Arts Desk

Forum Explores Theater’s Gender Gaps

Artistic Director Michael Dove is no stranger to a heated debate. But as we sit down for coffee on a weirdly balmy afternoon, he immediately admits to being rattled. "I'm a little nervous about this whole thing," he says.  He's referring to The Female POV In Theater Symposium that Forum Theater will host this Saturday as the culminating event of its Female Voices Festival.

The idea behind Forum's 2011/2012 season and its festival began with a conversation about presenting "more diverse voices in the shows that we're doing," explains Dove. Then "someone—it was probably Hannah [Hessel, Forum's "openforum coordinator"]—she was like, well we really need to do better about producing female playwrights.'" Dove took a look at the company's nine-year production history and realized it had only produced Naomi Wallace and Caryl Churchill. "I was thinking about numbers of productions, but it was only two female playwrights. And—I was going to say it floored me—it literally made me want to fall to the ground. I could not believe that I had not noticed that.

"I'm a pretty progressive guy," he continues. "I have those things in my mind.  So if that didn't stand out to me, it makes me then wonder about the entire theatermaking community in the U.S."

Forum's current season of four shows includes works by three female playwrights—in other words, Forum has now more than doubled the number of plays by women it has produced. "That's part of why I'm nervous," says Dove. "I feel embarrassed, to be honest, and I think I should... I think we all should feel embarrassed because the focus is on parity of gender, but it's a larger question, too."

When I speak with Hessel over wine a few days later, she remembers those first conversations with Dove differently. "I think he discovered it on his own actually," she says—but she agrees with the notion that "it's the same thing with other minorities. We're doing very poorly with producing African American playwrights. The same thing with Hispanic playwrights."

The symposium consists of two panel discussion related to gender disparity in theater: "Who Is Produced and Why?" and "Is There a Female Voice?" "These conversations become really tricky," Hessel says. "We have this politically correct niceness and we don't want to say that there's actually a difference [between how men and women write]."  But Hessel believes there is a difference.  "A lot of women's playwrighting doesn't follow the same linear structures that male playwrights follow. Those are structures that as audiences and theater makers we've grown up thinking are the structures...[female] work feels more challenging because we're not used to looking at a play from multidimensions."

A wide range of opinions on the matter should become evident during the discussion on Saturday. In one way, those differing views have already complicated the festival. "Once we realized that this was something we wanted to have a conversation about," says Hessel, "I wrote a list of questions and basically sent it to every female playwright, artistic director, and literary director in town. Some people...wrote back these amazing, beautiful, articulate pieces. And then a lot of people were like, 'You know I don't really see this as being an issue.'" In the end, Hessel says, she and Dove have assembled as "diverse a panel of people, at different points in their careers, and with different connections to theater," as interest and scheduling allowed.

But Saturday's discussion won't just address how women write. How great are gender disparities in the theater world? Who buys more tickets, men or women? What about the staffs of regionals theaters? How many artistic directors are female? Dove says they'll even present some stats on how frequently women playwrights are produced in the D.C. theater community.

And how did Forum come by all that information? "We have a new intern," says Dove. "We just sent them to Helen Hayes to look at all of their paperwork."

The Female POV in Theater Symposium takes place Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Panelists include Renee Calarco, Allyson Currin, Jackie Lawton, Eleanor Holdridge, Colin Hovde, Anne McCaw, Jennifer L. Nelson, Helen Pafumi, and Ronee Penoi.

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