Should it be ‘Ernest’s Script Vault’ instead of Amy’s?

Last night I attended a presentation at Primary Stages and 59E59 Theaters called ‘Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater’ by economist Emily Glassberg Sands (see post from June 17). According to her findings, I am more likely to have my plays produced by an American theater body if I adopt Ernest as my pseudonym and make Steve my protagonist rather than, say, Stephanie (I would also do well to make Steve ‘likeable’).

Sands conducted three separate studies. In the first she examined data drawn from an online registry of playwrights; in the second, she surveyed theaters using mock prospective scripts; and in the last she looked at Broadway plays produced over the last ten years. The following is a summary of her results.

Study 1

There are more male playwrights than female playwrights. This could be for a number of reasons: access to training, access to the time, space and money needed for writing, or, what Sands referred to as the ‘discouraged worker’ phenomenon (i.e. that sinking feeling you get after watching the Tony Awards that puts you off writing for a week) having greater prevalence among female playwrights than male playwrights. In addition to this, those women who are playwrights tend to be less prolific. Why? Hard to say. Perhaps for some of the same reasons identified above. Sands questions whether there is evidence that men and women write different kinds of scripts, which leads into Study 2. Other tidbits of note:

  • Men tend to write plays with larger casts than women.
  • Plays with female roles are 4%  less likely to be produced than plays with male roles (this may sound insignificant — but keep in mind that the data behind this statistic is a small sample. Considered in proportional terms, 4% is actually a remarkable disparity).
  • The rates at which plays are produced among women and men are equal.

Study 2

Sands prepared four sample scripts to send out to theaters. For each script she made a number of copies and then identified half of those copies with a ‘male’ pseudonym and the other half with a ‘female’ pseudonym. So, for example, 250 copies of Script A are made; 125 of them are authored by Mary Walker and the other 125 by Michael Walker. She then sent the scripts out to randomly selected theaters, along with a survey. The survey posed 18 questions about the overall quality of the script, the economic prospects of the script should it go into production, the appeal the script would have for an audience, and how well the script fit into the theater’s mission statement. The results:

  • Characters by women writers are perceived as less ‘likeable’ than characters written by men (recall that the scripts sent out were identical except for the name of the author).
  • Women’s scripts have poorer economic prospects (according to literary management and artistic directorship).
  • Lower quality ratings in the survey tended to be driven by female artistic directors. Male ADs rated men and woman more equally while female ADs rated both significantly lower.
  • Female ADs perceived scripts to fit less well with their theaters’ mission statements when written by a female playwright — signaling what Sands called ‘a heightened awareness of discrimination’.
  • Scripts written by a woman with a woman protagonist are least likely to be produced (again, recall that the scripts in question were exactly the same except for the name of the author).

Study 3

In this study, Sands explored whether the bar was set higher for women playwrights. She looked at Broadway productions, specifically data on shows produced between January 1, 1999 and January 1, 2009 — a total of 329 shows not including revivals — where the writers involved were clearly identifiable as male or female. The focus on for-profit theater meant that it was possible to quantify the play according to its economic viability. According to Study 3:

  • Broadway plays written by women have higher revenue than plays written by men. Shows by women playwrights pulled in 18% more profit than shows by men.
  • Despite higher revenue, shows written by women run on Broadway for the same length of time as less profitable shows written by men — clear evidence that women must achieve higher revenue in order to have their shows run at least as long as those of their male counterparts.

An interesting discussion ensued: what is the impact of agents on the study, should teachers of playwriting encourage their female students to change their names to Mike or, if they’re not willing to go so far, at least employ an initial for their first names. I was particularly interested in this question of ‘likeability’. What does it mean to ‘like’ a character? What does it mean to ‘like’ a play? As I looked around, I saw very few men in the audience, and even fewer people of color. Where do we as women writers of color fit into this study? Do we fit into it at all? It’s one thing to change the author’s name on a script from Mary Walker to Michael Walker. But what happens when we change the name from Jamal Williams to Aischa Jones? Or Jaunise Johnson to José Martinez? Returning to the question of ‘likeability’, to what extent can we assume that a protagonist of color can achieve the same level of likeability as a white protagonist of any gender? Sands’ approach, while referencing studies where racial discrimination was at issue, does not factor in race; it assumes a universal experience among women writers, leaving us marooned in a sort of colorblind no-(wo)man’s land. Gender-based discrimination (the word ‘sexism’ was not once uttered during the two hours I was there) is only one of the challenges we as women writers of color must confront. While I applaud Sands’ work in crunching the numbers and confronting the voices that demand concrete evidence when questions of sexism arise, I remain ambivalent as to how much I can expect my experience to be reflected in her findings.