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This ‘Gang Of Playwrights’ Is Destroying Gender Inequality In Theater

by Laura Hooper Beck

June 28, 2016
Photo Courtesy of The Kilroys

If you’ve paid any attention to what’s happening with women recently, you may have noticed we’re about to, well, burn something down. From Hollywood’s equal pay battle royale to (hope of hopes) putting the first female president in the White House, there’s real momentum behind the idea that women are fed up—and ready to smash that glass ceiling with a sledgehammer.

Clearly it’s not just high-paid celebrities and politicians making waves—the battle for gender parity is happening on all levels and in all places. And one of the most dynamic (and scrappiest!) group of getting-shit-doners is self-described “gang of playwrights”, The Kilroys.

Formed in 2013 to advocate for gender equality in American theater, this 13-member collective is well-versed in agitating the establishment. Specifically, they’re answering the common, uninspired complaint from theaters that they’d love to produce more work by women and transgender playwrights but they just can’t find any of their work. “Where are the plays by women and transgender playwrights!?!?” these producers yell into the night, while writing checks for yet another production by some dead white guy—or David Mamet.

“There's systemic institutional bias against female and trans playwrights in the theater,” says Kilroys member Joy Meads, literary manager and artistic engagement strategist at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group. “It breaks my heart. In my job, I read hundreds of vital, bold, brilliant plays by female and trans writers every single year, and I know that the fact that so many never see production means that theatregoers are being deprived,” she continues.

Instead of simply yelling at the theater powers-that-be to try harder—which, duh, try harder!—the group puts together an annual list (called, aptly, the List) of unproduced plays written by female and transgender writers. The process is strict and well-regulated, with 230 professional artistic directors, literary managers, professors, producers, directors, and dramaturgs voting on the plays that make the cut. This year, the 32 most-recommended plays (out of 569 plays nominated), each received between 5 and 14 nominations, with an additional 82 plays receiving honorable mentions with 3-to-4 nominations. Translation? These plays are beloved by a whole lot of people who know what they’re talking about.

And the List is working. In a survey of playwrights featured on it, 95 percent of respondents reported more requests for their plays after being included, and 80 percent report subsequent productions at big theater companies. Further, there have been over 100 productions of the 99 plays on the 2014 and 2015 Lists, Theatre Communications Group is publishing an anthology of monologues from List plays, university classes have committed to reading through the List, including NYU’s graduate acting program, and festivals of readings of plays from the list have taken place in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Portland, and Ashland, Oregon.

Although the Kilroys have started to shift the conversation, there’s still far to go. According to information released in 2015 by The Count, an ongoing study funded by The Lilly Awards and The Dramatists Guild, just over 20-percent of productions in regional theaters over the three years prior were written by women.

But that’s okay; the Kilroys are up to the task, and they think everyone else is too. “We’ve been moved to see the response to the List from the field,” Meads says. “We believe that artistic directors want to produce equitable seasons, but that they aren’t always aware of the unconscious and systemic biases that can get in the way. The List is a tool to help them act on their intentions. It’s been heartening to see how many producers have embraced it.”

Hooray for the betterment of society via the bold, brilliant action of a group of boundary-busting badasses! (Isn’t that a Margaret Mead quote? It should be.)

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This ‘Gang Of Playwrights’ Is Destroying Gender Inequality In Theater