomination), Playing Juliet/Casting Othello (Helen Hayes nomination)
Playing in the Festival: Queen Girls in Africa (world premiere at Mosaic Theater Company)
What her play is about: Mosaic’s first commission brings the World Premiere sequel to Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ “sweet-spirited solo show” Queens Girl in the World, which The New York Times described as one of the breakout hits of the first Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Queens Girl in Africa picks back up with Jacqueline Marie Butler as she and her family sail to Nigeria following the assassination of her father’s close friend, Malcolm X. Performed by Helen Hayes Award-winner Erika Rose, this is a touching coming-of-age story of a woman finding her place in Civil War-torn Nigeria.
Who she’s watching: “Deb Sivigny, is a prolific and truly stunning set and costume designer. As a second generation Welder (the D.C. Playwrights Collective) Deb has just written an amazing immersive piece entitled “Hello, My Name Is...”The play was set in a house; the audience moved room to room to experience the lives of several Asian adoptees.”
Known for: The Earth, That Is Sufficient
Playing in the Festival: 4,380 Nights (world premiere at Signature Theatre)
What her play is about: 4,380 Nights is a complex and intriguing look at an American worldview created in the wake of 9/11. Over the course of 12 years, or 4,380 days, Malik Djamal Ahmad Essaid has been held without charge by the United States government at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. As he languishes in his cell, his interactions with those on the outside juxtapose with historical events in a riveting exposé into the most dangerous prison of all—fear. With a graceful poetry and a fluidity that spans time and place, D.C. playwright Annalisa Dias delivers a searing and timely critique of power, humanity, and what it means to be American.
Who she’s watching: “Larissa FastHorse. She’s a fierce advocate for a more just theatre ecology and a deeply sensitive, hilarious playwright. To call her a friend and mentor is a great joy to me. Also Amrita Ramanan and Allison Carey. They’re running a ‘greenturgy’ program at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and pushing the whole field forward on our relationships to earth and place.”
Known for: For Jordan (Writer’s Guild Award Best Fringe Play), Silence (Blackburn Prize), Dinner (Olivier Award for Best Comedy)
Playing in the Festival: Handbagged (American premiere at Round House Theatre)
What her play is about: The Iron Lady. The Queen. Born six months apart, each woman had a destiny that would change the world. But when the stiff upper lip softened and the gloves came off, which one had the upper hand? The American premiere of the Olivier Award-winning comedy is helmed by Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director of the original Tricycle Theatre and West End productions in London, Handbagged is the wickedly funny new comedy that imagines what the world’s most powerful women talk about behind closed palace doors.
Who she’s watching: “I am inspired by the younger generation of female writers coming up in the U.K. They are not defined by their gender but by the courage of their ideas, their theatricality and their skill. It is great to see so many more women working successfully in such a public medium. I would say to any woman who is aspiring to write, that there is no finer form than drama.”
Known for: Aubergine
Playing in the Festival: The Language Archive (Blackburn Prize), Durango (Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwriting Award), BFE (L. Arnold Weissberger Award)
What her play is about: Ray leaves his job as a classically-trained French chef to take care of his dying father, a Korean immigrant, who never appreciated Ray’s culinary accomplishments. Food, which normally unites people, painfully divides Ray from his father, even as it serves as the key to memory and identity for all the characters in this off-Broadway hit. If the language of food lets him down, he’s even more vexed by the Korean language. Ray calls upon his estranged girlfriend Cornelia for translation services when his non-English speaking uncle arrives with a sack full of strange ingredients intended for a soup to nurse Ray’s father back to health. This life-affirming and perceptive drama from one of the country’s most important playwrights distills the flavors of rich characters and intense relationships.
Who she’s watching: “There are too many to count. I'm keeping my eye on Hansol Jung (playwright) who is smart, inventive and talented. I've also heard amazing things about May Adrales (director), whose work I can't wait to check out. On the more established side, there's Sarah Ruhl's work for its mischief and after having seen Mary Jane at NYTW, I would jump to see anything written by Amy Herzog or directed by Anne Kaufman.”
Known for: Our Country’s Good (Evening Standard Award, Olivier for Best New Play, Drama Critics’ Circle Award), Three Birds Alighting on a Field (Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards for Best West End Play, Blackburn Prize, Writers’ Guild Award)
Playing in the Festival: Jefferson’s Garden (American premiere at Ford’s Theatre)
What her play is about: In this sweeping drama, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker explores the contradictions between our Founding Fathers’ ideals and the realities of freedom in America. Christian, a Quaker pacifist, defies his family to fight in the American Revolution. Susannah, an enslaved woman, is tempted to fight for the British when they promise liberation. The two meet and cross paths with Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Sally Hemings. These encounters force them to confront the compromises America makes after the promise of equality. Wertenbaker creates a dazzling world, taking us from Revolutionary battlefields to Paris to Monticello. Nataki Garrett (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s An Octoroon) directs.
Who she’s watching: “I follow the director Deborah Warner. Since her first Greek play at the Royal Shakespeare Company to her recent King Lear with Glenda Jackson, not to mention her staging of The One Who Disappeared by Janacek or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with Fiona Shaw, Deborah has a brave breadth of vision and a deep fluidity I love.”