Culture / Sociology of the Media / Theatre

Writing Oneself Out of the Stage

Though they write the texts of most shows put up in theaters today, living playwrights are barely present on theater websites. To make for this small part and the gender gap in productions, these professionals rely on a strong occupational community made of different organizations.

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Philip Kan Gotanda, Sean San José, Andrew P. Saito, Jason Odell Williams, Ayad Akhtar and John Fisher are forming a sample of six playwrights coming from different backgrounds and ethnic origins and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. This year their plays were put up at the American Conservatory Theater, the Cutting Ball Theater, the City Lights Theater Company, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and finally the Theatre Rhinoceros.

Playwrights in Theater Websites

Compared with the role they play in the theatrical production process, playwrights are given very little place in theater website communication. Even though their name is always cited first in the lists of artists participating to the shows, playwrights mainly get brief descriptions [10 to 20 line]  of their previous work (at Cutting Ball or Berkeley Rep), to a small biography highlighting their career paths (at ACT, CLTC or Rhino.) As well as modern information and communication norms, theatre website communication needs to be clear and direct. Indeed, a large majority of visitors just want to be able to quickly know the basic information regarding the shows, tickets prices and timetables and in-depth descriptions of the playwrights are secondary, not providing much credit to their key participants.

A Playwrights’ Lab:  The Playwrights Foundation

Because their part in the theatrical production hardly goes beyond producing the text for shows to be put up, playwrights form different groups or organization. The most famous is undoubtedly the “Playwrights Foundation” (PF) founded in 1976 by Robert Woodruff and now widely recognized as one of the greatest development laboratories in the whole country and the only one of its size in the West Coast. Philip Kan Gotanda, Sean San José and Andrew P. Saito are all alumni of the Playwrights Foundation. This foundation is mainly dedicated to knowledge transmission in between playwrights. “Playwrights Foundation is our laboratory” emphasizes Andrew Saito, “It is a tree on which Bay Area playwrights perch after each return from individual far-flung journeys, each in their own direction, each following a unique path toward distinct and daring worlds.  We return to this aviary and squawk at each other about new possibilities, and new dreams” the playwright continues.

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Playwrights Foundation’s logo

Developing Playwriting Opportunities

Knowledge transmission is not the unique objective of the Playwrights Foundation, indeed Andrew P. Saito also featured his work at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, a Festival initiated by the PF in order to “Create a venue for young, vanguard playwrights and their collaborators to experiment with new ideas, develop and nurture creative collaborative relationships, and push the boundaries of the form. The BAPF is a hothouse for new work, with indispensable creative development opportunities offered to over 300 diverse, fiercely talented contemporary playwrights to date.” The PF also created other programs dedicated to the development of the community such as the Producing Partners Initiative, the Rough Readings Series, the One Minute Play Festival, the “Des Voix” Festival, the New Play Institute and the Resident Playwrights Initiative.

Women Playwright’s Discriminatory Situation

Though not well-represented in theater websites, male playwrights however fare much better than female playwrights. Looking at theater websites, one cannot but notice the overwhelming number of shows written by male playwrights. Although theaters try to bridge the gap between male and female playwright representation, the trench still exists and different studies tend to prove it.

Sheri Wilner’s and Julia Jordan’s study, entitled “Discrimination and the Female Playwright” explains how discrimination concerns every aspects of theaters in the US and more particularly playwrights. Using “Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater” by Emily Glassberg Sands, as a sort of guide to lead their critical thinking, the authors write: “Work by women made up only approximately 17% of the total number of new plays produced in this country; yet, in an apparent paradox, 31% of the plays on the Theater Communication Group’s list of the “Top Ten Most Produced Plays in American Theater” were written by women.” Theaters of the Bay Area, however, seem to have started to take the issue into consideration through different actions such as Shotgun Player’s “Women-only Season”.

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A Community to Sustain Theater as a Vital Art Form

Even though women playwrights are victims of an important discrimination in plays production, their role in the occupational community and in the different organizations is essential. Playwriting is gathering the different actors together through associations and foundations such as the Playwright Foundation. Through these associations, experienced playwrights can share their skills and transmit them to younger and unexperienced playwrights. The artistic purpose of these associations is to support playwrights in the creation of new works, in order to sustain theater as a vital and dynamic art form. “Playwrights Foundation sustains a commitment to these playwrights, supplying them with the space and time to explore their ideas, untried experiments, and untested theories in an environment free from the pressures of the marketplace.”

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