Earlier this week, I posted briefly about "The Summit," a public conversation between artistic directors at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. that was hosted by Peter Marks of the Washington Post.

Surprisingly for most events like that, which are usually very safe and polite and meaningless, this one actually hit some nerves and started addressing some serious issues in volatile ways.

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Tweets like that from the audience provoked a flood of responses and debate from playwrights, directors, and actors around the country:

You can read the whole saga on Storify. The real action begins around 4:48.

In a bit of bitter comedy, once the Twitter critics saw that I had posted about what was going on, they turned their stun-beams of outrage in my direction.

Fortunately for them, Elissa Goetschius, artistic director of the Strand Theater who was at the Summit and tweeting fast and furiously from the audience, posted a reflection on the event and what it means when artistic directors say things like there aren't enough scripts by women in "the pipeline"—that is, the stations of the cross new scripts must make as they're passed from one regional theater to another, hoping to find an artistic director who cares to adopt one and put it on stage—so that's why we see such a disproportionately small number of plays by women and people of color.

In her post, Goetschius transcribes a question she asked that the Summit—with damning data instead of platitudes about desires for diversity—and the response. I've posted that below the jump, but this bit is my favorite:

Molly Smith: (overlapping) I want to know how many women we’ve produced, because we’ve produced a lot of women. So you don’t have all those percentages.

Elissa: Uh… there have been, since 1998… a total of 35 female creators have worked at Arena.

Molly: That’s pretty good, actually.

Elissa: As opposed to 110 men.

[inaudible murmuring]

What's interesting is how the final answer to Goetschius's question, literally the last word of the night, says, in essence, it's not fair of you to criticize our actual track record because our intentions are good, we give good roundtable, and we're looking forward to the future.

That dodge is the pièce de résistance of an embarrassingly revelatory evening that showed all too clearly the fissures and cultural fault lines in big-house theater these days.


Some of the artistic directors later complained that their statements had been misrepresented in the Twitter feeds.

Even if they were (and setting aside the mostly insignificant question of whether X or Y individual is guilty or innocent of being blinded by the lightness), the general reaction revealed some truth in the distortion.

Here's the question from Goetschius's post:

I’m encouraged to see a growing number of artistic directors in the community publicly address the lack of parity for women writers on our stages – most notably through the Women’s Voices Festival. I hope this effort continues and extends to directors, designers, and other artists as well. However, several statistics give me pause.

At Signature, since the 2005 season, only 10 of 90 credited writers have been women, with women directing 2 of 54 productions.

Since Ford’s reopened after renovations, 2 out of 29 productions have been directed by women – the same woman.

At the Shakespeare Theatre, since opening the Harman in 2007, they have produced 51 shows – none of which have been written by a woman. 3 were adapted by women, and 9 were directed by women.

At Arena, since the 1998 season, 44% of productions have been directed by women. However, three women account for over half of those woman-directed productions, while 49 different men have directed here. The plays and lyrics that have appeared on Arena’s stages reflect the work of 110 men, but only 35 women.

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I’m hoping you can speak on two points. First: How do you plan to use the Women’s Voices Festival as a platform for improving the parity of female artists in your regular programming? Second: Similarly, how will you address the lack of racial equity for writers and directors of color, who are frequently less represented than women? For example, Ford’s has hired three writers of color out of 40 credited writers since 2008, and the last time the Shakespeare Theatre hired a director of color was 1991.

Thank you.

I am not able to speak to the response while I was reading the question as my eyes were glued to my computer screen and focused on keeping my voice loud, calm, and clear, so I can really only speak to the response once I finished reading the question. However, we had the forethought to record the response which we have transcribed. This followed the question with nothing in between.


Paul Tetreault: [inaudible] …get a few minutes to write a response? [laughter]… [inaudible]

Peter Marks: Um I don’t want to—I don’t want to–

Paul: (overlapping) Send it to us, we’d love to see those stats.

Elissa Goetschius: Absolutely.

Peter: I’m sure everybody wants to and—[inaudible] Let me just ask the question, is it–[inaudible]

Molly Smith: (overlapping) I want to know how many women we’ve produced, because we’ve produced a lot of women. So you don’t have all those percentages.

Elissa: Uh… there have been, since 1998… a total of 35 female creators have worked at Arena.

Molly: That’s pretty good, actually.

Elissa: As opposed to 110 men.

[inaudible murmuring]

Molly: I mean it’s, it’s–

[Paul or Ryan or Eric]: We, I mean, I think that that’s the whole reason when we sat around and talked about this idea and it was like you know what? We need to do this. And so, again, I think we all want to do better.

[overlapping, inaudible talking]

Elissa: Absolutely… Yeah, and I’d love to hear about how the Festival will be a springboard–

Paul: There’s a LORT conference, which is a sort of league of resident theaters, which is sort of 80 major theaters from around the country, that for 30 years has been talking about diversity. Diversity in, um, artistic positions, in administrative positions, and there’s a conference that’s being held in May in New Orleans, and it’s only going to be discussed, diversity. Now, some of us up here have been around for 30 years listening to this conversation. I actually think there’s a movement now—and maybe it takes 30 years—to actually move this needle. And maybe it’s because of diminishing numbers as Peter talked about, maybe it’s because as we look out in our audiences, they are not being made up of the, the um, the makeup of the people of this country. So I think there is a movement. And I guess if someone wants to just throw stones, they can look at our track record and look back on the last 15 years. We’re actually trying to look forward, and I think that’s where we’re putting our optimism and we’re putting our energy looking forward, not looking backwards. [applause]

[Peter adjourns the meeting]


Perhaps the most keystone passage in Goetschius's essay is this:

Audiences have become the scapegoat of artistic directors: The reason they program conservative seasons with no women or people of color, that the only financially safe programming for large institutions are established white, male playwrights and directors. I think this is blatantly false. I think this is why theatre audiences are shrinking at the fastest rate of any of the fine arts in the country.

Look at Hollywood’s recent success with diverse narratives: A recent study has shown that films and television shows with ethnically diverse casts are more successful than those with primarily white casts. Look at Frozen — Disney’s most successful animated film in years — a fairy tale about a pair of sisters that explicitly refutes the need for a Prince Charming. Look at the success of Bridesmaids, The Heat, Orange is the New Black, Scandal… the list goes on.

On the other end of the scale, look at the failure of the all white, all male season programmed at the Guthrie last year.

If we want theatre to thrive, we need to stop hiding behind old narratives: That only success can breed success. That in order to bring in money, we have to stick to what worked in the past.

Goetschius closes her reflection with two quotes, one by Junot Diaz:

You know how vampires have no reflections in the mirror? ...if you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me?’ That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me was this deep desire, that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors.