Twin Cities theater professionals are pointing out the Guthrie Theater's upcoming season is missing something important.
As soon as I posted the season announcement news to Facebook, a flurry of comments showed up from women theater directors.
"What decade are we in?"
"This season is a tragedy."
"Sad. Tragic. Wrong."
Indeed, the 2012-2013 season is overwhelmingly white and male.
In addition to featuring a season of plays almost entirely written and directed by men, the Guthrie will also be hosting two productions by Propeller Theatre Company, which features traditional, all-male productions of Shakespeare plays.
Image: Propeller Theatre Company
Of the 12 productions slated for the Guthrie's two large stages, the Wurtele thrust and the McGuire proscenium, not one of them was written by a woman. And only one of them ("Nice Fish") is being co-directed by a woman (along with Mark Rylance).
In addition, the men involved in writing and staging these plays are all white - the most diverse among them is Carlo Goldoni, an Italian playwright from the 1700s.
The Guthrie's third stage, the Dowling Studio, has yet to be fully programmed for the coming season, but at this point it does include one play co-written by a woman. It's an adaptation of Homer's "Iliad."
Leah Cooper, who is both a theater director and the head of the Minnesota Theater Alliance, says it's insulting and degrading to see so little regard for representation by the state's largest performing arts institution.
For artists it's insulting and degrading to see so little regard for representation by the state's largest performing arts institution. But for all our citizens - audiences, artists, donors, volunteers, tax-payers, students - this is mainstream arts telling us that the voices and stories and perspective of women and people of color are not important, not relevant, not worth telling, sharing or knowing. The Guthrie has a tremendous amount of talent, resource, and community support with which its artists could be broadening our experience, inspiring us to greater empathy and deeper understanding of ALL the people in our world. And like any theater, they depend on growing and diversifying their audience to thrive. So the continued bias against women and people of color in leadership and authorship is either embarrassingly myopic or willfully negligent.
Director Genevieve Bennett agrees.
The final sentence in the Guthrie Theater's history, as stated on its website, reads: "Forever growing and changing as the community that founded it changes, the Guthrie Theater is a living organization reflecting the culture and human spirit of its audiences today."
In light of the Guthrie's choices for 2012-2013, it can hardly lay claim to that statement.
While Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling was not available to respond over the phone to these complaints, he did send me a written response:
It is accurate that the program announced yesterday included one woman director, Claire Van Kampen, and one woman playwright, Lisa Peterson. And, as in previous seasons, other details and programming will be announced at later dates as not every project can be finalized in time for our budget deadlines. I look forward to sharing more about the season in the weeks to come and I welcome an ongoing dialogue within our community about the issues raised today.
This is certainly a restrained tone compared to the enthusiasm he showed yesterday about a season he called "so varied and immediate."
The truth is that the Guthrie is hardly alone when it comes to booking seasons that are predominantly written and directed by white men.
It includes numerous studies finding that plays staged in major cities are ovewhelmingly written by men - usually somewhere between 70 percent and 80 percent of them. Even though women make up far more than 20-30 percent of the working playwrights.
One of the articles, by Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright Marsha Norman, deplores the current state of affairs:
We need to hear all the American stories, not half of them. When Bill Gates went to Saudi Arabia, he declared publicly that the only way it could possibly compete as a first-class country was if it started using more than 50 percent of its brain power. And the women, covered in burkas, their identities obscured as their society demands, cheered. If American theatres want to produce the best work, they will have to find a way through our own cultural issues in order to grant equal status to the words and work of women. A theatre that is missing the work of women is missing half the story, half the canon, half the life of our time. That is the situation we have now.
Norman writes, "Women buy 70 percent of theatre tickets sold, and make up 60 percent of the audience." But despite their collective buying power, they continue to be offered plays predominantly written and directed by men.
It is easy to agree with these statements of inclusion and calls for diversity. Women do hold a lot of the leadership roles in managing major non-profit organizations and foundations in Minnesota. A person would hope to see some impact and initiative coming from their direction.
In the first 56 years of my life I had no interest in theater. The only plays I attended were ones required in my schooling. After finishing my education, I avoided theater unless there was an occasional play about people of color. This all changed dramatically when I moved to the Twin Cities over five years ago and discovered the abundance plays about the diversity that makes up America.
My partner and I regularly read reviews of plays and one summer we went to see a different play on 3 consecutive nights. I shocked myself. Now I can't imagine living in Minneapolis without attending plays. I've gushed to my friends across the country that the reason I love the Twin Cities is there are diverse plays available. And I proudly tell others that even the mainstream theaters produce theater about the historically underrepresented. This is the characteristic of the Twin Cities that makes it so precious and different from even New York and San Francisco. Consequently, I am disappointed to learn about the Guthrie's plays for this season.
Yet, I am grateful MPR reported on the absence of diversity in the Guthrie's plays. It this kind of expression of unsolicited concern for "minorities" that is a hallmark of the Twin Cities that I treasure. I console myself in knowing that Guthrie's failure this season will not go unnoticed. If the Guthrie cannot correct itself, we can all boycott.
It's an artistic ecosystem .. You can't be everything to all people, which is why the Guthrie is complemented by the existence of TC theaters as artistically diverse as Penumbra, Mixed Blood, Chan, Frank and the Jungle.
Guthrie programming seems to be working or they wouldn't keep producing the same type of shows. As an arts leader, Leah no doubt understands that butts in seats = jobs for artists... perhaps just not the artists SHE wants to see, or better yet the ones she doesn't wants US to see.
Not that I disagree with her root argument, but I would love for Leah to offer up some suggested play titles, directors, etc. Please tell the Guthrie what their audiences want to see because surely she knows them better than the theater's staff of old white men.
"Women buy 70 percent of theatre tickets sold and make up 60 percent of the audience" ... maybe Leah should be trying to convince these 70% to buy at other places, instead of whining about how one organization's programming is somehow problematic. These 70% continue to show the theater, through their purchasing, that it is producing the work they want to see, no?
I hope we don't ever get to a place where the Guthrie is selecting a play simply because it was written by someone a specific gender, race or creed ... it would be a damn shame to have a show included in any theater's season for anything other than artistic merit.
As a female actor, I have heard over and over again that if there were more stellar female directors and playwrights, they would be better utilized. More or less assuming that there is no bias...rather artistic directors are simply choosing brilliant work, and it happens to be white and male. The following is applicable to many theatre companies, not just the Guthrie, though I am disappointed in their season.
I have two major issues with this statement.
1. Arts is subjective.
So if the people in leadership are white and male, they are going to inherently see the value of works that tell the white male story. (With plenty of exceptions of course...but this is an unconscious bias, one we ALL have. I have always real interest in the stories of young female professionals.). Without the push to increase female representation, why would they? Artistic leaders are valued for the superb taste, which they have developed over time. They trust it. The problem is...that taste simply cannot take into account EVERYONE's taste. Which is why it is so crucial to open the perspective and include works that may not be such a direct "hit" for them...as it might be for many others. HBO, while not a theatre company, has started to do this really well.
2. Opportunity cultivates talent.
If it is true that there aren't as many brilliant female playwrights and directors (though I personally do not believe this is true) it MIGHT be due to the lack of opportunity to cultivate their talent. Brad Pitt has said that his current acting ability is largely due to the plethora of roles he was lucky enough to get early in his career. Had he not worked with the best directors on great scripts he would not have developed the skills to take on Tree of Life or Moneyball.
I think we all need to just take a chance on women. If they are not quite meeting the level we want, it is possible that it is because they have never had a chance to create at that level. If we make room, then they no doubt will. This is the same philosophy behind controversial Affirmative Action. Women did not actually do all that well at universities when they were first admitted (overall). Now, they make up more of the university population, and are succeeding.
I was not surprised when I read this article. Mostly because it is a pretty common story for a lot of LORT theatres.
The Twin Cities does have a wonderful group of mid-sized theatres that produce work written and directed by women and people of color more frequently than the Guthrie, but why should these groups be represented almost exclusively in productions of a smaller scale, supported by lower production budgets with lower marketing budgets to promote their work? I'm not meaning to degrade the work of these wonderful mid-sized theatres, but shouldn't all Twin Cities artists have the opportunity to work with the level of support provided by their community's flagship theatre? Given the extreme discrepency in the resources of the Twin Cities' mid-sized institutions dedicated to producing diverse work (Penumbra, Mixed Blood, the Jungle, Mu, Teatro del Pueblo) and the Guthrie, it is unreasonable to excuse the Guthrie's lack of diversity on its main stages simply because it exists in a community in which diverse work is already being done. If anything, that context makes the lack of diversity at the Guthrie all the more inexcusable.
The bottom line is this, the Guthrie's mission (which is most certainly trotted out in the opening lines of any proposal for funding that the theatre submits) is:
The Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963, is an American center for theater performance, production, education and professional training. By presenting both classical literature and new work from diverse cultures, the Guthrie illuminates the common humanity connecting Minnesota to the peoples of the world.
Where are the diverse cultures? Why aren't they being seen on the main stage? If illuminating the common humanity between Minnesotans and the peoples of the world is enough of a priority that it comprises 50% of your mission statement, why is it unrepresented in the bulk of your programming? Is it a priority, or are these words dropped in to open up larger pools of funding?
This is an interesting article on the subject of female work in the field: http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/nov09/women.cfm
Wait? What about me?? What about us? As a woman who works entirely in nonprofit theater, I am disappointed that the contributions of those of us in NON DIRECTING or WRITING roles means so little to Marianne and Leah or to the others up in arms about the Guthrie season ahead. I feel extremely marginalized by their comments, since it seems that only the directors and writers are important, or somewhere in these tirades they would have AT LEAST acknowledged the fact that there are many women working very hard in other roles. As I look over the Guthrie web site list of employees, there seems to be quite A LOT of women, and several in senior management positions. I’m not surprised by Leah’s comments, as the ego centric position many directors/writers have is not a new experience for me or my production/admin/marketing/artistic/sales colleagues, but come on!! I wish that ALL women working in theater would be acknowledged.