THE SAD STATE OF WOMEN’S PLAY SUBMISSIONS

November 10th, 2014 donnahoke

 

In trying to choose a title for this blog post, I started out with something like “Why Women Need To Submit,” and realized just how awful that sounded. But in the context of play submissions—something I advocate fiercely—there is something worse: according to informal polls and at least one study, women submit fewer plays than men. One informal study put that figure at fifty percent fewer. For BUA Takes 10, the festival I co-curate, 57 out of 204 eligible submissions came from women (some of them doubles), which isn’t even 27 percent (I know this figure has to take into account the distribution of LGBT plays in general, but still). Bottom line: if you are one of the women who is contributing to this dismal statistic, why? (That’s not a rhetorical question; would love answers in the comments section below.)

 

When Gwydion Suilebhan recently started a conversation on Official Playwrights of Facebook intended to open discussion about disparity in female- vs. male-authored productions of plays (female-authored plays constitute 17-20 percent of total productions), the above statistic was one of the disheartening truths that emerged. After all, how can women complain about gender disparity if they’re not helping to create an even playing field?

 

Interestingly, not that long ago on my crossword constructors (trivia: a crossword constructor is called a cruciverbalist) list, a similar discussion emerged about the disparity in female- vs. male-authored New York Times crossword puzzles. Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times puzzle, responded to our list to say that he and his assistant had gone through the past several weeks of puzzle submissions and determined that women accounted for only about 15 percent of the submissions, a figure he said was in line with his publishing percentage. (More, he said he’d actually seen a decline in female submissions in the past 20 years, but he attributed this to the advent of computer-assisted constructing and the geeky mathematical nature of puzzlemaking, which he said tends to appeal more to men; that’s a separate debate, but, given that women do submit plays at a higher-than-15-percent rate, I’m willing to concede that may be partially true, but for reasons other than “natural bent,” if you know what I mean.)

 

Will’s comments prompted list member and constructor Patrick Merrell to conduct an informal survey about New York Times submission practices. What he found was that women submit less or had stopped submitting altogether for several reasons, first and foremost being work and family obligations, i.e. not enough time (this may also be borne out by the results of research on doollee.com and through the Dramatists Guild that shows that women write fewer plays than men). Despite some progress on this front, the fact is that women still do the bulk of housework and child-rearing. Add a job to that and the problem is obvious. (I’d also be interested in a study about how many of the most produced female playwrights have children; I don’t think it’s many.)

 

Next in line was long delays in submission response; sound familiar? Given the speculative nature of both crossword puzzles and plays, it may well be that women are putting their valuable discretionary time toward something that produces more immediate results, and the desire to do so may be a result of either internal or external pressure. This is backed up by the next reason, which is that female constructors who still submit are submitting to more satisfying venues.

 

Next was “too many rejections”; I’m sure we can all relate, but in response, I offer that the more you submit, the more success you will have; in the crossword world, there is probably  a tenth of a percent of opportunities for submission as there are for theaters, so rejection is more frequent (AND slow in coming–oy!). As playwrights, we can’t use that excuse. The final reason was a mix, including that the bar had been raised and competition was tougher. To that I say yes! A rising tide raises all ships, but that doesn’t mean you drop out; you just write better plays (a whole other topic, I know…).

 

So there you have it. These admittedly unscientific results point to a problem that extends beyond the playwright community, but for likely the same reasons (comment below or send me an email and I’ll conduct my own informal poll). In response to Emily Sands’ 2009 study, “Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater,” playwright Sheri Wilner suggests that “female playwrights are what economists call ‘discouraged workers’ – people who drop out of the labor market because of an inability to find suitable employment. One can certainly recognize and acknowledge this byproduct of bias when it’s displayed in other professions and against other groups, so why not with female playwrights? Women ARE as good at playwriting as men, but not as many are writing because as difficult as it is for men, it’s far more difficult for women to eke out a living in the theater.” This, along with Merrell’s results, and the reasons suggested by this article, The Confidence Gap, are likely at the heart of the disparity. 

 

Last week, a post about How To Submit So Your Plays Get Produced has garnered more hits than any post I’ve written in the past three years. I have no way of knowing how many of those hits were men and how many were women, but if you’re a woman reading this who read that, it’s time to put it into practice.  Because as long as men submit twice as many–or more–plays than women, that oft-cited 17 percent figure will never budge. NEVER. All of the speculative reasons for lack of female submissions are real phenomena, but perhaps being conscious of them can help prevent us from engaging in what Wilner calls “prophetic discrimination”: we will fail, so why try? I agree, in combination, these reasons create a current that is tough to swim against, yes, but not impossible. We have to keep swimming, lest we be pulled under.

 

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Written by donnahoke

donnahoke

Dramatists Guild Council member and ensemble playwright-in-residence at Road Less Traveled Productions, Kilroys List and award-winning playwright Donna Hoke’s work has been seen in 40 states, and on five continents. Her full-length plays include ELEVATOR GIRL (2017 O’Neill finalist), THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (Princess Grace semi-finalist, currently in its fourth year in rep in Romania), SEEDS (Artie award winner for Outstanding New Play), SAFE (winner of the Todd McNerney, Naatak, and Great Gay Play and Musical Contests), and BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART (2016 Kilroys List, Winner HRC Showcase, Firehouse Festival of New American Plays); she’s also authored more than two dozen short plays that have had hundreds of productions. Donna is also a New York Times-published crossword puzzle constructor; author of Neko and the Twiggets, a children’s book; and founder/co-curator of BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories. For three consecutive years, she was named Buffalo’s Best Writer by Artvoice, the only woman to ever receive the designation.

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18 Comments on “THE SAD STATE OF WOMEN’S PLAY SUBMISSIONS”

  1. 1 Mia McCullough said at 9:32 am on November 10th, 2014:

    Thanks for writing this, Donna. I do think that women send out their plays less for the reasons you have stated and more. I think a big piece of the puzzle is that women are socialized differently and we feel like we need permission or an open door to send work to agents, literary managers, and ADs. We are trained to be polite, not to be pushy and assertive. I’m one of the more assertive women I know, and still I have a hard time putting myself out there to new theatres and production companies.

    One benefit of entitlement (which does not afflict 100% of white male writers, but many of them) is that little thought is given over whether they should submit their work to an institution. They just do it.

    Women writers would benefit from a little more entitlement. We would also benefit from more time as you said. The moment I start actually writing something, all thought of sending out my other work goes out the window. There’s simply not time in my schedule to truly focus on both.

    Another issue is that plays are almost never produced because a playwright submitted a play to a theatre through the proper channels. They get produced because another theatre artist recommends our play to an AD. People don’t trust their own opinions, and so they rely heavily on what others’ like. So I would say that this network of recommendations is something we women have not really broken into. Part of this, sadly, is because women tend to be competitive with one another instead of supportive, though I see a shift in the tide here.

    A study I would like to see done (and maybe I’ll do it myself) is how many critics are women. And of those women, how many have children. Indeed I’m curious about how many critics of either gender are parents. I wonder if mothers often write a type of play that doesn’t connect to the majority of reviewers. Topic for another day, I suppose.

  2. 2 Claudia said at 9:42 am on November 10th, 2014:

    I am a reader for a few contests. We read blind and after the author’s names are released, I start counting. For one contest, women only made up 30% of the submission pool in the last few years.

  3. 3 donnahoke said at 12:54 pm on November 10th, 2014:

    So if women are submitting at a rate of only 30 percent, and getting 17 to 20 percent production rate, I’m willing to chalk up that extra 10 to 13 percent to classics and dead guys. So more than anything else out there, I believe that our lack of collective submission is a HUGE problem. You can’t choose what you don’t have. If I get 204 plays for my festival and two out of ten are from women, it stands to reason that all things being equal, two of out ten in the final batch will be female-authored. For the record, I don’t approve of suggestions for choosing five women first and filling in with men. I honestly feel that until our submissions are on par in quantity, it’s hard to complain too loudly.

  4. 4 Mary said at 10:32 am on November 10th, 2014:

    Thanks for the reality check. I will use your article as a springboard to get back to my spreadsheet and start submitting. I do believe there is a certain self-fulfilling prophecy in all of this. Sometimes it’s very difficult to say ‘let’s look at our part in this problem.’ So I laud you for going out on that limb.

  5. 5 Catherine Castellani said at 11:26 am on November 10th, 2014:

    I was discussing this with 6 other women playwrights one night. Several of them said they hesitate to submit work that they feel is less than perfect, because they believe they are held to higher standards. Some claimed to know men who submit first drafts without shame, and sometimes with success. But the general feeling was that we can’t submit work that hasn’t been honed to perfection. Sample size of 6, all hearsay, but that’s what I’ve got: fear that we face more exacting judgement.

  6. 6 Allie Costa said at 1:08 pm on November 10th, 2014:

    Thanks to the encouragement and support of amazing ladies like Rachel Bublitz and Jennie Webb and the #pwopp hashtag on Twitter, I submit my plays regularly, and thanks to Alex Dilks Pandola, I just had the pleasure of seeing my play FEMME NOIR have its world premiere at GLO 2014, which specifically selected plays by women, and then hired female directors to helm them!

  7. 7 Judy B. Goss said at 1:32 pm on November 10th, 2014:

    I hung your recent submissions advice by the computer as a daily prod. Your urging energizes the habits we know to embrace. Thanks for opening opportunities for so many through your posts and “trade a play Tuesday.”

  8. 8 Susan Westfall said at 6:17 pm on November 10th, 2014:

    This is a good discussion. I would add the wrinkle that others of you in our field can understand: my work as a literary manager of a theatre (City Theatre in Miami)advocating on new play development and opportunities for playwrights, greatly and often frustratingly, impacts my own writing and career development time as a playwright. And I am the mother of two — one still at home, with a light at the end of the tunnel…

    Perhaps foolishly, I’ve never thought that being a company cofounder meant I would always include my own work, although I know male playwright/producers/lit mgrs. who always do. Like all of us, I want the best plays in our productions, and if I can’t find the time to write something that’s good – and definitely of a caliber of the work I’m putting forward for production, that’s my fault. Believe me, some seasons, usually around tech, I really wished I’d found the time. Still, I am proud and pleased that in almost 20 years of doing this job, most seasons City’s festivals and tours are fairly balanced in terms of playwright gender, and I am glad that our company makes an effort to build playwright relationships that lead to collaborating and production opportunities, while keeping our contest taps flowing. Now I am curious and will go look at how the percentage of submissions this year break out male/female. And as part of City Theatre’s commitment to the gender parity discussion and action, we are devoting this year’s CityWrights Weekend for Playwrights on Women Playwrights – Tactics for Artistic and Professional Success (Save the Date: June 25-28th, 2015).

  9. 9 Tess Light said at 10:47 pm on November 10th, 2014:

    There are numerous studies that show that women will similarly not apply for a job if they feel they meet less than 70-80% of the “required” skills, whereas men will apply if they meet 30-50%. (See, for example, “Lean In” by Susan Sandberg.) So that part of things, just as you say, is “us doing it to ourselves” — you’re right, you can’t produce what you don’t receive.

    On the other hand there is also the well-documented component that shows that male and female readers alike grade plays more poorly if they have a woman’s name attached to them. The exact same script by “Mike” will get better reviews than if the readers think “Sue” wrote it. And this, by the way, also happens in the business world, where the exact same resume will look more impressive when coming from a “Mike” than from a “Sue.” But again — it’s not just men who do this; female readers/hirers were as harsh or harsher. So there’s some kind of female-devaluation that we as an entire culture tend to engage in. It’s a fascinating bit of psychology, but incredibly depressing at the same time to think we’re still telling ourselves, and our daughters, they women are of inherently less worth.

    And that brings us full circle — why might we not apply? Because we’re convinced we are lesser.

  10. 10 Michael Perlmutter said at 10:38 pm on November 11th, 2014:

    Thank you, Donna, for bringing to light the realities. Yet I think classics and dead guys make up an even higher number of productions than 10 to 13 percent. The white male writer quite often asked NOT to submit because he is NOT a certain race or a certain gender or, even more often now, of a certain age. We are all being pigeon holed by someone, by some group, wanting to corral us by “type”. Theatre’s should clearly be allowed to present plays by any certain demographic they choose and unless our own tax dollars are going to toward keeping them afloat, who are we to scream bias? But I agree, to demand fifty-fifty productions be made when the submission results in 27-73 realities isn’t fair to anyone. Mediocre works will rise to fill the quota; and the biggest loser ends up being the theatres themselves as attendance dwindles in response to lessened quality. We ALL need to write better plays, get ourselves out there . . . submit, submit, submit and push for our dream. ‘Cuz face it, we’re not gonna get rich, we made not get noticed but eventually we will be heard.

  11. 11 Elana Gartner said at 10:26 am on November 12th, 2014:

    An increasing trend that I have heard about, too, is that women tend to submit scripts more to theaters that produce women playwrights only. With an increase in those theaters, it gives more opportunities for those women playwrights to bail out of the mainstream. I wonder if the informal studies that were done included these theaters as well. I suspect not.

    However, I do strongly agree that women need to keep putting themselves and their work forward. To complain about not having enough women playwrights being produced is only justified if you are putting your work out there. If you’re not, than you are just complaining.

  12. 12 donnahoke said at 10:36 am on November 12th, 2014:

    I’m sure that’s true but given the limited number of theaters that do women’s-only work, I would think we’re still far from the point where the two would be mutually exclusive.

  13. 13 jenniewebb said at 5:37 pm on November 12th, 2014:

    Great post, Donna! Thanks!

  14. 14 Carole Di Tosti said at 9:37 pm on November 12th, 2014:

    As writers we must cover all bases; submissions, platforms, extend the genres we write. I ask myself, do I have anything better to do with my life and artistry? The answer is, no. It is always good to be in the company of writers…there is no magic bullet to anything…and even known playwrights suffer when they have to submit their works. Edward Albee for years was rejected…actually for decades. Now he’s been “found” again and his works are being done. Is there rhyme and reason? Yes, no, perhaps, the point is to persevere…especially if there’s rejection. There are so many variables…who knows and why surmise? Just keep on…

  15. 15 Roy Glassberg said at 5:18 pm on November 16th, 2014:

    My apologies to the prior responders for jumping over, but I just want to get my two sense in and get back to what I was doing which is marketing my play. Here’s what I say to people who are reluctant to market their play, women and men: If its fear of rejection for reason or not — It’s a crap shoot, I say. Regard a rejection slip, or a black-hole/never-hear, as you would a loosing lottery ticket. I know a writer who got a hit on a story after a stack of rejections because the editor was researching the area covered by the story, which went on to win an award. Start by submitting to the ones who are going to reject you because you’re out of their league and work your way down, perfecting your pitch, tailoring it, honing it.

    If you say I’m only writing for myself, I say if you were a cook and you baked a cake, and you liked it, you’d like others to enjoy a slice.

    But it’s the inner me, you say, the raw exposed inner me that’s afraid of the sunshine. Cool, get a pen name and a post office box and don’t tell people what you’re doing. Finally, ‘My stuffs not good enough.’
    You’ll never know, even if no one accepts it.

  16. 16 Stephen Sossaman said at 8:00 pm on January 4th, 2015:

    Response to Roy: I cannot imagine that there are many playwrights who fear rejection as emotionally stressful, or who are afraid of exposing their secret selves (if so fearful, why would they write?). For me and surely for many others, rejection has only practical repercussions: a missed opportunity, wasted time (researching, printing, re-formatting, mailing) and the expense — especially for those theaters that charge reading fees. I admire Donna Hoke’s relentless submitting, and I try for that level of hard work myself (except that I usually pass over theaters that require fees). The odds against having a script accepted by any given theater are so awful that only the exceptionally sensitive playwright could take rejection personally.

  17. 17 Susan Cinoman said at 1:06 pm on November 3rd, 2015:

    This is a great discussion. Thanks, Donna! You are an advocate for the ages. Before I had my second child, there was not a week that went by where my name did not appear in the New York Times theatre section. Years later, when I have tried to get back to the place of production where I’d been, I’ve been met with such named obstacles as: “Your play is about mothers and daughters, the subject matter is not relevant,” and other such dubious remarks of veiled and not so obscured sexism. I’m grateful for the new opportunities being designed for women. Maybe post- partum hysteria, controlling mothers, sisters who fight etc are not so irrelevant in that sphere, and might even precipitate the laughter I’m trying to illicit!!

  18. 18 donnahoke said at 1:34 pm on November 3rd, 2015:

    Thank you, Susan! It’s funny because so many of the blog posts I write are a response to discussions that come up again and again. So often, as I did today, I find myself posting one in response to a conversation that has come up yet again. If only this one didn’t remain so relevant!


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