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Washington, D.C., Theater Initiative to Showcase Female Playwrights in 2015

Forty-five Washington, D.C., theaters have banded together to present world premieres by women playwrights in the fall of 2015 — an ambitious effort that marks one of the highest-profile attempts to address the industrywide gender disparity of ongoing concern in the legit biz. And because D.C. is one of the country’s more fertile regions for works that travel, the initiative’s reach could well extend far beyond the capital.

It’s not just in the District — where this season about 25% of plays are written by women, according to D.C.-based writer-consultant and Dramatists Guild rep Gwydion Suilebhan — that the legit gender gap remains wide.

Per the L.A. Female Playwrights Initiative, only 16% of plays in Los Angeles’ 2013-14 season are written by women (with the same percentage femme-helmed).  A publicity-grabbing 2009 study out of Princeton U.’s economics department found that on average, woman write one in eight Broadway shows. And according to the Theater Communications Group, only 33% of the artistic leaders of nonprofit theaters around the country are women (a percentage that drops further as operating budgets get larger).

Gender-specific venues such as New York’s Women’s Project have been created to bridge the gap, as have orgs like the International Center for Women Playwrights. The Gotham-based Drama League recently announced a new initiative for female writer-directors: the Beatrice Terry Fellowship.

The D.C. push, dubbed the Women’s Voices Festival, is one of the most sweeping of such programs. The idea came about at a recent gathering of area artistic directors. The D.C. legit community is an especially collegial unit, due in part to TheatreWashington, the robust org that annually presents the 30-year-old Helen Hayes Awards and is expected to join in the effort’s planning and outreach.

The list of collaborating theaters runs the gamut from fledgling operations to the Kennedy Center. Many participants haven’t yet firmed up plans for projects a full season in advance, but several others are starting to. The Shakespeare Theater, for one, intends to mount a new play by director-writer Yael Farber, creator of international critical darling “Mies Julie.” Arlington’s Signature Theater will turn to British scribe Heidi Thomas, with whom Signature a.d. Eric Schaeffer is working on a revival of the tuner “Gigi,” slated for a pre-Broadway tryout at the Kennedy Center next January.

“Female writers are too often underrepresented in the theater,” says Schaeffer, an event co-organizer with Molly Smith, a.d. of the Beltway’s Arena Stage. “We’re joining in this festival to showcase and promote them.”

Such a prominent local push looks poised to ripple out beyond the District’s borders, since the area’s impact on the national legit scene has widened in recent years. Kennedy Center productions of “Ragtime” and “Follies” (the latter directed by Schaeffer) both went on to Broadway, and, in the case of “Follies,” to L.A. The Arena’s recent premiere of “The Velocity of Autumn” will open on the Rialto this spring, and this summer’s KenCen revival of cult fave “Side Show,” helmed by Bill Condon, will be closely watched by Gotham legiters for commercial potential.

Even in the face of an enduring gender divide, last year there were signs of growing equality. Of the 14 titles on TCG’s annual list of most-produced plays around the country, half are written by women — the first time that has happened since 2005-06. At the Tonys last year, the directing prize in both the musical and the play categories were scored by femmes (Diane Paulus and Pam MacKinnon, respectively).

Still, D.C.’s Suilebhan warns legiters against resting on their laurels, particularly after the Women’s Voices fest. “My fear,” he says, “is that we’ll collectively feel that we’ve ‘done that’ and can now produce what we want.”

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