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April 20, 2009

A Pulitzer Shortlist Bursting With Women! (Yes, It Matters.)

Given the widely leaked shortlist of this year's contenders for the Pulitzer Prize for drama -- Gina Gionfriddo's "Becky Shaw," Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' "In the Heights," and Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" -- there couldn't have been much question that "Ruined" would win. An astonishingly beautiful, frequently comic, quietly defiant play about war and rape in the Congo, it achieves what might seem impossible: An audience that has been moved to weep with visceral horror leaves the theater feeling not despair but genuine, buoyant hope. Written by a veteran playwright with a strong body of work, "Ruined" is everything Pulitzer juries love -- and it's good.

But no matter which of the three finalists had snagged the prize today, a woman was going to win it. (If "In the Heights" had taken the prize, both a man and a woman would have won.) Those odds aren't unprecedented, but they are a rarity. The last time that happened, and possibly the only time, was 2002, the last year that a woman won the drama Pulitzer.

Why the scorekeeping? Because women playwrights are vastly underrepresented on our stages. Because "diversity" isn't just a buzzword. The Pulitzer isn't important in itself; it matters because of its ripple effect. Quite simply, winners and finalists get noticed. They get produced. The Pulitzer changes the composition of our canon, the stories we as a culture tell ourselves. Women's voices need to be a much more significant part of that.

This season, according to American Theatre magazine, the most-produced play at regional theaters (barring "A Christmas Carol" and Shakespeare) is John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," which won the Pulitzer in 2005 and has since been made into a movie. At number 3, trailing Joe Mantello's David Sedaris adaptation, "The Santaland Diaries," is the 2007 Pulitzer winner, David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole." Also on the list are non-shortlisted plays by former Pulitzer winners (August Wilson, Tennessee Williams) and finalists (Sarah Ruhl, Theresa Rebeck). Ruhl and Rebeck are the only women in the top 10 aside from Harper Lee, whose Pulitzer-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," was adapted, not by her, into a play.

It's a bit of a rout, really, and the reasons for it remain fuzzy. Women make up half the population; surely they have half the stories to tell, don't they? Surely they've been writing plays all along, haven't they? The first woman to win a Pulitzer for drama was the long-forgotten Zona Gale, whose "Miss Lulu Bett" was the third play to win the prize, in 1921, a year after Eugene O'Neill was honored for "Beyond the Horizon." Granted, women in the past encountered greater obstacles to education and professional success than they do these days, thus clearing the way for their male contemporaries to crowd the repertory and become today's classic American playwrights. But one would have thought we'd be further along by now.

And yet most of the time when the lights go down in a theater, we listen to a male playwright -- generally a white male playwright -- telling a story. Usually, that story is primarily about a man, or men, despite the fact that women are far more likely than men to attend musicals and straight plays.

Take Broadway, for example. A Broadway run -- not necessarily a successful run, just a run -- is a marker of success that, like a Pulitzer, gets a play produced elsewhere, sometimes all over the world. Broadway is also where the money is in theater, and that's no small reason artists have it in their sights.

But male writers and composers have a far, far better chance of seeing their names in lights there. Right now on Broadway, an anemic seven out of 37 shows, or 18.9 percent, have female playwrights, book writers, composers or lyricists. One of them is "In the Heights," with its book by Hudes, who was also a 2007 Pulitzer finalist for her play, "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue."

In fact, the only current Broadway show that's wholly written by women is "9 to 5," which has music and lyrics by Dolly Parton and a book by Patricia Resnick. Yes, French hit-maker Yasmina Reza has a new crowd-pleaser in "God of Carnage," but her translator, Christopher Hampton (whose own Broadway play, "The Philanthropist," is in previews), is and has been very much a partner in her English-language success.

Off-Broadway isn't much better for women, as female playwrights pointed out last fall when they banded together in protest of seriously ugly numbers. According to The New York Times, the women argued "that their male counterparts in the 2008-9 season are being produced at 14 of the largest Off Broadway institutions at four times the rate that women are."

This place where women fill most of the seats, then, is a weirdly blinkered world, its view focused by men. There's seldom room for plays like "Ruined," which is largely about the atrocities that happen to women and girls -- African women and girls -- in wartime. (It's currently at Manhattan Theatre Club in a production by Kate Whoriskey.) There's seldom room for plays by women at all. If not for the 2002 Pulitzer, there probably wouldn't have been much of a welcome on the nation's stages for Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog." If not for that year's shortlist, fewer people would have seen Dael Orlandersmith's "Yellowman" and Rebecca Gilman's "The Glory of Living." But high-profile prizes help immensely.

So do mentors. Theater in this country, at its highest levels anyway, is a very tiny world. In that world, a teacher's laying on of hands is essential: not just in helping playwrights to make crucial professional connections but in recognizing and cultivating talent. That's where this year's Pulitzer shortlist offers a great deal of hope, much of it emanating from 1998 Pulitzer winner Paula Vogel, who taught Gionfriddo, Hudes and Nottage at Brown when she was there. Another former student whom Vogel has loosed upon the world is the spectacularly successful Sarah Ruhl. Vogel -- who insisted, a few years ago, that the off-Broadway Signature Theatre Company season devoted to her work include a series of staged readings of plays by former students -- is now the chair of the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama, where Nottage also teaches.

Vogel, indisputably, knows how to spot and nurture talent. She and Nottage both understand how to navigate the world of theater. If they can help other female playwrights find their way, too, the canon has a decent shot at evolution.

This piece has been updated to note that Nottage was also a student of Vogel at Brown. Horrendous omission. Thanks to Jerry Keats for pointing it out.

Let us pause, again, to lament the absence of editors from the blogging enterprise....
April 20, 2009 3:31 PM | | Comments (12)


Great piece. Very important. I quoted it in my piece on Lynn Nottage today.

Thanks you for the thorough work.


Great article. Glad to read it. A couple of quick things to add:

1. Virtually everything you've said here about women in the theater holds true for people of color in the theater as well. It's an important day for both communities.

2. The work that Julia Jordan and other female playwrights did earlier this year to illustrate the gender imbalance on the New York stage has already, I believe, begun to reap benefits. Several NYC companies have announced seasons featuring several productions by women (as opposed to the usual one or zero). Lynn's win should only help keep this progress going.

Hand-in-hand with this goes the important need for theatres to produce plays from the great forgotten canon of women playwrights. Few even highly-educated theatre scholars, much less practitioners, know the vast legacy of great plays by women -- many of which were huge successes in their times. Among them for starters: Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, Elixabeth Inchbald, Joanna Baillie, Susan Glaspell, Agelina Grimke, Frances Sheridan, Daphne de Maurier, Anna Cora Mowatt, Alice Childress, and on, and on... The assumption is that these plays desrve to be forgotten, that they are second-rate; they are not. While men stand on the shoulders on giants, women keep starting at ground zero withour their legacy. It would make a great difference to contemporary playwrights -- their sense of entitlement and our appreciation of their work -- if we saw them in the context of this history and body of literature. These plays should be read, taught and PRODUCED!!!

Susan Glaspell's Trifles and Alice Gerstenberg's Overtones are being performed at the Hollywood Court Theatre in Los Angeles through May 10th. Come support these wonderful playwrights' work. Pioneer women playwrights deserve our attention and respect and its such fun to appreciate their clever writing.

Great and important article. For those looking for mentors and other opportunities to grow, please look at the Dramatists Guild Fellows program. The deadline is coming up soon, May 8th. The application process is relatively simple. Go to

It should be noted that Nottage was also a student of Paula Vogel's at Brown.

Vogel has done quite alot in generating poweful women playwrights.

Thank you for your excellent article!
Since the founding of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 1978, all 7 women who have won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, had been Finalists or Winners of the Blackburn Prize.
Our records show that indeed being a Finalist has not only given visibility (there have been 352 finalist plays to date) but has also led to production in many cases – on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thank you for your article! As an aspiring playwright, it can be daunting to look at the numbers of women's work being produced. Our dismal knowledge of the female playwrighting tradition also means we feel the lack of a foundation to stand on. I have also felt initmately, as I'm sure other young female playwrights have, that there are not enough role models to look to for guidance and inspiration. I appreciate this article giving me renewed direction of where to look. I have been following Paula Vogel and her work for some time. Her passion (and success) for helping women craft and produce their work is very encouraging!

I was always under the impression that play writing wasn't so lopsided as you make it out to be, given all the female play writes I had to read in high school and college.

It's always important to have equality, especially when we are talking about the Pulitzer prize. Great article

Women will gain the respect the deserve in the writing culture of America. Believe me, I've see it coming. Take it from a local female author, we get a lot more respect than fame and fortune tell us we do. We've put in our time and attendance in the field of journalism and we're here to stay! We breath emotion on consistent basis. We perceive the world through our emotions, and when we find the rare opportunity to express those emotions with and without words, in a book or screenplay, it's real. It's real, because it's everything we are, as women.

Equality is essential, especially with something as epic and classy as a Pulitzer Prize. You don't want something like that to gain a bad name or reputation. Women have their place in the spotlight, they will keep things moving

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