Hindsight will show whether or not Shotgun Players' 2015 “she-season” is cake or conquest.
Announcing six mainstage and six staged readings all written by female playwrights for its 24th season, Shotgun is either offering a delicious, one-year treat, or making a splashy but concrete move to be followed by successive waves of gender parity in Bay Area theater circles and beyond.
The group is preparing to launch its first production, playwright Anne Carson's Antigonick, onto the Ashby Stage on a semi-gritty, energetic corner in South Berkeley. Associate Artistic Director Susannah Martin says that a combination of factors triggered the programming move.
“The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis was called out a few years ago about having a season of plays by all men — all white men, basically — so it's a national conversation,” Martin says. “Here in the company, in 2011, with all new work, we had one woman playwright in a five-play season. We were talking about our 'theater that makes a difference' values. It's a call to action, but also a kick in our own pants for us. It's important that if we talk about diversity and making a difference, we do it ourselves.”
Whether you're jammed or jazzed by that “make a difference” claim, there's little argument from stakeholders, audiences, experts, and peers that female voices have been — and continue to be — underrepresented in national as well as local theater communities. Broadway League's annual demographic study showed that women account for 68 percent of audience members at Broadway plays, and Martin says that the company's announcements to audiences at shows in February about the all-female plays were greeted with cheers.
“If there's concern it's a gimmick, we're dedicated to staying true and will focus on gender parity from now on,” she says.
Carey Perloff, artistic director at A.C.T., is applauding.
“It's a great effort,” she says. “I thought Patrick [Dooley, Shotgun's artistic director] was amazing that by chance he'd had a season that was all men and he recognized it was a narrowing of the band. He addressed it with a season that's all women. I'm thrilled they're doing it.”
Lest anyone think Shotgun is the first or the only crusader in the East Bay, Berkeley also boasts the Symmetry Theatre Company, a troupe helmed by Robert Parsons and Chloe Bronzan. From its founding in 2010, Symmetry ensured each show offered distinct, high-quality female roles and targeted an equal number of equity contracts for male and female actors.
Although Parsons says achieving a more equitable balance in hiring practices and stories told is Symmetry's purpose — not simply selecting female playwrights — he appreciates any strides taken. “We are still so far from gender parity in theatre that the more companies we have working on the issue the better. It's going to take a village,” he writes in an email.
Shotgun's Martin assesses the Bay Area's theatrical self-portrait with the feistiness that is a signature of the company's productions.
“Basically, we have an idea that we live in the liberal Bay Area, but I think we are a far more traditional region than we believe. We live in a patriarchy,” she says. “We hope this season alerts people to new voices and draws attention to groups like Symmetry. Who will pick up the mantle? Who's next to do an all-female season?”
Of course, Shotgun's success will fall distinctly outside of the male/female arena. Good plays are the essence of contemporary theater, not gender. When evaluating the scripts, Shotgun looked for shows that could withstand their “break it down” attack.
“We peel the script back and unearth the deeper mysteries of a piece,” Martin says. “We considered plays we knew of, plays sent to us, plays we pitched to each other. Sometimes, a play can be grand, with larger than life theatricality. Sometimes it's a play that speaks to community and connectivity.”
Martin said women's experiences in this country travel far beyond white voices and “stereotyped women's issues” like friendship, family, and love. The season's offerings come from writers with multiethnic backgrounds and include subjects like politics, race, economic class, and high and low culture — defying expectations surrounding women's writing.
An abbreviated overview of the season reveals a theme, with avenues extending in multiple directions. From start to finish, there's a timelessness and durability to the plays that stretch over decades — from Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap (1952) to Adrienne Kennedy's The Ohio State Murders (1992) to Laura Marks' Bethany (2009) and more.
“People think a play written by a woman is supposed to address and solve all the wrongs of the world,” Martin says. “Actually, it's just supposed to tell a damn good story.”
Because social change often makes a gradual entrance instead of bursting on the scene, Martin says pre- and post-show discussions with audiences and artists about the way society views or hears plays written by women will broaden the impact.
Theatergoers' best hope will be that by starting a conversation about gender parity, Bay Area theater will be enriched.