Theaters Challenged to Produce Work by Anyone Other than Straight White Dudes

The issue of parity — the state or condition of being equal — is a hot one these days. As corporate America slowly comes around to the idea of giving women luxuries like equal pay and a room with a chair that’s not a toilet to pump milk for their babies, arts organizations are jumping on board. The theater community is especially excited about growing the presence of women and underrepresented minority groups. Organizations like The Kilroys, a collective of producers and playwrights in Los Angeles that promotes women in theater, Statera Foundation and The Lilly Awards are specifically working to produce women playwrights, artistic directors and actresses.

One theater in Austin is taking this idea to another level. Kirk Lynn, a co-producing artistic director of Rude Mechs in Austin, developed the idea of a “Jubilee Year,” in which every theater in America would pledge to produce only works written by women, people of color, LGBTQA individuals and people with disabilities for the 2020-21 season. The conversation and list of participants is growing on a HowlRound site created for the Jubilee Year.

So, can it work? Teresa Coleman Wash, artistic director of Bishop Arts Theatre Center, says yes. Wash has committed her 2020 season and issues the challenge to her fellow Dallasites. She found out about this idea from a member of her board and loved it. Of course, Wash and her crew are already doing the work. BATC just produced a festival of one-act plays, Down for #TheCount, which comprised six plays written exclusively by female playwrights. Wash hopes to continue this work for the Jubilee season, by getting better acquainted with female playwrights, including local writers.

Katherine Owens, artistic director of Undermain Theatre, says the initiative is bold.

“I love Kirk Lynn and think the world of him. I think the work they are doing is absolutely wonderful," she says. "There’s a lot that goes into selecting a season. This really gives me something to consider.”

Owens has worked closely with Meg Miroshnik, a Kilroys member and playwright, producing two of her new plays over the past two years. Undermain also produced Annie Baker’s The Flick last season.

Kathleen Culebro, artistic director of Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth, has a more varied response to the challenge.

“As a playwright, I support the proposal of a season made up entirely of plays by women," she says. "As a female artistic director, however, I’ve felt for a long time that the conversation is much bigger than the one we’ve been having lately. While I don’t excuse companies that exclude the work of women playwrights, I do believe we need to bring to light the impossible constraints to sell more tickets, serve more individuals and raise our earned income percentages. The more persons reached per dollar the better the funding score a nonprofit receives.

"If this is the barometer, then plays by women are at a disadvantage because we have historically been so underrepresented that we haven’t had a chance to showcase a body of work that is tested and accepted into the canon. I believe that the moment theaters are funded based on the quality of the work and on their creative impact on the field, rather than on numbers served, artistic directors will flock to the thrilling plays women are writing today. At the same time, we should make sure we are hiring women directors and selecting plays with ample roles for women.”

Though Owens and Culebro may have more reserved responses to the Jubilee Challenge, their work speaks for itself. Both women frequently take chances on new plays by female playwrights. In 2015, Amphibian commissioned and produced the world premiere of Brenda Withers’ The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote. Though there is pressure by the powers that fund theater to turn out work that draws a crowd, these ladies aren’t scared of that challenge.

The Kilroys describe themselves as “a gang of playwrights and producers in LA who are done talking about gender parity and are taking action. We mobilize others in our field and leverage our own power to support one another.”

Like that group, women in Dallas theater are consistently doing the work that the Jubilee Challenge seeks to encourage across the country. Here are theaters truly practicing equity in the arts by just doing it. So let’s ask the men in town: Are you up to the challenge?

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Katy Lemieux is a Dallas-based writer covering theater and the arts. She is a mother to two beautiful human children and three beautiful animal children. She has been published in Esquire Magazine, Texas Monthly, D Magazine, TheaterJones, American Theatre Magazine and most notably The Senior Voice.