“Preparing for a world premiere is like being in the front row for your own eulogy,” said playwright Karen Zacarías while in town to prep her new play, Native Gardens, for its January debut at Playhouse in the Park. “You’re thinking, I hope I’ve lived a good life and people say good things.”
Native Gardens is one of five plays (and two world premieres) for the Playhouse’s current season that are penned by women, a record for the Tony Award–winning theater. Its two stages have already mounted productions of The Secret Garden by Marsha Norman and Sex with Strangers by Laura Eason, and will unveil the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists this month before rounding out its slate with Bad Dates by hometown favorite Theresa Rebeck.
The success of these women, however, belies live theater’s persistent failure: Gender parity on American stages is still the exception, not the rule. According to findings published in November 2015 by The League of Professional Theatre Women, only 30 percent of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway productions over the last five seasons were written by women. So why—despite the fact that women buy most of the tickets and make up the majority of audiences—are female playwrights still struggling to find outlets for their work? “That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?” says Blake Robison, Playhouse’s artistic director. “If you believe what Hamlet said, that the purpose of the theater is to hold a mirror up to nature, then that mirror has to reflect everyone’s experience. I believe our theater should be presenting a very broad and inclusive array of voices in terms of gender, background, and cultural identity.”
The debate about equal time on stage picked up steam last summer when the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City unveiled its 2015–2016 lineup of plays, all written by white men. A deluge of Internet shaming rained down on artistic director Lynne Meadow, with tweets like this from Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel: “For a woman in theatre who attended Bryn Mawr, where is your sisterhood?” In the wake of the outcry, Meadow quickly added The Ruins of Civilization by British writer Penelope Skinner.
“Everyone has this sense of real revolution going on in the theater. We’re not going to let you get away with a season of all white guys,” says Gunderson, the San Francisco–based writer of The Revolutionists, a comedy set during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. “It’s important philosophically and monetarily to get more voices in theater. It’s good business, good for the community. Cincinnati is doing a great job in getting that message across.” Olympe de Gouges—one of the four female characters at the heart of The Revolutionists—would undoubtedly agree. The real-life 18th-century playwright and activist died via a guillotine in 1793 for taking on the Revolutionary government. “If she were a man she would be heralded,” says Gunderson.
Bringing those types of female voices and stories to the stage has been one of Robison’s goals for the Playhouse since taking the helm in 2012. In addition to Zacarías and Gunderson, the theater also introduced local audiences to Anna Ziegler (A Delicate Ship) and Deborah Zoe Laufer (Leveling Up), who is currently working on another new Playhouse production slated for an upcoming season. “I want [this theater] to serve its community more fully and reflect our diversity more completely,” says Robison. He’s commissioned a new work from African-American playwright and Princeton High School grad Keith Josef Adkins as well, who premiered Safe House at the Playhouse in October 2014.
For Rebeck, whose Bad Dates hits the theater’s Shelterhouse stage in April, those efforts add a bit of a full-circle element to her professional success. The Kenwood-raised, Pulitzer-nominated writer grew up going to student matinees at Playhouse in the Park. “Playwrights seemed like gods to me. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a theater artist,” she says. “It’s thrilling that regional artistic directors are becoming driving forces for a potential sea change. They’re saying, ‘We’re not going to wait for New York to catch up. We’re going to take this on ourselves.’ ”