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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: Broadway Is Still a Glass Ceiling

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So I went to 42nd St. over the weekend to see Machinal, a play that was new to me, starring Rebecca Hall. I was particularly excited that it was created by a woman playwright and journalist whose name I did not know, Sophie Treadwell. Finally a new female voice in theatre! Then, I realized the play was written and last performed on Broadway in 1928.

Ah yes, there is another female writer of a dramatic play represented in the Broadway listings -- the revival of Raisin In the Sun opens soon -- whoops -- Larraine Hansberry wrote that in 1959.

The only "new" play written by a woman is The Bridges of Madison County -- from a novel written by a man, let me remind you -- that's for the Broadway musical version opening this week. If you're a cynic, that one might even raise suspicions... a treacly love story? Give it to a girl!

Female directors seem to have penetrated the large stages of New York much better -- Julie Taymor and Susan Strohman in particular. Taymor hit it big with The Lion King, then failed spectacularly with Spiderman, but she's here to stay. The Producers sealed the deal for Strohman and now she is directing Bullets Over Broadway, opening next month. If one has any doubt women can take the helm of a big theatrical event, look only at last year's Tony winners: both best direction of a play and musical went to women: Pam McKinnon for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Diane Paulus for Pippin.

Writers, however, still seem to be another issue. When you talk about this with people in the theatre world, it usually comes down to a catch-22. Investors in plays and musicals -- which cost millions -- like to feel safe. And they feel safer with familiar names behind the plays... and by definition, those have been traditionally male. Yes, Lucky Guy, the last and unfinished piece by Nora Ephron, was a smash hit, but no one doubts that one was due to her friend Tom Hanks stepping in. Similarly, Dead Accounts was written by Theresa Rebeck and got up largely because of the stunt casting of Katie Holmes. Hopefully, those don't give investors and producers more excuses.

Things are much healthier OFF Broadway -- not to mention regional theatres across the country. On every list of most exciting playwrights are at least four or five American women: Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Sarah Ruhl, Lisa Kron, Lisa D'Amour. Lynn Nottage -- who is not only female but African American -- won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back for Ruined and even that one performed off Broadway. FYI: the late and much missed Wendy Wasserstein had virtually all her plays done off-Broadway,something that gnawed at her.

While their shows all feature women in key roles... though not only women -- one would not necessarily know they are written by them. One of the funniest shows I saw -- off-Broadway, of course -- last season was The Explorers Club, written by Nell Benjamin. Although it did deal with a woman facing sexism -- trying to join a stuffy men's club in the days of hunting and gathering -- nothing felt remotely "feminine' about it.

The same could be said about Row After Row, which was presented by The Womens Project. Founded in 1978, its mission was, and is, to give support to women in theatre. I asked its Artistic Director, Julie Crosby, if the goal of the organization is to go OUT of business. (because they are getting enough exposure elsewhere) "Unfortunately, we are still vital," she said. "The percentages for women right now are not good. I am hopeful the next few generations will be more open."

Crosby also takes issue with the old adage that women write more character-driven, female oriented plays. "I don't see it," says Crosby. "I see women writers tackling all issues deeply. Does Edward Albee write for men"?

Which brings me back to 42nd St. and Machinal. This expressionistic play is bleak and an acquired taste, but what does resonate are many of the words -- those that only a woman could write. When the main character protests -- just before being electrocuted for murdering the husband who has abused and repressed her -- she's told, "you'll submit, my lady, right to the end." "Was it a happy marriage"? she's asked by her attorney at one point. When she does not respond, he continues, "Did you quarrel"? She shakes her head. "Then it was a happy marriage."

To fully appreciate women's voices on stage, we may all have to go to Washington D.C next year. Forty four companies there have agreed to commission works by women and they will comprise the Womens' Voices Theatre Festival. Let's hope Broadway gets the message and that the Great White Way does it the Great Right Way.