Sheherezade 13, a coproduction by Wily West Productions and Playwrights' Center of San Francisco, didn't start as a women-centered event. It was born 13 years ago as a staged reading of many short plays to celebrate two departing PCSF board members. Now, it's an annual showcase of fully produced 10-minute plays by PCSF members — coincidentally, mostly female members.
Even before Laylah Muran de Assereto joined the showcase as executive producer and director five years ago, the event already had women in most of the leadership positions.
Muran says she doesn't think it was a "conscious decision" by her predecessors. But now that it's been this way for so long, it's something she says she'd lobby for in the future.
In her first year, she says, "I turned to my colleagues who happened to be women and said, 'Here's an opportunity we don't get a lot.' The next year, it turned out again that I had women directors."
Since then, "I haven't gone, 'Here's a policy I'm making,'" she says. "But I'm proud that it happened that way."
Sheherezade's evolution toward an unofficial gender preference comes at a time when questions about gender parity dominate national theater discussions: When women buy more than half of the nation's theater tickets, why are so few stories by women represented on our stages? Why are women underrepresented as theater leaders and directors? In planning a season, how much should a theater company consider gender parity?
Here in the Bay Area, this means that no recent season announcement has gone without scrutiny for its gender breakdown. American Conservatory Theater's announcement a few months ago that the first half of its next season would almost entirely feature male writers and actors launched a Twitter campaign, a Facebook group, and many outraged essays.
Yet so far, only Patrick Dooley of Shotgun Players has made a programming change (Shotgun's 2015 season will feature only female playwrights). None of the other artistic directors of major theaters has come forward to explain the complex processes of planning a season. That leaves smaller companies like 3Girls Theatre, which produces only woman-authored plays, and festivals like Sheherezade 13 to pick up the slack.
For Sheherezade 13, the fact that its playwrights are almost all female (seven out of nine this year) is just as accidental as its all-female leadership; the group uses blind selection. "The selection committee doesn't know who playwrights are until they've been chosen," says Muran. "Women just floated to the top." Switching over to blind selection, she says, can be "a big educational wakeup" because "you educate yourself to your own biases."
Jennifer Roberts, who is both a playwright in and a co-producer of the festival, says that the increased number of women "proves a point" to skeptics who believe that women are underrepresented because there aren't as many high-quality female playwrights. "We're not trying" to seek out women, she says. "It's just happening."
While in the past Sheherezade has been centered on a theme, this year's playwrights could write about anything, and the plays are accordingly diverse. Roberts' Chrysomelidae Hide No More, says Muran, explores "finding your own strength as the daughter of a strong woman" through the lens of Roberts' own experience as a playwright writing about loved ones. Patricia Milton's After Frank, by contrast, was inspired by the playwright's fascination with Clara Harris, who was tried for running over her husband three times with her car, and with the fact that Harris' home state of Texas doesn't have provisions for temporary insanity, but rather for "sudden passion."
For Milton, the 10-minute play as a form offers a low-risk opportunity to try something new. "You can experiment with something you haven't done before," she says. For After Frank, about Amanda (Karen Offereins) and her dead husband's mistress Delia (Kate Jones), Milton "set a challenge," she says. "I wanted a number of status shifts." In one of those shifts, Amanda says, "You have a lot of nerve. All wide-eyed innocence, waltzing into my home with paperwork from the office, as if you weren't having an ongoing affair with my husband!" to which Delia responds, "I didn't waltz!" Muran, who directs, calls this jockeying "a tango."
The willingness of Sheherezade's participants to stretch their artistic muscles extends to their choice of collaborators. What Muran appreciates about both the festival and the S.F. theater scene as a whole "is the amount of crossover you have among theater companies" — particularly small theater companies, she says.
Muran's remarks imply that one of the solutions to gender disparity — not waiting for permission from big institutions, but taking initiative to band together and experiment — might be in focusing less on politics and more on creating great art with your favorite collaborators, whatever gender they happen to be. As Muran puts it, "We're all like, 'Let's go play!'"