Ann, I think you’re right that the Times article on gender bias in the theater may have leaned a bit hard on the women-keeping-their-sisters-down aspect of the original study. (I also think you’re right that the best thing we can do, as audience members, is actually get out there and support quality work by buying tickets.)
But I also think there are elements of this study that should give us pause. When Sands sent those scripts out to producers, directors, and literary managers, she found that plays by women, about women, had an especially difficult time impressing these gatekeepers: The characters were deemed less likable, and the plays less producable, than when the same scripts were presented with male bylines. (Female playwrights were deemed more capable of doing rewrites on these female-oriented scripts, however-but is that a good thing? Should we ladies celebrate being seen as more tractable?) *
I asked my friend Sarah Treem, a playwright and screenwriter, to offer her thoughts on the article. Here’s what she said:
People have been talking about this issue for years, but I think there was an unspoken fear that if you brought it up publicly, as a female playwright, artistic directors would be less likely to do your script. And nobody wanted to “marginalize” herself by identifying as a female writer. But the difference between the way male and female playwrights are treated has been in the forefront of my consciousness since I graduated from drama school. Even while I was in in school, I had a few very well-intended people-professors-who told me I “just had to be patient” because it “takes women longer”.
When my first production ( A Feminine Ending ) came out in New York, a popular female blogger wrote on her site: “I’m all for playwrights writing what they know, but being familiar with some of Sarah Treem’s other work, I have to wonder if she’s capable of writing stories that don’t mirror her own.” This is because the plays of mine that she read all involved young female protagonists. So, of course, I must have been writing about my own experience. And of, course, because the protagonist was young and female, and hadn’t been, say raped, or lost her memory or something extreme, her story wasn’t legitimate.
A few years later, after I had had work produced in major theaters all around the country, I asked a very influential female theater producer how one maintains a career in the theater. She told me that I should stop writing plays about women.
(In other news: How come there are so few female musical directors?)
* Correction, June 28, 2009 : The original version of this paragraph said that respondents rated scripts with a female writer’s name to be “of lower quality” and “of lower artistic merit” than the same script with a male name. Scripts with female pen-names did score lower on all three survey questions related to the overall “quality” of the script. However, only one of those questions asked for an opinion about the script’s inherent “artistic merit,” and the difference seen here was not statistically significant.