Let’s see if I have this straight. Women write about bias–unconscious or not–in an industry, they set up a group to support fellow women in said industry, men immediately comment on social media about how this isn’t really a problem, maybe these women are biased, because it damn well isn’t Us.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Except this isn’t about video games or “ethics in games journalism.” It’s about gender parity in the American theatre.

Since this American Theatre feature on the Kilroys, I’ve been watching the reactions on social media, and they’ve gone true to form. Surely we’re picking the “best plays” available, the system works just fine, there’s no unconscious bias, this is sour grapes from people who haven’t gotten chosen, maybe you’re biased, et cetera.

If we truly want to “choose the best plays available” without regard to race or gender, then we have to stop commissioning plays directly, we have to stop reviving the same plays over and over, we need to go to 100% blind submissions throughout the industry and only select from those. When your schedule is full of specifically commissioned work, you’re choosing by playwright. When you bring back the same plays again and again, you make a choice. And when even your festival designed to solicit new work is using that instead to discover playwrights and commission different work from them, that’s also a conscious, deliberate choice.

The following study is thoroughly anecdotal with a test group of one: myself. Of the plays I have seen and read in the last ten years–and I’ve seen more than a few–many of the best were written by women. Of those, the majority were plays I read but did not see, some of which appear on the Kilroys’ inaugural list of plays worth reading. (And some are plays I then discovered from that list.) I can’t imagine these haven’t been submitted anywhere, and based on the plays I’ve seen on stage, I can’t believe we’re always picking the best plays that come in over the transom.

Heck, I remember being on the inside of a play contest where the best written play didn’t have a chance because the theatre couldn’t cast it; the one that fit the theatre’s pool of actors wound up getting produced instead. “Best” had nothing to do with it.

Yes, yes, I know that how well a script fits with your company–cast, crew, audience, sponsors–has to be a consideration, and that’s fine. But I also find it hard to believe that so many audiences are craving living room plays with people drinking wine and killing time.

The ratio of men to women in playwriting is roughly equal. The ratio in production isn’t even close. Hopefully, work like the Kilroys‘ annual list, Howlround’s New Play Map, and the National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange can help change that ratio–it’s remarkably easy to discover new work and new playwrights these days.

As for the cries of “we’re not biased, maybe you’re biased, there are no men on your list,” please. That’s why it’s called “unconscious bias.” These plays weren’t selected purely because they’re written by women, they’ve been selected by theatre professionals who found them to be damn good plays that happen to be written by women–it’s about quality, guys. (For a good look at how unconscious bias works and how–shockingly–it might even work on you, here’s a good look at several scientific studies courtesy of Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times.)

If your first instinct upon reading about the Kilroys is to fire off a reply that “we do pick the best plays in American theatre,” maybe sit back from the keyboard and take a moment. No one’s attacking your manhood, no one’s telling you what to do, they’re just saying hey, here are some playwrights you might not have heard about, but they’re doing kickass work, and since you’re already commissioning right and left, why not take a look at them?

And really, why not? Even if you do believe your theatre is picking the best plays available–and I’m sure you believe that, I’d certainly hope you do–why not take a look at a few of these? What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe you discover a new writer or a new idea. Maybe you don’t, maybe you confirm your worst suspicions about these lists. Isn’t the chance of actually proving your point worth the time? And wouldn’t your point be stronger if you could say, “well, I read X and Y and Z, and I didn’t care for any of them, so there.” Dismissing these playwrights out of hand doesn’t mean anything. Though honestly, if you can read any ten scripts–and I mean any ten–from the Kilroys’ list and not find anything worth producing, maybe you’re in the wrong line of work.

If you’re also complaining that audiences are shrinking, you can’t attract new audiences, younger audiences, etc, maybe look at your recent history–if it’s nothing but white men, alive or dead, maybe that’s why. You’re ignoring at least half of your potential audience right there.

Full disclosure: from the very start of the #2amt tag through last year’s #thesummit to the Kilroys and their #parityraid, we at 2amt have been strong supporters of diversifying theatre seasons and selections. We believe in a big tent philosophy of theatre–invite everyone, make them feel welcome, embrace your community, and become the social hub for arts in your area. Not a hub, the hub. Sometimes, that means broadening out beyond your own tastes and biases–conscious or unconscious.

It’s a lot harder than being pithy on social media, but believe me, it’s worth the effort.

  • March 19, 2015