Arts

Critic’s Notebook

Boston theater needs a stronger female presence

Company One Theatre is leading the way with plays written by women, such as “The Chronicles of Kalki.’’
Paul Fox
Company One Theatre is leading the way with plays written by women, such as “The Chronicles of Kalki.’’

A young Serbian woman who is essentially enslaved when she is forced into prostitution in London. A female pioneer of math and physics who confronts establishment sexism in 18th-century France. A pair of teenage girls who journey from high school outcast status to don’t-mess-with-us empowerment, with a big assist from a Hindu deity in (female) human form.

On the surface, these characters could hardly be more dissimilar. But what Lucy Kirkwood’s “It Felt Empty When the Heart Went at First But It Is Alright Now,’’ Lauren Gunderson’s “Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight,’’ and Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “The Chronicles of Kalki’’ have in common is that they are stories by and about women that offer illuminating perspectives on circumstances and issues that might not have drawn the sustained attention of male dramatists.

Recent productions of these plays on local stages and others by female playwrights have helped to underscore a point that shouldn’t need to be made at all: Namely, the more that women’s voices are heard, the closer theater comes to representing the full human experience.

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Yet pockets of resistance remain, to judge by the continued underrepresentation of female playwrights. Consider this dismal fact: Not a single new drama by a woman was staged on Broadway during the entire 2013-2014 season. And it’s not only on Broadway where women face challenges getting their plays produced; that is why “gender parity’’ has become both a goal and a rallying cry in the theater community. A primary task if 50-50 balance is to be achieved: Squelching the spurious but strangely durable assumption in some circles that there is a limited audience for works by female playwrights.

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“There’s still a false notion that plays by women — whatever people mean when they say ‘women’s stories’ — there’s still a false notion that those aren’t universal stories,’’ said Ilana Brownstein, director of new work at Boston’s Company One Theatre and a leader of the local conversation on gender parity. Added Erin Eva Butcher, an actress and the artistic director of Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company: “There’s a feeling that if you see ‘Death of a Salesman,’ everyone can relate to Willy Loman but that only women can relate to his wife.’’

The picture is better in regional theaters than on Broadway — it obviously couldn’t be worse — and there are definite signs of progress in Boston. But year in, year out, the visibility of women is still far too dependent on the vagaries of that season’s schedule and the programming choices made by individual artistic directors.

So how well are female playwrights and other theater artists represented in our region’s theaters? We should get a clearer sense in February, when a task force assembled by StageSource, a theater service organization, is expected to release the results of a sweeping survey of New England theater companies. It will show how many female playwrights, directors, designers, and actors were involved in each company’s productions from Sept. 1, 2013, to Aug. 31 of this year.

Brookline playwright Patrick Gabridge did his own count earlier this year, and found that of 151 plays produced in Greater Boston during the 2013-2014 season, 40 percent were written by women. However, a wider lens offered less encouraging results: Of 334 plays produced in New England during that period, only 29 percent were by female playwrights, according to Gabridge.

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That’s not good enough. Whatever the StageSource numbers show, theater companies need to make an across-the-board, long-term commitment to consistently showcase plays written by women, especially new plays. It all starts with the writers, obviously. Producing new works by female playwrights would have a salutary domino effect on the opportunities available to female actors, designers, and directors. A likely added benefit would be greater racial and ethnic diversity, another vital goal for the theater.

For theatergoers, gender parity would open a wider window on the world around us, because the reality is that many of today’s most compelling playwrights are women. To name just a few: Suzan-Lori Parks, Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl, Lydia R. Diamond, Theresa Rebeck, Kirsten Greenidge, Paula Vogel, Nina Raine, Lynn Nottage, Amy Herzog, Quiara Alegria Hudes.

So let’s build more platforms for the next Parks, the next Ruhl, the next Hudes.

There’s no reason other Boston companies couldn’t follow the lead of Company One Theatre, which devoted its entire 2013-2014 season to plays written by women, then proceeded to kick off this season with productions of all three plays in Kapil’s “The Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy,’’ including “The Chronicles of Kalki.”

This has been a strangely double-edged year for women in theater, highlighting both the high number of talented female playwrights and the challenges they still face.

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In mid-April, Baker, who was born in Cambridge and raised in Amherst, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama for “The Flick,’’ which is set in a fading Central Massachusetts moviehouse. Of nearly equal significance was that all three of the other Pulitzer finalists were also women: Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori for “Fun Home,’’ and Madeleine George for “The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence.’’

But a couple of weeks later came a torrent of cold water, when the names of the Tony Award nominees for Best Play were released and not one of those names belonged to a woman. None was eligible because no Broadway producer had seen fit to stage a new drama by a female playwright.

Nationally, a match had already been lit under the drive toward gender parity a couple of months before, at a panel discussion of artistic directors held at Washington’s Arena Stage and moderated by Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks. When Marks asked why more works written by women are not seen onstage, especially considering that they make up a majority of the theatergoing audience, Ryan Rilette, artistic director of Round House Theatre, in Bethesda, Md., replied that there were not enough dramas by female playwrights “in the pipeline.”

The reaction was quick and fierce. “That was a real moment of crystallization for people around the country,’’ said Brownstein, because it made clear that “people who really should know better didn’t seem to know where to find plays by women.’’ In response, the Kilroys, an advocacy group of female playwrights, producers, and dramaturges, put out a list of 46 new plays by women, culled from an original roster of more than 300, that leading theater professionals considered strong candidates for production.

Ally Dawson plays Kalki in “The Chronicles of Kalki,” a story about women, by a woman.
Paul Fox
Ally Dawson plays Kalki in “The Chronicles of Kalki,” a story about women, by a woman.

But women like Butcher, 27, are done waiting. As an actress who had given vividly memorable performances in plays as different as “Uncle Vanya’’ and “Hookman,’’ Butcher grew frustrated by how many productions consigned women to supporting roles: the protagonist’s girlfriend, mother, or sister. “I just found as a working actress that there weren’t enough really well-developed parts for women, and I wished there was something that focuses more on bringing women’s stories to the forefront,’’ she told me.

So she took matters into her own hands, teaming up last year with Alyce Householter to found Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company in Somerville. Their mission: to focus on new plays with female protagonists. In order for Maiden Phoenix to produce a play, it must tell a woman’s story (though the playwright can be either female or male), and at least half of the roles have to be female. The company recently commissioned its first new play: “Miss Penitentiary,’’ by local playwright Laura Neubauer, which Butcher describes as “ ‘Orange is the New Black’ meets ‘Miss Congeniality.’ ”

It will receive a staged reading next month, with a full production scheduled for next November. Here’s hoping that by then it’s just one of many plays written by women that have found a home on New England stages. There are important voices that all of us need to hear, so let’s start listening.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.