The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘What Do Women Want? Playwrights Edition’

The opening of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival is a good time to reflect on the state of gender parity in the American theatre, in respect to playwrights.

The numbers are, frankly, appalling. Playwrights  Julia Jordan and Marsha Norman are overseeing a study called The Count which will be updated every year. In a sample of 2,508 productions in the U.S. between 2011 and 2014, only 22% of the plays were written by women.

Marsha Norman.
Marsha Norman. Photo courtesy of her website.

In her keynote speech at the national conference of the Dramatists Guild in July, Marsha Norman said, “Women have lived half of the experience of the world, but only 20% of it is recorded in our theatres.” DC, it should be noted, produces a slightly more respectable 30%. The discrepancy is finally getting attention: when, “The Count” came out, #WriteChange and #TheCount exploded on Twitter.

Does this have anything to do with female socialization? As a young playwright, I remember being told ad infinitum that “drama is conflict” and, oh by the way, “who wants what from whom?” Subtle family interactions weren’t easy to fit into this paradigm. On the other hand, perhaps female protagonists don’t attract sufficient audiences; although, in the age of the female superhero, this may be changing.

The success of Fun Home on Broadway, for which Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori won Tonys for Best Book and Score of a Musical, is one encouraging sign. Sparked by the artistic directors of the seven originating theaters: Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the Women’s Voices Theater Festival is a proud moment for women playwrights in our city. The hero’s journey, so often portrayed in art, in which the protagonist (usually male) grows up/learns something about himself, succeeds/fails, lives/dies, finds love/loses it, has a powerful resonance in our collective unconscious. But there is no reason a heroine cannot do all those things.

Alison Bechdel. Photo courtesy of Elena Seibert/Courtesy of O+M Co.
Alison Bechdel. Photo courtesy of Elena Seibert/Courtesy of O+M Co.

Alison Bechdel, the graphic novelist whose life story is presented in Fun Home, has become noted for The Bechdel Test.” In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, she explained that her friend Liz Wallace said..”I’ll only see a movie if it has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man.” According to Bechdel, surprisingly few films still pass. Yale psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll found in a study that male executives who spoke more frequently received 10% higher competence ratings, while women’s were 14% lower, as Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant noted in The New York Times. Authority in women seems to evoke ambivalence; and what is more authoritative than writing a play? And a play, unlike a screenplay or a novel, forces you to engage with actual human beings. This is one of the reasons theatre is so important.

Here are some things women in theatre might be thinking about:

-I am a person, just as young/old, happy/desperate as you are.  I am more than a “love interest”.

-I can compete and win (I can also lose).

-I, too, am part of history. Indeed, I make history.

-When I am young, I am just as interested in serious subjects as you are.  As I grow older, my perspective deepens, just as yours does.

-I can love and hate.

-I too enjoy the complexities, the mystery, and the beauty of our theatre heritage.

Perhaps it is a matter of perspective. It may take time for the situation to be corrected. But that is no excuse for not pressing on. Pioneers perform an important service for us all. Picasso said, “When you make a thing that is new, it is so complicated… that it is bound to be ugly. But those that make it after you, they don’t have to worry about making it. And they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it after you.” Many talented women have written many brilliant plays. But there is room also for plays that aren’t perfect, that make us think, that lead us to a new place despite their flaws. Lorraine Hansberry said, “The thing that makes you exceptional… must also make you lonely.” Writing plays is lonely. It is also difficult.

Marguerite Duras.
Marguerite Duras. Photo courtesy of

Another playwright, Marguerite Duras, said, “I believe that always, or almost always, in all childhood and in all the lives that follow them, the mother represents madness. Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we ‘ve ever met.” My mother, a successful businesswoman in the 1950s, described being told that instead of being vice president of the company as she had been promised, she” could be a secretary.” Where is Death of a Salesman for the working women of the world? Surely their struggle is equally meaningful.

Lillian Hellman.
Lillian Hellman. Photo courtesy of

Lillian Hellman said, “Since when do we have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?” The advent of the Lilly Awards for women playwrights is a reason for hope. And there is so much creativity out there that matters are bound to improve.

Theresa Rebeck.
Theresa Rebeck. Photo courtesy of her website.

Theresa Rebeck famously received a misogynistic review for one of her plays. Because she talked about women’s issues honestly, she was said to have an agenda. This is absurd. Rebeck herself has said, “I never had an agenda. I just wanted to write plays that told the truth.”

What do women want? Freud asked.The answer is simple. We want to be heard.


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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe.



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