Gender disparity remains an undeniable fact in local theater. Over the past year, women wrote a third of the plays produced in the area and directed a little less than half.
Still, those numbers mark a dramatic shift for the better from conditions earlier this decade, when male playwrights outnumbered female ones nearly four to one, and women directed just over a third of local productions. This change places the Triangle ahead of national and regional averages for gender parity among playwrights and directors.
Those are the main findings of “By the Numbers,” a demographic survey of local theater companies sponsored by the Women’s Theatre Festival. The results of the wiki-based research project were announced on April 18 before a capacity crowd at RTP180, a monthly series in Research Triangle Park.
The survey tracked changes in gender distribution from the two-hundred eighty shows that twelve prominent area companies produced over the four years before the Women’s Theatre Festival began in 2016 to the sixty works the same companies mounted during the 2018-19 season. Researchers gathered data from sources including playbills, theater websites and staff, and online and print news media.
Because not all of the companies surveyed sponsored touring shows or produced children’s theater, the project focused on locally produced adult theater, “to keep apples to apples,” according to WTF founder Ashley Popio. The festival, which is entering its fourth year this summer, added a lot of woman-led productions to the area but didn’t consider them in the data set, and Popio doesn’t think it influenced the uptick by itself.
“We’ve experienced the MeToo movement and the women’s marches in that time,” she says. “Women’s rights have had a renaissance in recent years.” Popio does, however, credit local artistic directors who have worked toward gender parity in their programming and creative staff.
Local companies including Justice Theater Project and Raleigh Little Theatre led the way by staging seasons in which most productions featured women playwrights and directors. Gender parity is “part of a concerted, long-term effort,” according to JTP executive director Melissa Zeph.
“There’s a lot of great women professionals in the area, and, as a company concerned with social justice, it’s always been in the fore of our choices to give a voice to those not being heard,” Zeph says.
Raleigh Little Theatre artistic director Patrick Torres says that gender parity reflects the company’s commitment to diversity and productions that serve underrepresented people.
“As a male artistic director, I realize that some stories are better served by a female perspective,” Torres says. “Choosing women to direct involves me stepping back and seeking out the right people for the shows.”
It’s this kind of leadership that puts the Triangle ahead of the national curve. The 33 percent of local shows by female playwrights bested the results of a 2018 Dramatists Guild survey, which found that women wrote 29 percent of productions across the United States and 25 percent of productions in the South. The 47 percent of local productions with female directors is well above the national average of 32 percent and the Southern average of 29 percent, according to a survey published by the theatrical website Howlround.
The survey also included Bare Theatre, Burning Coal Theatre Company, Cary Players, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, NCSU TheatreFest, NC Theatre, North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Theatre in the Park, and Theatre Raleigh. Several notable local companies, including Bulldog Ensemble Theatre, Honest Pint Theatre, Manbites Dog Theater, and Sonorous Road Theatre were not included because they were either founded after the survey’s start in 2012 or had closed before the current season.
Gender disparity remains an undeniable fact in local theater, but parity is starting to look more attainable than ever.
This story was updated to clarify that the Women’s Theatre Festival did not include its own productions in its data set. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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