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Julia Jordan — Gender Parity — A “nice writer-girl from Minnesota”

This talk was very emotional and, yes, I admit it, choked me up.  Jordan came at the talk from a very emotional place and it was affecting.  I have given two eulogies in my life for grandparents (Ruth Hayes and Frank Warden) and I wrote from a very personal and emotional place and Jordan’s talk hit me right in the same place, so I was quite affected by it.

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The story that Jordan tells is of her incredibly strong-willed, strong-spirited grandmother (Mary) whose strength clearly resonates in Jordan.  Jordan’s tale is unfortunately not that unique, as she admits.  My grandmother, Ruth Warden–not Ruth Hayes–grew up on a farm in the great depression and had 10 siblings.  She worked tirelessly herself on farms, in canning factories, and scrubbing floors, and finally as a nurse.  She was a strong woman whose work ethic and practicality make me blush like the girl I am compared with her.  My wife, Kirsten, can tell similar stories of her grandmother.  The early part of the 20th century produced strong women, and men, the likes of which we don’t find too often anymore in our age of entitlement.  I don’t think I ever heard Ruth Warden, my “Meme,” once say the word “owe” as in, “he…she…they… owe me.”  Or “I deserve.”  Whether she thought it or not, I do not know.  But by all signs I would say that she did not.  She simply did what needed to be done.  This, too, is the tale told by Jordan of her grandmother.

The point, and focus, therefore, being as it is on strong women, is that there is an imbalance in the number of women playwrights being produced, especially given the number of women playwrights working, and Jordan sought answers to the “why” of this.  As well, she worked with several other playwrights, including Martha Norman, to establish the Lilly Awards, named after Lillian Hellman, to recognized women in theater.  And yet, as Jordan points out, after all her grandmother went through in her life, the idea that she is complaining that her theater career is not as it should be seems somewhat frivolous.

Jordan notes that was in looking with a friend at the list of plays that were being produced in the upcoming year, and noting that there were less women on that list than the usual “one in five slots to which we were accustomed” that she finally decided to do something.  Jordan says that she firmly believes that if the “production rate had stayed above the 17-20% mark that she would have kept her mouth shut.”

Jordan then listed the common arguments to which she was exposed and to which she often listened:

  • That established writers are overwhelmingly male;
  • That male artistic directors were just more drawn to male works;
  • That male writers write more dramatically, while females write more poetically;
  • That drama is more commercial that flowery and poetic script;
  • That things will get better in the future when there are more women artistic directors;

The problem for Jordan was that she had been hearing those arguments for years: since she was a student, and now, no longer a student but a teacher at Columbia, and things still had not changed.  Jordan then looked at her 2001 NYSCA report which noted that 17% of productions were by women playwrights and then Jordan examined the TCG list of top ten plays (she refers to it as “most often produced plays”) and noted numbers here, where are unclear to me–17% of first productions and then double that the next year? 34%?  For clarification as to the significance of this discovery, Jordan called her date to her senior year high-school valentine dance, which was Freakonomics author Steven Levitt.  While Levitt told her that she really hadn’t discovered definitive proof of bias in the American theater, as Jordan suggested, he encouraged her to find someone who had a statistical bent to look at the issue more closely.  In the mean time, as she googled about on the subject of bias in the arts, she discovered the study Orchestrating Impartiality by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse; which found that when orchestra performers auditioned behind screens (blind auditions) the representation of women and minorities in orchestras vastly improved.  So, Jordan found Cecilia and met with her: Emily Sans was guided toward the project as her thesis.  She did three studies:

  • Supply (are women present in the same numbers as men?)
    • 30% of submissions are women (artistic directors reporting)
    • Doolee/TCG — 30% representation
    • Tough, because it doesn’t match up with women’s experience.
    • Hard also because of the reality, which is making a living as a playwright is hard. Jordan notes that as hard as it is for men to juggle responsibilities and playwriting, it’s harder for women and the attrition rate is higher–less supply.
  • Audit study
    • 4 scripts read by various artistic directors
    • Reported, variously, as authored by men or women
    • No bias on subject of excellence with regard to the sex of the individual playwright
    • However, Sans did find that women respondents regarding the plays believed there would be:
      • Fewer tickets sold
      • More negative reviews
      • Top talent would be harder to attract
      • Artistic directors would not want to produce
      • Would not fit with the theater’s mission
    • That is, if the script was “penned” by a male, it was not viewed as having these challenges.
    • Sans found bias — “A really interesting kind” — “self-fulfilling prophesy” or “women in theater are just reporting honestly what they see and know to be true”.
  • Broadway Study
    • 10 years of Broadway plays
    • Throughout outliers
    • Judged plays against plays, musicals against musicals, and one-person shows against one-person shows.
    • Shows by women made on average 18% more money, but were subject to shorter runs than shows by men.  This was the strongest evidence of bias in economic terms, because, of course, why would investors willingly cut short runs of plays that are making more money?
    • The only way that there is a problem with the study’s judgment is if each show by a woman cost 18% more to mount than did a show by a man.  But, as Jordan pointed out, on average plays produced by women are produced in smaller spaces and have smaller cast sizes than plays by men.

Jordan then goes on to note that women dominate theater in high school and college.  In writing departments their numbers are similar to those of men at the graduate level. Agents rep around 50/50. Theaters state that 30% of scripts are submitted by women, and in turn that theater produce 20% of those scripts.  “That’s what happens to female writers: attrition.”  Jordan then casts the argument and findings in terms of race to highlight the discrepancy and “merit” considerations.

Per my comment above with regard to my Meme, Jordan’s grandmother never complained or bemoaned what had happen to her.  And she won’t complain about her own position.  But all things being equal in any conditions and circumstances, men will do better than women in terms of making a living in the theater, or Jordan suggests, any art: except the orchestra: which holds its auditions behind screens to ensure that the race and gender of the applicant is hidden.
While Jordan notes that the fact that only 1 in 5 women playwrights get produced is a small problem in a small context that many people don’t care about.  But she notes, as given the story and history of her grandmother, that the problem isn’t just in theater: it’s bigger than that and reflects the whole of our society.  Further, Jordan encourages that if it’s our small problem in our small area than it is ours to fix.  And that by fixing it, and putting the stories of more women on the stages “we will help in the best way we can to re-define in the audience’s mind: who, and what women have always been, are, and can be.”

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