The roles of women in theater have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. A landmark Princeton study in 2009 found widespread discrimination against female playwrights: Theater professionals across the country judged identical manuscripts to be significantly worse when they were submitted under women's names rather than men's. Works featuring women were much less likely to be produced. And further research elsewhere found that nearly three-fourths of technical and design workers in professional theaters were men.
Because the U.S. Department of Labor designates fields where less than a quarter of employees are female as untraditional for women, "that means playwriting, directing, set design, lighting design, sound design, choreography, composing, and lyric writing are all untraditional occupations for women," Ashley Popio notes drily. The Raleigh-based stage artist, producer, and community organizer got tired of waiting for that to change. So, on March 5, she took to Facebook to announce her intention to put on the Women's Theatre Festival—the first of its kind in the Triangle—in August.
Regional research indicates disparities similar to those we find nationally. Among the local productions dramaturge and director Jules Odendahl-James tracked between 2012 and 2014, just 15–25 percent of the playwrights were women, and women directed only about a third of the shows.
Popio had read about the national responses to these trends: the "50/50 in 2020" initiative for gender parity, launched in 2010, and the work of The Kilroys, a Los Angeles-based group that began releasing annual lists of underproduced works by women and transgender playwrights in 2014. Momentum surged in 2015, when Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. staged major women's theater festivals.
"One of the reasons that the D.C. festival was so groundbreaking was that it picked up on the idea that we can do more together as women," says Michele Weathers, former managing director at PlayMakers Repertory Company.
Popio concluded that it was time one took place here. The Women's Theatre Festival is to present four or five full-length works written and directed by women, with women composing at least half of the casts. Popio called for submissions of premieres by women playwrights, a day of one-woman shows, and women's classes in technical theater and design.
Within hours of her Facebook post, word had spread across the regional theater community. Two weeks later, sixty women—who were already gleefully abbreviating the project WTF—met at Raleigh's Sonorous Road Productions to begin making the festival a reality.
"I was surprised and impressed by their diversity," Popio says. "Women of all ages, from college through retirement, representing many racial backgrounds, with levels of experience from just starting out to forty-year careers." Some had come from as far away as Greensboro and Charlotte. By the time of the second meeting, last Thursday, 176 women and six men—or "allies," in the group's term—had joined the emerging enterprise.
"Equality for women is long overdue in the theater," says longtime regional director Sue Scarborough, who helmed Seed Art Share's 2015 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Benji Taylor Jones, who costarred in Bare Theatre's Macbeth last year, observes, "Seeing this number of women gathered together is indicative of the abundance we have that we're not tapping into."
Several dynamics exacerbate the local gender-based bottleneck. Because community theater has more auditioning actresses than actors, "ladies are already competing among themselves more than men are," according to Scarborough.
Jerome Davis, artistic director at Burning Coal Theatre Company, agrees. At his auditions, women regularly outnumber the men three-to-one.
"It's frustrating," he says. "There are a lot of women in the community who are well-trained and have a lot of experience working in the theater, and there is very little outlet for their talent."
That has to do with the narrow bandwidth of the roles available. When Aliana Ramos recently looked for shows to audition for, she recoiled.
"Ingénue, sweet girl, crazy woman," she says. "They're just not appealing; I have to start auditioning for male roles if I want something interesting, with some depth. You wonder, how do you even change that—what the directors pick, what they choose to do?"
By last Thursday's meeting, the group had already achieved a surprising level of buy-in. Four theater groups—Burning Coal, The Justice Theater Project, North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre, and Sonorous Road—have offered their venues for festival productions, classes, or panels; negotiations with other prominent area venues are underway. And professionals are already volunteering to lead workshops on everything from set, costume, and lighting design to stage combat for women.
Riding the wave of enthusiasm, the women in the overheated room at Thursday's meeting deliberated on organization and committee structures, timelines and logistics, before taking a welcome break to hear pitches for potential shows.
It's the unglamorous work that must happen for a festival to take shape. But when it comes to gender parity in theater, these women are tired of simply asking, "WTF?" With WTF, it's time to find some answers.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Role Reversal."