Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Kilroys Were There: Playwrights, Gender, and Class: At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part V

Note to the Reader: The following account of the June 26-29, 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Boston was originally written for The Arts Fuse, to which I am a senior contributor but for various reasons, was not used.


The Kilroys, a collective of female playwrights formed in 2014 and based in Los Angeles, had made a splash in online discussions of the new play sector in the week or so before the conference, and was on the tip of the tongue at many. On one front, The Kilroys are a production group modeled upon 13P. 13P had been founded by playwrights whose own experiences with the submission and development process had left them feeling disenfranchised and with plays unproduced. Their mission was to produce one play by each of the member playwrights and then implode (their website continues to exist primarily as a public archive of the project.) In the wake of 13P's deliberate expiration, other 13P-style groups have come into existence, such as Boston's Boston Public Works (see a recent interview with four of BPW's members here), and Washington, D.C.'s The Welders.

That The Kilroys were yet another 13P group, or that they were centered on producing work by female playwrights (one of a number of underrepresented groups among writers in contemporary theater) attracted little controversy. While parts of of Emily Glassberg Sands' 2009 study on gender bias in American theater have been disputed in terms of her methodology and the conclusions she drew, the broader conclusion that female playwrights are less likely to have their plays produced did seem to be supported (a more recent but less formal study by Donna Hoke suggests that a major cause of under representation is that female playwrights simply make fewer submissions). So while The Kilroys' primary mission to produce work by their member playwrights was widely lauded, their decision to publish “The List” attracted far more attention. The List was of 46 plays by 42 female playwrights that had had thus far only one production at most. The plays were selected from over three-hundred plays recommended by 127 “influential new play leaders” invited to participate by The Kilroys themselves.

One of the few published criticisms of The Kilroys' List was in an essay in The Clyde Fitch Report credited to CFR Staff (note, that while I am a sometime contributor to CFR, I was not one of the contributors consulted in the writing of the piece, and I do not agree with all the opinions voiced in that essay) several issues of privilege were raised -- most importantly that of the 46 plays, only one was by a playwright who was not identified as already having an agent and a publisher. The geographical pipeline that privileges New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London stages in determining what gets produced in “the regions” was evident when one considers, as Jessie Baxter, Literary Director of Fresh Ink Theatre Company did. While participating in a panel discussion Baxter, in the midst of discussing her company's mission to develop New England playwrights, noted that “No one was offering both development and production opportunities for new work in Boston,” in part because, “New England writers tend not to have agents.”

Of the over three-hundred plays that were nominated for the Kilroys' List, all but one of the 46 that made the final cut were, by most standards, institutionally privileged playwrights. Recent works by well established playwrights such as Theresa Rebeck, Paula Vogel, and Timberlake Wertenbaker, all of which are likely to be produced widely in the next several years without help from The Kilroys, made the list. Most of the 42 authors whose work made the List of 46 were already well-connected. Looking only at residencies, fellowships, and productions since 2000, I found that twelve of the playwrights had been playwriting fellows at The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center; another twelve had been in residence at The Lark Play Development Center; Seven had been affiliated with Page 73 Productions; Six had had plays produced by Playwrights Horizons; Another six are currently resident playwrights at New Dramatists; and three were alumnae of WordBRIDGE Playwrights' Laboratory (a program designed for playwriting students.) The playwrights whose work made the final 46 were also generally alumnae of the seven playwriting programs whose graduates dominate the new play sector, which Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss identified as Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, University of Texas/Austin, University of Iowa, Brown University, and the non-degree granting program at Juilliard in their book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play

Indeed, of the approximately 250 plays that were nominated and did not make the same cut, most of the playwrights were of these similar cohorts, albeit with fewer honors, or with a less fortunate geographical situation.

In short, the list was not “46 plays by playwrights theater people don't already know but should” but “46 plays by 42 playwrights that theater people likely already know” (indeed, I'm a fan of a few of the dramatists on the list – notably Jenny Schwartz, and the aforementioned Wertenbaker.) There were even two Pulitzer Prize finalists in the mix! (Most Pulitzer finalists were probably too successful to make “The List”.)

The playwrights whose work made the list who already had successful careers and received institutional approval that few playwrights, male or female, critically acclaimed or not, ever achieve. By any standards, these were insiders who had already been vetted by other insiders and being selected for further honors by another set of insiders. Many of the insiders involved in the selection process, as dramaturgs, literary managers, and artistic directors, were already professionally attached to the plays that were nominated. It does not take a cynic to note that an artistic director can nominate one of next season's plays for The Kilroys' List and then include The Kilroys' List in their promotional materials.

The ironies are manifold: a group whose own mission is to get work past the gatekeepers and onto stages, issuing a list that normalizes the authority of the gatekeepers (albeit a group of gatekeepers considered to be sympathetic); a list that aims to increase awareness of women playwrights and advance gender parity, promotes the careers of already successful playwrights and ensures that the overlooked continue to be overlooked. Furthermore, the way that The Kilroys' List became a rallying cry and mantra on both social media and the LMDA conference allowed literary managers and artistic directors to pretend that they were not institutional gatekeepers and that it is their aggregate decisions that contribute to a lack of gender parity (indeed, a curious finding of the Glassberg-Sands study was that female literary managers were more likely to discriminate against female playwrights than male literary managers.)

Finally, all the attention on the list, and the reluctance to engage with the attendant contradictions critically ignored the most radical thing that The Kilroys and other 13P-style groups are doing, which is bypassing the gatekeepers and empowering playwrights in a new play sector in which playwrights are often disempowered.

Not addressing the privileges of class and geography that run rampant in American theater is going to limit any strides towards gender parity to an elite class of playwrights who went to the right schools, made the right connections while still at school, live in the right metropolitan areas, and received the right fellowships at the right time of their careers, and continues to normalize a system that priviliages personalities over plays.

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