ParityFest brings underproduced plays by women playwrights to Baltimore

Women are underrepresented and underpaid in virtually every sector of the arts. Art created predominantly by white men continues to fill museums and galleries, while films with male directors, producers, and lead roles continue to dominate box offices and award shows. The case is no different for the stage.

“It’s just much harder for women to get recognition as playwrights and to get their work read and published as it is for men,” says Alicia Stanley, co-founder of Cohesion Theatre Company.

Stanley and Cohesion co-founder Brad Norris are discussing gender imbalance in the arts, attempting to speak over sirens and the squabbles of fellow Highlandtowners outside of Filippo’s Pizzeria on South Conkling Street.

Norris and Stanley met while working together on a production of “Edward II” at Spotlighters Theatre last year, and shortly after co-founded Cohesion Theatre Company in an effort to engage with other theater companies and artists of different disciplines—hence the name “Cohesion.” Last week, as the third and final play of its inaugural season, Cohesion opened its co-production of “The Pillow Book” by Baltimore-native playwright Anna Moench with the Strand Theater Company.

Now, the company has organized a nearly six-week-long, citywide reading festival called ParityFest, highlighting underproduced, female-authored plays. At venues all over the city, Baltimore theater companies—as well as a few coming in from Washington, D.C.—will perform theatrical readings at varied levels of production Wednesdays through Sundays until Aug. 9. All the readings are pay-what-you-can and on Sundays, they include panel discussions or other educational programming on women in theater and beyond.

Among the 22 participating companies are Single Carrot Theatre, Annex Theater, the Arena Players, Fells Point Corner Theatre, Baltimore Improv Group, EMP Collective, Stillpointe Theatre, and Interrobang Theatre, hosting performances at theater spaces, multipurpose venues such as the Station North Chicken Box and the Ynot Lot, and eateries including Joe Squared and Dangerously Delicious Pies.

“The range of size of theater companies is great because we can show how many different people band together to say ‘this is important,’” says Stanley, “and the response from venues was way more than I ever anticipated—people who were willing to donate their space for free and work it for free because they cared about this issue. I was not prepared and we actually now have more venues than we know what to do with.”

The plays selected for reading at the festival were sourced from “The List,” a catalog of recommended, underproduced plays from “female and trans*” playwrights compiled by the Kilroys, a Los Angeles-based volunteer collective of theater professionals devoted to promoting gender parity in theater. Norris and Stanley had been communicating with the Kilroys in planning ParityFest, as the group finalized their new 2015 list, which was created by surveying 321 theater professionals who had seen at least 40 new plays in the last year. Each person surveyed recommended three to five plays. The 53 most-recommended plays made it on the list, while 186 less-frequently-recommended plays are featured as honorable mentions. The 2014 and 2015 lists include works penned by renowned playwrights such as Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage, whose “Ruined” Everyman Theatre staged earlier this season, as well as lesser-known authors like Moench.

Most of the plays on ParityFest’s program were chosen from the 2015 list, which was just released on June 21 after multiple delays, while the rest were selected from the Kilroys’ first list released in 2014. Stanley and Norris say that they wanted to build on the momentum of the 2015 list in order to make it immediately relevant to the community, even though waiting for the list meant that the companies would not have their scripts until shortly before the festival kicks off on July 1.

ParityFest comes at a time when Washington, D.C., and regional theater companies are preparing for the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in the fall, while Baltimore companies are addressing parity and gender issues in recent and upcoming productions, such as an all-female cast production of “Henry IV, Part One” (which Stanley is performing in as well as music directing) at the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory at the end of July and a current stage adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s children’s novella “The World Is Round” co-produced by the Annex Theater and the Acme Corporation (see page 30). Center Stage and Single Carrot Theatre recently announced upcoming seasons that feature at least 50 percent female-authored plays, plus Center Stage’s all-female-cast production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Everyman Theatre will run its “Women’s Voices in Current and Future American Classics” salon reading series next season (although it’s basically a supplement to its entirely male-authored 2015-2016 program). Norris attributes this recent shift, in part, to the impact made on the national theater community by the Kilroys. Following the release of the 2014 list, more than 47 productions of the 46 plays listed were mounted or announced.

Norris explains that in the theater industry, the most common excuse companies use for producing works by predominantly male playwrights is that it is difficult to find many reputable female-authored plays. The list is the Kilroys’ solution to eliminate that excuse.

However, programming is not the only area in the industry that fails to represent genders equally.

“A lot of plays have significantly more roles for men than women,” says Stanley. “It’s particularly a problem in classical plays, which are held up as what our theater is based on, so people are very hesitant to cross gender paths. There’s significantly more and significantly better roles for men. And [the lack of] female directors is another huge thing.”

“There’s a ridiculous amount of women who are stage managers, technicians, marketing, development,” Norris says. “If you took a snapshot of sort of a general regional theater in America you would probably find that 80 percent of the staff working in the building of the theater, making the theater happen, are women. Mostly men are at the top rungs: artistic director, managing director. And then what is being produced on stages, generally speaking, is male-directed, male-authored, and mostly male-acted work.”

Norris adds that male artistic producers often assume that the female voice in theater is limited, essentially, to female-centric works such as “The Vagina Monologues.” The list provides a variety of genres, from comedies to dramas, and subject matter, such as commentaries on race, as well as women’s issues.

“The truth of the matter is, not every woman is writing about her vagina every single day,” says Norris.

“Sometimes female-authored plays are just plays that happen to have female authors,” says Stanley, “which is one of the great things about the Kilroys’ “List”—it has enough plays to provide a broad spectrum of what a female voice means.” 

ParityFest will take place at various venues and at various times on Wednesdays Through Sundays from July 1 to Aug. 9. For more information, visit cohesiontheatre.org/parityfest.

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