By Deborah Savadge
Remember the Virginia Slims ad campaign from 40 years ago Directed at women, it announced, “You’ve come a long way, Baby.” Ads showed black-and-white photos of Victorian era housewives, performing menial tasks, contrasted with slick, color portraits of ostensibly liberated 1960s’ women, “provocatively dressed, smoking slim cigarettes.“
We have come a long way in the theatre in the 2,500 years since the ancient Greeks staged the first plays without allowing women to act, write, direct or appear in the chorus. Fast forward to 1660 in Restoration England when legal restrictions were finally lifted, permitting women to write and perform in plays, and to manage theatre companies.
We’ve come a long way in the theatre, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Women are no longer proscribed from working in most of the world’s theatres, but our work is produced much less often than that of our male counterparts, even though, if recent history is any guide, roughly 60 percent of the theatre audience this season will be female. And, just as in so many areas of contemporary culture, women are relegated to the lowest economic rungs.
Let’s celebrate exceptions. Some of the most successful, prize-winning, crowd-pleasing, theatrical work has been written and directed by women. This year alone, The Lion King, in its striking staging by Tony Award-winning director, Julie Taymor, will continue to play New York and London and will journey to, among many other cities and towns, Tokyo, Singapore, Vancouver, Salt Lake City and Hamburg. Wicked, with its libretto by Winnie Holzman, will be performed this season in Japanese and Finnish languages. Enron by Lucy Prebble will travel to Jerusalem this fall. Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, can be seen in Mumbai. Salute the 13 women who have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; cheer for the first and second place finishers for the Yale Drama Series prize, Virginia Grise and Mary Hamilton, and for the accolades women writers received from contest judge, playwright, David Hare.
Despite these successes, the coming season is bleak for women trying to earn a living in the theatre. The profession continues to be dominated by men. Only a smattering of work scheduled for a place on the world’s stages has been authored or directed by a woman. When a female director or playwright works, usually the venue is small and the play rarely makes the leap to film. Scour a list of some 20 plays and musicals planned for Broadway this season. No female playwrights are included. Zero. Only two female directors and one female co-director are proposed. Of the 11 new plays and musicals, one, only one, has a female at the helm. The Scottsboro Boys will move from Off-Broadway with its director-choreographer, Susan Stroman. It has been rumored that Katori Hall’s Olivier-winning play, The Mountaintop, will open this fall with Halle Berry and Samuel Jackson, but as of yet there is nothing beyond fan magazine confirmation of this starry debut.
As playwright Barbara Kahn noted in On the Issues Magazine last fall, “The arts determine how the world at large sees us and our potential, as well as how we see each other and ourselves.” Oscar Wilde wrote,“Life imitates art.” More women, writing more roles for women in the theatre, guarantees that the world will see us as judges, executives, presidents. More women directing more plays written by women means bringing a neglected, missing voice to a mass audience. If we can bring more work to the world stages, there will be a change in the collective culture as it begins to be influenced by the vision, ideas and concerns of women.
When successful, what gets produced on London and New York City stages gets transported to Moscow, Tokyo, Santiago, and Beijing and transferred to other media. If 51 percent of the world’s population were fully represented on the world’s stages and not just in its audience, this majority voice would be heard in major motion pictures, on television, radio, live streaming video and the Internet. A change in the theatrical climate will begin to change the way women are perceived and treated. When our voices are heard, on the subjects we care about most, our under-represented majority will, finally, influence the world culture in ways that will be liberating and enlightening for all.
We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to goBaby.
September 2, 2010