Arts Desk

The Demographics of D.C. Theater: White, Male, and Frequently Dead

theater

Theatergoing is still generally considered a pastime for the privileged, and not only because of the high cost of tickets. In large part, the perspectives, situations, vocabularies, and ideologies conveyed on so many stages tend to be written from a white, male, Western perspective. That might not come as a shock, considering that American theaters favor the art form that flourished in a patriarchal and imperial Europe. But theater companies and directors are to blame, too, given their tendency to keep drawing water from the same well.

So how insular are D.C.’s stages now, in a time when theater isn’t as exclusive as it once was? To find out, playwrights Gwydion Suilebhan, Patricia Connelly, and David Mitchell Robinson examined plays opening locally this fall, looking at the playwrights, types of works, and directors behind D.C.’s 2013-2014 season. (This is the second year Suilebhan has published his findings; he posts them on his website, suilebhan.com.)

The playwrights haven’t finished the job yet; the statistics they collected reflect only 39 companies (roughly 40 to 50 percent of D.C.’s active troupes) and 179 plays (about 85 percent of works expected to be produced this season). So far, they’ve found that D.C. stages are still blindingly white and stubbornly male, with only a slight change from last year. Is the moderate improvement promising or depressing? “There are many things about this data that I would like to change, but I wouldn’t call myself depressed,” Suilebhan says. “I’d say I’m impatient for the revolution.”

D.C.'s 2012-2013 theater season, as examined by Gwydion Suilebhan, Patricia Connelly, and David Mitchell Robinson:

76 percent male playwrights
(In 2012-2013 season: 79 percent)

70 percent male directors

84 percent white playwrights
(In 2012-2013 season: 86 percent)

84 percent white directors

25 percent dead playwrights

18 percent world premieres

11 percent local playwrights
(in 2012-2013 season: 16 percent)

73 percent local directors

Photo by Flickr user DeaPeaJay used under a Creative Commons license

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  • Barry Morase

    Why is this shocking?

  • peter rosenstein

    These findings really don't mean much without details. Do they consider Michael Kahn a local director? Are they offended and think there should be less Shakespeare because he is a white writer?

    Maybe people need to look at these statistics in much more detail to see what they really mean?

    How many new plays are written each year by men and how many by women?

    Things should possibly change but people need more information to make that decision.

  • Mme Bahorel

    Shakespeare Theatre Company does 6 shows a year, but only 3 by Shakespeare. The issue is not Shakespeare, but that there have been female playwrights and non-white playwrights active in the pre-1940 era. Many of these works are likely too dated for a modern audience to appreciate more than academically, but that hasn't stopped the company from commissioning new adaptations by David Ives of classic French comedies with significant changes to plot and characterisation to appeal to modern audiences.

    Therefore, should there be a priority to look more closely at additional options through the ReDiscovery Readings and push more into production? Folger did a fantastic production (v. little adapted - just new prologue and epilogue speeches and maybe a little cutting for time) of Susanna Centlivre's The Basset Table a couple seasons back. There are scripts that exist - not in the quantity of scripts by white guys, but there are scripts. And there are wider circles of adapters - still hoping for a full production of Freyda Thomas' adaptation of Regnard's The Gamester that was done at ReDiscovery a few years ago, but the adaptations that have gone into production have all three been by male writers. Folger does one non-Shakespeare a year, generally (this year an exception with the Fiasco invitation), and they've made some interesting choices for that slot.

    Personally, I want more Spanish Golden Age comedies on that stage. The plots are great and the female characters have more agency and make more interesting choices than you generally see in contemporaneous French and English works.

    I don't really care, since I enjoy seeing these classic texts by dead white guys on stage, but can we at least acknowledge that there is no pure Shakespeare company in this town? Those eight shows (if we count Free for All as part of this season) by one guy are really skewing the data, aren't they?

  • caligula

    "Theatergoing is still generally considered a pastime for the privileged, and not only because of the high cost of tickets. In large part, the perspectives, situations, vocabularies, and ideologies conveyed on so many stages tend to be written from a white, male, Western perspective. That might not come as a shock, considering that American theaters favor the art form that flourished in a patriarchal and imperial Europe."

    Pardon me as I step out to vomit and check my cis privilege

  • Marcus Kyd

    what about ratio of actresses to actors? or stage managers and stage hands? designers? is the amount of work being created for women being considered?

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