Women scribes boost play cache

Writers seeing gain this season

America is gearing up for a presidential race in which for the first time, a woman has a very real chance at taking the White House. But have distaff playwrights made similar inroads in the legit world?

By mid-November, 12 of the most influential Off Broadway companies frowill have mounted 10 plays penned by women so far this season. That’s an unusually high concentration. By the end of the season, that figure will climb to at least 19 plays written or co-written by women. But a closer look suggests the road to gender equality may still be a long one.

The dozen companies considered for this story — including the Atlantic, the Roundabout, Second Stage and the Vineyard — will produce 55 shows this season, both on Broadway and Off. So given that women will have a hand in well under half of them, the big picture is not as femme-friendly as it might seem.

It’s not like there’s a lack of female playwrights out there, so why aren’t we seeing more of them in the higher echelons of Gotham legit — particularly since women are the theater’s primary ticket buyers?

Partly, there’s the belief that when women write plays about women, they aren’t being universal enough to court a broader audience.

“There’s a perception that if a play is too much the story of one woman, then it doesn’t have an Everyman and we can’t sell it,” says April Yvette Thompson, whose play “Liberty City,” co-written with Jessica Blank (“The Exonerated”), opens at New York Theater Workshop this winter.

Auds may not be the only ones wary of a female lead.

“I think sometimes male artistic directors read a play with a female protagonist and think ‘What is this about? There is no story,'” says Sarah Ruhl, whose “Eurydice” update recently played Second Stage and whose “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” opens next spring at Playwrights Horizons. “They’re looking for a male protagonist, and when they don’t see one, they can’t find the plot.”

Ruhl acknowledges that she’s one of a handful of current playwrights, male or female, to be embraced by theaters across the country. (This season alone, there will be 17 U.S. productions of her play “The Clean House.”) However, she has still received her share of critical drubbings, and she says the dominance of male critics may help keep women’s plays off the stage.

“Read reviews of plays by women and look at the way the word ‘feminine’ is used,” Ruhl charges. “It’s often used to mean that the play isn’t working. There can be an assumption that a woman playwright is reaching to write in a mold already created by a male playwright, and that the woman is doing a bad job of it.”

Of course, no single season represents a trend in itself or an exhaustive survey. But a 2002 report from the New York State Council on the Arts offers an interesting point of comparison. It stated that women wrote only 16% of plays produced nationwide during the 2001-02 season, but this year, at the same theater companies, penned 18 of 53 plays, or 34%.

However, in 2001-02, women boasted nine Broadway premieres, including Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” Heather McDonald’s “An Almost Holy Picture,” Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” and the ABBA-inspired musical “Mamma Mia!” whose book is by Catherine Johnson.

This year, only one new work by a woman is bowing on Broadway — Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius” — while “Top Girls,” by Brit playwright Caryl Churchill, will be revived in the spring. (Both are being mounted by Manhattan Theater Club.)

Still, few would say the case for women is hopeless. Despite this season’s Broadway dearth, producer Elizabeth I. McCann, who shepherded Lisa Kron’s “Well” to the Rialto in 2006, argues that women’s commercial prospects are solid.

“An excellent play will be produced no matter who wrote it,” she says. “I think the days have passed when gender bias holds up a woman’s career.”

Though he considers multiple factors when choosing a season, Tim Sanford, a.d. of Playwrights Horizons, stays conscious of a writer’s sex. “I’ve never had a season without a woman writer, so I do think it’s important,” he says. “When you’re producing six new shows a year, there’s no excuse not to have at least one. Women are half the population.”

Playwrights Horizons has four new works by women on its current slate, recently bowing Kate Fodor’s “100 Saints You Should Know” and Sarah Treem’s “A Feminine Ending,” and continuing with Ruhl’s “Cell Phone” and the musical “Saved,” with book and lyrics co-written by Rinne Groff.

Jim Nicola, a.d. of New York Theater Workshop, which earlier this season bowed Betty Shamieh’s “The Black-Eyed,” muses that the country’s political climate could even boost women writers. “It’s not an accident that a leading candidate for the presidency is a woman,” he says.

Balance may also be struck because so many rising playwrights are women. On Nov. 1, the Cherry Lane gives Katori Hall her first major production with “Hoodoo Love,” while writers Fodor, Julia Cho, Groff and Lucy Thurber, all still relatively early in their careers, have scored at least two major Gotham productions each. Slowly but surely, women writers are inching toward the establishment.

Meanwhile, vet women scribes are training a phalanx of undergrads and grad students. Marsha Norman co-directs the playwriting program at Julliard, and Paula Vogel has long been a professor at Brown.

“The graduate writing programs especially seem to be admitting more women — and more daring women,” says Thompson. “Getting produced is so much easier if you’re coming out of a competitive graduate program.”

It will take time for these writers to be considered part of the mainstream, but in the interim, Gotham has at least four theater companies — the Women’s Project, New Georges, Women’s Expressive Theater (WET), and the Hourglass Group — specifically designed to mount femme work.

Of course, some might argue a female-focused theater only ghettoizes women, but Victoria Pettibone, WET’s co-exec producer, says the separation is necessary. “Right now, unfortunately, we do need places that solely champion women,” she insists. “There’s such a wealth of extraordinary writers not being represented.”

WET co-exec producer Sasha Eden adds, “If what we’re doing is getting them to a place where they’re getting published, or they’re moving to theaters that produce both men and women, then that’s a great step.”