About a month ago Howlround hosted a Twitter conversation about gender parity in theater. As I followed along, two themes seemed to emerge, opportunity and accountability. Women need more chances to write, direct, produce and act in plays, and we as theater artists need to recognize when that is not happening and make changes. I was reminded of these principles yesterday when it was announced that England’s Globe Theater Company is bringing its all-male versions of Twelfth Night and Richard III to Broadway. In order to solve the problem of gender disparity in theater we need to examine not only why it happens, but how it happens. Why it happens is a very broad and abstract question, it involves gender politics that extend well beyond theater. But how it happens is much easier for us to get our heads around. All we have to do is imagine a room full of men deciding what plays they want to produce who don’t put opportunities for women very high on their list of priorities.
The picture is often painted of crotchety old, white, male artistic directors who are slaves to their boards or subscribers and refuse to take risks on work by women. In challenging that patriarchy we are asking American theater producers to risk money in order to make our art form a more equitable one, and hopefully a more vibrant one. But what happens when those same artistic directors see all-male productions of plays with wonderful parts for women soar to the highest level of stage production. What happens when the excitement about seeing Rylance speak the Bard’s words overshadows the misogyny of expressly excluding women from work at one of England’s leading theater companies. Which message should they listen to? The one about the need for inclusion, or the one that says, “as long as you make good work you get a pass”?
The argument in favor of all male productions of Shakespeare is rooted in the oppression of women in Elizabethan England who were forbidden to perform on stage. Because of this, in the earliest productions women’s parts were mostly played by boys. So we are led to believe that in watching an all male production we are somehow experiencing something closer to what an Elizabethan audience experienced. This is hogwash. The average 20 minute Comedy of Errors at the Renaissance fair can claim greater accuracy of experience than any of today’s all-male productions. These productions are not time capsules, they use indoor theaters and lights, no groundlings shoot dice at the foot of the stage, the actors don’t stand still, stare at the audience and shout their lines. So if banning women from a production does not recreate the Elizabethan stage as a museum or Holo-deck would, why ban them? Are men better actors? Do the people involved in the production prefer hanging out with men? Is there some need to give male actors a shot at great female parts?
Sadly, the Globe’s male-centric production is not all that unique, at least two all male Shakespeare companies (thats companies, not productions) exist in England. This year one of them, the Propeller Company, toured its work in the Mid West, and with Broadway giving this practice the theater world’s largest spotlight, we can only expect to see more of it. After all, if this all-male production is so wonderful, why should we deny the experience to future generations?
This is where the rubber meets the road. We all acknowledge that gender disparity in theater is not caused by artistic leadership that hates women. Hence we blame the aforementioned economic pressures, or some hapless lack of awareness that the problem exists. But the fact is, several years ago a bunch of guys sat around at the Globe Theater and decided that the best thing for their company was to produce a play that intentionally excluded women. It turns out they were right, the theater world went googly eyed and now they have taken the biggest prize a production can get, a shot on the Great White Way. If we truly believe in and strive for gender parity in theater we need to be clear in saying that is not ok.