In light of the recent national conversation around diversity in the theatre prompted by the Guthrie’s season announcement, I would just like to draw some attention to the season of a theatre close to my heart: the National Playwright’s Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. This summer, as every year, the NPC will host eight playwrights who will each workshop a play for a week, culminating in two public readings. Out of the eight playwrights, this season there are six women and two people of color. The NPC is truly living up to their mission of producing “diverse voices and new works.”
The especially interesting thing about this season programming process is that submissions are read blind, without any sense of the gender, race, age, sexual orientation, etc of the playwright, all the way up to the finalist pool. This means that there is no potential for internalized, unrecognized racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc for most of the process. Seven out of the eight playwrights this season were chosen from around 900 anonymous submissions. And look how the season has wound up!
Of course, this model works mainly because the O’Neill is a development center, not a producing organization. A large regional theatre couldn’t read all the plays they are considering blindly, because they are usually interested in producing at least a few classic or well-known works. However, if a season that is largely programmed without concern to gender or race can end up with only one white male playwright, how does the Guthrie rationalize all of theirs?
The O’Neill is also in an interesting position in terms of audience. Most of its performance spaces are fairly small, and many seats are always taken up by conference participants. The O’Neill doesn’t advertise widely in an attempt to attract an audience; they have devoted fans, mostly Southeastern CT locals, who come see many or all shows in a season, and the rest of the audience is usually made up by people associated with those involved in the productions. Because they are not in the position of struggling to sell tickets, as regional, off-Broadway and Broadway theatres are, commercial appeal plays no part in season programming.
So I’m not comparing the same type of organization, I realize that. But if nothing else, the NPC season proves that there are exciting female playwrights out there. There are wonderful, worthy plays being written by women. There are lots! Maybe the regional theatres just need to seek them out a bit more. And that’s where the Guthrie’s season comes in to question–if they were actively seeking interesting new works, they would absolutely find some (or, I mean, at least one) by women. I am left to conclude, then, that they are not truly looking for such works, and therefore ignoring their explicit mission of producing, along with “classic literature,” “new work from diverse cultures.”
The central problem seem to be that many Artistic Directors and those on planning boards seem to think that plays by white male playwrights attract a larger audience. I have seen no proof of this, and since theatre audiences are predominantly female, this really doesn’t make sense. Perhaps it is just based on the fact that classic plays, those in the cannon, seem to draw a larger audience and, due to years of misogyny and racism, the cannon is heavily white male-dominated. But people can change; if theatre start programming more strong plays by women and minorities, theses plays will have a chance to enter into and change the cannon. Or, conversely, people will begin to realize that oftentimes new theatre has the potential to be just as engaging and exciting, if not more so, than the classics.