Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Wasserstein Prize Debacle

"We regret to inform you that of the 19 nominated plays, none was deemed sufficiently realized by the selection panel to receive the Prize. As a result, the Wasserstein Prize will not be presented in 2010. While the panel thought that many of the scripts showed promise, they felt that none of the plays were truly outstanding in their current incarnation.”

The storm over the Wasserstein Prize has put the spotlight on women in the arts, a perennially sore subject for most women in the arts like me. It's astounding that Theatre Development Fund, which manages the award, thought that they could write rejection letters baldly telling 19 female writers nominated by theaters around the country that they're just not good enough without some kind of repercussion. But this is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the struggle for women to be taken seriously as writers and artists.

That the Wasserstein Prize is given to a female writer under 32 is already contentious. Committing to life as an artist is fraught with difficulty - during an introductory exercise at the Chicago Directors Lab I attended last June, we discovered to our mutual surprise that just about all of us had parents who disapproved of us being in the arts. For men, this might be tough, but throw in a couple of gender-specific obstacles like the wage-gap and baby-making, and the result is that many women find themselves "emerging" as artists later than men. And it's really discouraging to not only have an expiration date stamped on your forehead, but to wake up and realize that it's already come and gone.

Then of course, there's that gender issue. I think I must have had a dozen conversations with female friends of mine who are in theater, film or otherwise in the arts on why there are so few recognized female artists. I've often said to friends that I had a realization once about how women are intrinsically creative in being able to give birth, whereas men can only create through the arts, but there's really more to the gender disparity than this.  A comprehensive NEA demographic report of 919,000 artists in 2005 shows that women make up just under half of all artists nationwide (46 percent), but that looking at specific artist professions, some are male-dominated and some are female-dominated. Quite obviously, dance is female-dominated, while directing and producing is male-dominated. But while the NEA report shows that writing is actually slightly female dominated, with 56% of writers being female, studies consistently show that only about 17% of the total number of new plays produced in America are by women.

Economist Emily Sands employed a very rigorous empirical approach to studying the paucity of produced women playwrights in her 2009 report, Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater. Sands obtained two 10-page script samples, one with two female protagonists and one with two male protagonists. She made an equal number of copies and assigned a female pen-name to half the scripts and a male pen-name to the other half. She then sent the scripts to 252 theaters, asking for responses to what she presented as a survey on script evaluation. Replies from the Artistic Directors and Literary Managers of 82 of these theaters revealed that, "Scripts bearing female pen-names are deemed by artistic directors to be of lower overall quality and to face poorer economic prospects than otherwise identical scripts bearing male pen-names. In addition, artistic directors believe cast and crew will be less eager to work on a female-written script."

Even more surprisingly, Sands' report reveals that artists and literary managers who are female are more likely to "deem scripts bearing female pen-names to be poorer fits with their theaters, and to face not only worker discrimination, but also customer discrimination." And weirdly, "The severity of the discrimination against female playwrights appears to be more pronounced for women writing about women than for women writing about men."

Learning about this, I'm reminded of the summer I worked at the Coney Island Sideshow, where part of the rotation of the performers was to hawk the show on the bally. We all had about the same spiel, "Step right up, step right up! Ten shows in one! One dollar, one dollar, one dollar, one dollar!" But it never failed that people would only listen if it was a white guy talking. The Latinos and African-Americans who are predominantly on the boardwalk on a hot summer day are immune to other Latinos and African-Americans who want a dollar out of them. And a little Asian girl with a snake only makes the guys stop and reach for that other bulge. But get a white guy up on the bally and the skeptical crowd immediately becomes more receptive. We surmised that the general public must be conditioned by Bob Barker and other white-guy-announcers on TV.

NYSCA's 2002 roundtable on women in theater also made much of unconscious discrimination, with Dr. Virginia Valian, author of Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, demonstrating that even slightly preferential treatment has long-term repercussions, "In a situation where men and women in equal numbers begin their careers with precisely the same qualifications,and a mere 1% bias is introduced, in time, a top executive level of 35% women and 65% men will be affected." This would explain why there may be an almost equal number of male and female playwrights, but so few female writers are produced. Valian's research concludes that "while most men and women would assume otherwise, when judging quality, they are acting on deep assumptions that are neither equitable nor accurate. Unless men and women become conscious of these assumptions, and make a conscious decision to achieve parity, they will automatically prefer men, even in fields where women predominate."

But besides discrimination, conscious or unconscious, female artists also have the odds stacked against them because of economics. The NEA report reveals that "women artists who work full-year, full-time, earn $0.75 for every dollar made by men artists." And the 2002 NYSCA roundtable eloquently observed, "For good and ill, women tend to operate outside the mainstream. In the absence of opportunities, women are resourceful and create their own, self-producing or starting enterprises outside of the mainstream. However, as many participants testified, burdened with child care, 'day jobs' and lower salaries (75.8%) than those earned by their male counterparts, women's theatre work is often their third shift. Under funded and understaffed, female theatrical entrepreneurs 'burn out' even more rapidly than men in this high-burnout field."

The Wasserstein Prize is $25,000. To be given, even for a year, that kind of financial freedom - to be provided with what Virginia Woolf so eloquently described as a room of one's own - what a dream! I'm not sure what the answer to achieving gender equality in the arts force is, much less in the work force. But it does seem that part of the solution has to do with opportunities. Support for women in the arts will lead to more women in the arts. The production of more plays by women will lead to more artistic directors feeling secure in producing female playwrights. Which is why the Wasserstein Prize is so important. It's unconscionable that the award committee would decide not to give the prize when opportunities for women playwrights are so limited. Especially when it's a prize named after Wendy Wasserstein, who saw her writing as a political act to encourage other female playwrights.



  1. Bravo, Victoria! I'm constantly amazed at the discrimination that continues to exist somewhat "under the table." College students of this generation often think gender discrimination was a war fought and won by the last wave of feminists. Sadly, we must continue to rally for equal opportunities & equal pay. If you don't know my book on women directors (American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century, U of IL Press, 2008), you'll appreciate the introduction, which addresses many of the same issues. --Anne

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this very informative blog post! I knew that you would have something to say about this. -Felicia