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Spotlight shines on area theater’s diversity gap

Dorchester actress-playwright Obehi Janice says the conversation around parity tires her out, but “I see glimmers of hope.”http:

Brookline playwright Patrick Gabridge doesn’t presume to be anyone’s standard-bearer for diversity — he’s a white guy — but he had time to do a count, so he did.

And he found that women and people of color are underrepresented as playwrights and directors in Boston theater in comparison to their numbers in the general population.

By his count, posted on his blog (writinglife3.blog
spot.com), women wrote 39 percent of the plays being produced by Boston-area theaters, large and small, in the 2013-14 season. Women are directing 40 percent of those plays.

But women make up 52.1 percent of Boston’s population, according to the 2010 Census. “It’s not hard to say — when you look at the total number of plays being done in Boston, and you’re saying maybe 40 percent are written by women — that we’re still falling short,” Gabridge said.


People of color wrote about 11 percent of the plays and are directing 10 percent of them, according to Gabridge’s survey. But according to the Census, African-Americans make up 24.4 percent of Boston’s population, Hispanic or Latino people make up 17.5 percent, and people of Asian descent about 9 percent. “We’re a chunk away from parity, for women especially. For people of color we’ve got a long way to go,” Gabridge said.

But the statistics are just a way of measuring progress. “When the numbers show us we have equitable representation of women and minorities on stage, it shows that the necessary people are being involved in creating the art, and we’re getting voices heard that weren’t previously heard.

“It’s a basic issue of fairness and justice. When you’re looking at the workplace and clearly there are barriers to [some people] being able to work, then we need to find ways to stop that happening,” Gabridge said.


Boston’s theater community has long talked about racial and ethnic diversity, particularly in regard to actors. But recently questions about women’s place in theater have moved back into the spotlight.

“Most people are like, ‘Eh, we’re doing OK on gender, we don’t need to pay attention to that.’ And in fact we’re not doing OK on gender,” said Ilana Brownstein, director of new works at Company One Theatre and founder of the grass-roots group Playwrights’ Commons.

“I’m lucky, I have been produced, and I’m really grateful for all those opportunities,” said Lila Rose Kaplan, a Cambridge playwright with works produced by the American Repertory Theater Institute and Fresh Ink Theatre Company this season. “But the numbers are pretty stark when you look at gender parity in production and people of color in production.”

The theater-community service organization StageSource has scheduled a town hall meeting for April 26 to talk about defining gender parity and finding ways to move forward.

Roles for actors of color has been a more common topic in recent years. Many nod to the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s embrace of diverse casting in all its shows this season. Which playwrights get produced is a trickier topic.

“In the arts, by definition we are empathetic,” said StageSource executive director Julie Hennrikus. “We think we can put ourselves in somebody else’s place — that’s what theater is. It is a powerful moment to realize that you don’t always have the complete perspective to tell a story.”


She cited Lenelle Moise’s “Expatriate,” about an African-American artist trying to find her path, as one such play that derives from the playwright’s own experience and place in the world.

“We’re a chunk away from parity for women,” said Patrick Gabridge, a Brookline playwright, “for people of color we have a long way to go.”Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff

The town hall, like Gabridge’s survey, arose in part from the fallout from a now-infamous event in Washington, D.C., known simply as “The Summit.” The Feb. 17 panel discussion organized by Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks featured an all-white panel of D.C. theater artistic directors: four men and a woman. Theater people around the country learned about it through live-tweeting, and the event prompted a heated online discussion of diversity and gender in choosing plays.

Afterward, Brownstein used a Web service called Storify to create an edited collection of the tweets that would be easily accessible to all. Various blogs and other journals weighed in around the country, as did theater artists on social media.

“The gender parity issue is really tiring to still hear about. It just seems like every three years or so, a big discussion happens around gender,” says Obehi Janice, a Dorchester playwright and actress. “What’s helpful about this round are things like Storify where we can archive what people are saying in real time, so it’s on a public record.”

Gabridge said The Summit “really put the fire to me,” prompting him to run the numbers locally. He started going to theater company websites and taking notes, building on a much smaller count he did in 2010. He noted his method was not scientific, and he’s had to tweak the numbers a few times. (ArtsEmerson was excluded from his count, as it is a presenting organization that sometimes co-produces with local companies already on his list. He also left out the Boston Theater Marathon.)


But he tallied 151 plays produced by 48 Boston-area theaters in the 2013-14 season. And by his count, 59 of those plays were written by women (39 percent) and 16 were written by people of color (11 percent). For directors, the numbers were almost identical.

Gabridge also broke out numbers for new plays alone. He counted 47 world premieres at Boston-area theaters, more than three-quarters by local writers. And 20 of them were written by women (43 percent), 10 by people of color (21 percent).

With a post last weekend, he expanded his count to include companies around New England, and the news wasn’t any better.

Two of the Boston area’s most prominent companies — the American Repertory Theater and especially the Huntington Theatre Company — offered significant diversity, as did Company One Theatre. The fringe companies as a whole fared worse.

Women outnumbered men in a few places in Gabridge’s survey. Four of the Huntington’s seven productions this season were directed by women. All four of Company One’s productions were written by women, three of them people of color.

Diversity is reflected among the Huntington’s playwriting fellows, with Lydia Diamond (“Stick Fly”), Kirsten Greenidge (“Splendor’), and Melinda Lopez (“Becoming Cuba”) among the notable successes. Company One and the Boston Center for the Arts run the XX PlayLab to develop plays by women, including a June 6 workshop of Janice’s “Fufu & Oreos.”


“I see glimmers of hope, and we just have to keep digging for those. But yes, it is frustrating and slow,” said Janice. “To be honest, the conversation does tire me out, because it’s just reflective of who’s producing the work, which is mostly white men.”

Somerville actress Erin Eva Butcher started the Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company with female friends last year. “Our mission is to tell women’s stories, past, present and future, [and] have at least 50 percent female involvement in all aspects, onstage and off,” said Butcher, who is artistic director.

They’ll mount their first full production, “Playhouse Creatures” by April De Angelis, at the Factory Theatre in August, under the direction of Anna Trachtman. The play tells the story of the first actresses allowed to take the stage in England in the 1600s. There are roles for six women and two men.

Too often, Butcher said, women are relegated to subordinate roles as “the wife or the girlfriend or the mother” of a male protagonist. “What we’re trying to do with our company is make the woman’s story the protagonist’s story,” she said, “to show the things women go through and be the lead for once.”