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Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017
Arts & Music

Women playwrights take center stage at Tampa Bay Theatre Festival

TAMPA — When she penned a play about a legendary theatrical scribe, Kris Bauske made the character a man.

“I had to be true to reality,” she said.

But offstage, Bauske advocates for opening the field to more women playwrights as a board member of the International Centre for Women Playwrights.

“Of all the playwrights over the past 40 years, the household names are all men,” she lamented.

In fact, only 22 percent of plays produced by theaters in the U.S. are written by women, the Dramatists Guild of America says.

Still, Bauske believes change is coming and cites this year’s Tampa Bay Theatre Festival as proof.

Of the five feature length plays in competition during the second annual event, running Sept. 4-6, all were written by women.

“What a tremendous moment for women and the festival,” said Bauske, whose play is among the five in competition. “That the festival has the confidence to put together an all-woman lineup says all you need to know about their courage.”

The female-centric event was accidental.

Play scripts had the writers’ names blacked out when submitted for review to the 35-member selection committee.

It could have just as easily been a male-only festival.

But blind review is how it should be, said Joy Meads, founding member of Los Angeles-based female playwright advocacy group The Kilroys. When all things are equal, women earn their spots based on talent.

“I truly believe that American theater doesn’t want to be biased,” Meads said. “There is not a conspiracy to silence the voices of women. I think the bias is unconscious. By not allowing gender to be an issue when reading a play, we can help make the process fair.”

Using the same selection process, two of the five plays in competition at last year’s inaugural Tampa Bay Theatre Festival were written by women.

“I think our lineup will open a lot of eyes to the talent of women,” said Rory Lawrence, festival founder and president. “And it accomplishes a goal of the festival — to provide opportunities to all people regardless of race or gender. We focus on quality and that’s it.”

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The writers may be women this year but men can relate to the stories, Lawrence said. All but one is about men.

“American Heartbeat,” by Martha Velez, is a musical about a Vietnam vet and an illegal immigrant, both down on their luck men, competing for the same job. It takes center stage at the Jaeb Theater 4 p.m. Sept. 5.

“Six Triple Eight” by Mary McCallum, the only play with a female-driven storyline, tells of the first African-American female battalion to arrive in Europe in World War II. It shows 7 p.m. on Sept. 5 at Jaeb Theater.

The comedy “Dinner for Six” by Lil Barcaski is about a group of men friends who try to produce a play they saw 20 years earlier that changed their lives, only to realize their perceptions as teens may have been a bit off. It shows 7 p.m. Sept. 5 at Stageworks Theatre.

Then there is “The Green Grass” by Tiffany Edwards. This play is about the CEO of a Fortune 500 company who realizes — as the title suggests — that the grass is not always greener on the other side. It shows 7.m. Sept. 5 at Hillsborough Community College’s Main Stage Theatre in Ybor City.

Bauske’s “The Nearly Final Almost Posthumous Play of the Not-Quite-Dead Sutton McAllister” is a comedy about the family and friends of a world-renowned male playwright looking to capitalize on his pending death after he suffers a major stroke. It shows 4 p.m. Sept. 6 at Stageworks Theatre.

The Tampa Bay Theatre Festival also features educational workshops, short plays and parties.

The full schedule and ticket information is at www.tampabaytheatrefestival.com.

None of these plays “has hit the big time yet,” Lawrence said.

As with most plays on the theatre festival circuit, they are still awaiting discovery so the scripts can be optioned by theater companies throughout the U.S.

That will be difficult for the playwrights, in part because of their gender.

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The dismal findings for women playwrights revealed in the Dramatists Guild report are based on a study of 2,508 productions at nonprofit theatres nationwide over three years.

Classics — those initially produced 50 years ago or longer — were not included in the study to factor out distortion from an era when women playwrights were unheard of.

The full report, titled “The Count,” with a breakdown from each city and region, will be released until the fall.

Cities in the Tampa area will be included.

“There is no doubt that female playwrights are in a situation where it is harder to get their work seen,” said Anna Brennen, retired founder of Stageworks Theatre. “That’s why Rory Lawrence’s festival should be celebrated.”

Part of the issue, said “Dinner for Six” playwright Barcaski, is simple numbers — more men than women are writing.

“I don’t think the fact that we are choosing plays written mainly by men is purposeful,” said Barcaski, who is also artistic director of Gypsy Stage Repertory in Tampa. The group has not yet chosen plays for its next season.

“More men are published. Therefore, there are less plays written by women to choose from.”

According to a 2009 study by Emily Sands of Princeton University, there are twice as many male playwrights as female.

Still, Sands’ study also showed gender bias.

She sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country, putting a male name on half and a female on the other half. Those with the female name received significantly worse ratings.

But according to Sands’ study, female plays are 18 percent more profitable than men’s.

“It is difficult to break through,” said “American Heartbeat” writer Velez, who as a singer has recorded with Bob Marley, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison.

“If you are the girl in the room and can deliver, the men respect you,” Velez said. “But it is hard to get into that room. The Tampa festival provides the exposure that can open doors.”

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Theater is just one of the visual performance arts with equality issues.

Only 7 percent of the top 250 grossing films of 2014 were directed by women, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego University.

A play’s author is the equivalent of a film’s director. As with the director, it is the author whose vision endures.

To combat this inequality in theatre, the International Center for Women Playwrights created the 50/50 Applause Award that honors theaters for producing a season with an equal or greater number of plays written by female playwrights. The organization advocates for audiences to support those theatres.

The goal, as reflected in the name of the award, is 50/50 playwright diversity by 2020.

The Kilroys work toward that goal by producing an annual list of the best plays written by women and transgender people that are either unproduced or produced just once.

They do so by asking hundreds of influential leaders from their industry — artistic directors, literary managers, professors — to recommend picks for the top three to five scripts.

The Kilroys then publish the titles of the most recommended plays from this survey. It is their way of doing the research for theatre companies. Of the 46 who made the 2014 list, 28 have been produced.

Each of the feature plays at the Tampa bay Theatre Festival is also produced and directed by the female playwrights.

That may be what it takes for more women writers to have their plays produced, said retired Stageworks founder Brennen. Do all the work, enter it in festivals and get so many good reviews that theaters cannot ignore the talent.

“Theatres are small cliques,” Brennen said, “and hard to break into, and it is especially hard for a female to break into a male theatre clique, which they traditionally have been.

“So start your own clique. Place your destiny in your own hands.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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