i'm a white writer. in new york. original, no? i've been blogging since october 2002. this blog picks up in october 2008, when i moved from DC to NY...(and then I moved to Maine in 2012)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

PLEASE TAKE A STAND: Subscribers Refusing to Renew for Primary Stages All-Female Season

5.21.09 12:25pm UPDATES to the post below:

Yesterday I got the email below. I was unaware of subscriber resistance to supporting the all-female season of plays that Primary Stages is producing.

Women theatre-goers are asked to support all-male seasons All. The. Time.

If you believe, as I do, that hearing what women have to say is important, and that Primary Stages shouldn't be punished for producing them, then please consider buying a season subscription. It's $128. If that's too much, please consider joining forces with friends to purchase a subscription. Primary Stages has set it up so that, if you are out of town, you can donate your subscription to a female playwright in NYC.

Massive Understatement: It will take time to undo gender bias, to show the importance of hearing and strengthening the voices of women. Women are discounted and diminished all the time in the media and popular culture, whether it's politicians being criticized for being ambitious, mothers for working (or not--they can't win), etc. Women even diminish themselves and each other.

Gender bias is hard for many people to even see, but for those of us who live with it, it is enough to push us toward rage and despair over the feeling of powerlessness. Those of us who believe this issue is important must support these playwrights, so that their work can be heard, and steps can begin to be taken towards understanding and strengthening the work of women, who have been marginalized in society far too long.

Please don't let this turn into an argument for theatres to further silencing women, as in, "Well, look what happens when you produce plays by women--no one comes! We can't afford that."

Thank you for listening. Here is a shortened link to this post for your convenience in spreading the word: http://tinyurl.com/pkajyd


Dear Friends,

For the first time EVER in U.S. History, a theater in New York City is producing an entire season of all-female playwrights! This is fantastic news, right?

Especially since according to Dramatists Guild statistics, only 9-11% of the shows produced in 2008 in NYC and by professional regional theaters (Off-Broadway, Broadway, and LORT) were female-authored. That's right, only 9-11%. Note that no one even has an exact statistic! Gender bias is alive and well in the American theater.

Only, guess what? Word is out that some folks are complaining about this upcoming all-female season to Primary Stages and are not renewing their subscriptions. They say: "Why do a season of only women playwrights? And why haven't I heard of these women?"

The fact is that 100 years ago, the statistic was HIGHER in New York City for productions of the works of women playwrights than it was just last year (12.8% in 1908, 12.6% in 2008 ). You can't hear of women playwrights if they aren't getting any productions! And in 100 years, it's gotten worse, not better.

It's time to take a stand.

A subscription to the Primary Stages costs $128. I have purchased one season subscription as a political/artistic show of support for Primary Stages and in symbolic sisterhood with female playwrights; my ticket is being given to a young female playwright in New York City, so that she can enjoy their season in my stead.

I know we live in extraordinarily pressing times at every level. But if you, too, care about the voices of women being heard in the American theater, please consider donating to Primary Stages to show support for their 2009-2010 season of female playwrights. The thought is this: if we show enough theaters in the USA that people care and will pay for plays by women, then other theaters might seek to do the same--or at least bring the slate of their seasons to a more 50-50 equitable level in terms of representation of female playwrights! Women are 51% of the U.S. population, after all.I know $128 is a lot of money. Even if you can't afford $128, perhaps join in with a group of friends, and collectively sponsor a ticket for a young female playwright (or a New Yorker of your choice) to experience the Primary Stages season, too--and take a stand against gender bias in playwriting in the U.S.

You can mail donations to:
Jessica Comas, Director of Development, Primary Stages, 307 West 38th Street, Suite 1510, New York, NY 10018

You can e-mail Jessica at:

You can also check out their season at primarystages.org, and don't miss their "Support" page which lists all of their programs.

Feel free to forward this information to anyone. I would appreciate you taking out my name from the e-mail header if you do forward it, so that the total focus is on the content.

[name redacted at sender's request]


Jaime said...

Maybe I'm missing something, but are so many subs really writing in saying, "I refuse to subscribe because all the writers are women!" - I can't believe it's a big trend, and this seems like a lot of anecdotal insubstantiality - or are subscription numbers just down? Maybe due to this economy thing? I'm all for supporting women playwrights - I just wonder how solid this drama, so to speak, really is...

jeffrey said...

The way this is told, it strikes me that subscriber backlash is not so much "lashing back," because of an all-woman lineup. It seems more likely that, for centuries, women playwrights have not been given regular productions, so none of these "no-names" can sell a subscription.

3 points:
1) It's great what Primary Stages is doing for these writers.
2) People should encourage others to buy these subscriptions for young, aspiring women writers in NYC.
3) There are probably a couple of crazies screaming "WHY ALL THESE WOMEN?" but all in all I think the down economy mixed with the lack of name recognition is the result of lagging sales. It's a "dormant" rather than "overt" sexism at work here. (at least from my male perspective)

jeffrey said...

my last comment was all semantics, which buried the lede. The important thing is: yay for Primary Stages! Let's try to help their season.

derora noo said...

I find myself understanding the skepticism, but unwilling to assume there is no sexism at play.

The moment I got some pushback, I thought I must be stupid for being upset by this, and I should just shut up, that maybe I had done a foolish thing (no one here made me feel like that, that's just my reaction). Then I felt confused because that's how I always feel every minute of every day--that I should just shut up and let the men talk, whether it's socially or professionally. People tell me I'm quiet in groups--I just don't have the gumption to say half the things I want to (which is why I blog).

So I am obviously not a dispassionate observer.

I've contacted their Development Director to see if there are more specifics.

derora noo said...

Here is the full response I received from Jessica Sadowski Comas, Director of Development for Primary Stages. I'll be giving it its own post, but also wanted it to live here, so that people coming to my original post can find it.


Dear Callie,

Thank you for reaching out to me regarding Primary Stages upcoming 25th Anniversary Season. As you know, we are delighted to be celebrating this milestone anniversary with a season of new works, written by three very talented women, that we believe will be enjoyed and appreciated by audiences and participating artists. While there are several organizations that dedicate their work to female artists, we are aware that female playwrights have been under-represented in established venues and applaud efforts by any institution or individual to bring some balance to this issue.

To clarify, I can confirm that subscription renewals are progressing at a slower pace than they did last year, a trend that many American theaters are experiencing at this time. We have received comments from subscribers who have chosen not to renew for various reasons and, unfortunately, a few have indicated that our season of all-female playwrights is the reason. At the same time, we are gratified by an [sic] stronger positive response to our announcement. On behalf of Primary Stages, I apologize if there was any misunderstanding that led anyone to believe that all non-renewing subscribers were responding negatively to the gender of our playwrights.

Thank you to everyone who has rallied behind our season or who has purchased a subscription for a young, female playwright to attend our 25th Anniversary Season. If you have any more questions, feel free to write me back.

All best,

Jessica Sadowski Comas | Director of Development
Primary Stages | 307 West 38th Street, Suite 1510 | New York, NY 10018 | T: 212.840.9705 | F: 12.840.9725 | www.primarystages.org

25th Anniversary Season - New works by Cusi Cram, Charlayne Woodard, Lucinda Coxon

derora noo said...

I have also heard from the author of the original letter that was forwarded to me, and she is going to write something tonight with more specifics for those that remain skeptical that gender bias is a factor in this issue.

It's a very odd feeling, knowing that something I posted was viewed by nearly 200 unique visitors today, including news and arts organizations, but so few people have chimed in.

It's an issue that affects me personally, and I recognize that my response is an emotional one. I welcome all opinions.

Thanks for reading.

derora noo said...

Correction: 235 unique visitors. So curious what you all think about this.

kristofferdiaz said...

This letter from Jessica is super helpful, highly informative, and definitely disturbing. The fact that ANY person in 2009, let alone a New York City theater subscriber, would openly cite an all-female season as reason for ending their support is entirely and unmistakably unacceptable. At the same time, it's wonderful to know that the overall response to Primary Stages exciting season has been a positive one.

I had written a longer response earlier, but it didn't get properly sent, so I'll condense it here: as a man who considers himself an ally to women in their struggles for fair and equal treatment, I commend you for taking on this issue and bringing it to light. As an activist (and make no mistake, we're talking about activism here), it's important to remember that documentation in a case like this is vitally important. The strength of Julia Jordan's campaign earlier this season (which, I believe, led at least indirectly to Primary Stages commendable programming choices) was that she presented cold, hard numbers that couldn't be dismissed. I'd hate to see such an important topic be taken lightly due to an inability to corroborate the claims.

Kudos to all involved here.

jeffrey said...

So many university theater departments, regional theaters, and even small, contemporary theaters are seemingly run by men. (I'd love, in fact, to know what percentage of these theaters/programs are run by men.) These men choose Shepard, Mamet, Shanley, Shakespeare, O'Neill, Beckett, etc. These are great writers, and they have amazing plays.

It's just natural. In one of those silly, "Pick your favorite 10 books of all time" facebook questionnaires, I recently listed my 10, reflected back and realized they were all 10 by male writers. An interesting conundrum. Perhaps the dormant sexism that I mentioned earlier.

It will take a generation or two for women writers to get to that Mamet or Beckett stature. Rebecca Gilman (I'm not a fan) and Sarah Kane (dead) seem to be the most commercially viable female writers now, and others are on their way. Young Jean Lee, Suzan-Lori Parks, Diana Son are all great examples of women writing kick-ass work, and more companies, like Primary Stages, need to consider their seasonal balance and remember that it's a 50/50 population divide.

BTW, I recently referenced Aphra Behn in mixed theater company, and none of the handful of women had ever heard of her.

derora noo said...

Thanks, Kristoffer.

I definitely did things backwards out of my own emotional response, but I trusted the source (and that source will be providing more statistics tonight, which I will post here tomorrow). I appreciate Primary Stages taking the time to clarify the situation.

I know in my bones that this issue exists. I've conditioned myself to not bring this issue up, because I've seen the most sensitive and enlightened male colleagues who I adore for producing female playwrights get glazed eyes when I do. I think that self-censorship is why a sort of dam burst for me on this one.

I felt so unquestioningly right in posting what I did. Only afterwards, when faced with skepticism in a town where I am new and want to find positive ways to belong and contribute to the arts scene, did I wonder if I somehow had done something to alienate myself.

Thank you for taking the time to comment so thoughtfully. Sorry you had trouble posting earlier.

Christina said...

I'm glad that this issue's being addressed and it frustrates me all the more that we have to keep talking about it. I'm glad that Primary Stages is making a firm commitment to their season of writers regardless of pressure from their subscribers. I know that it's created a great amount of dialogue among us writers and the fact that some people may not still see this as an issue or problem only leads me to believe that they can only see things from there limited world view. As a female playwright of color the ability to have work tried and tested like male counterparts is invaluable and must be made more available if we are to ever be able to sharpen our chops.

Thanks so much for bringing light to this issue and for pressing Primary Stages to clarify the issue for all those who had trepidation about the validity of this claim.


derora noo said...


I love your comment about the Facebook questionnaire! You know, each week I get an email from The New Yorker saying what wonderful articles I will be reading when I get my copy in the mail. So many times all of the features are written by men. And it's not this fact alone that bothers me the most, it's the fact that no one seems to bat an eye, but if it were written by all women, then it would be a "Women's Magazine."

I remember I was in a Barnes and Noble in DC last year, and I saw that the magazine section had a special designation "Women's Interests" or "Women's Issues." I got SO incredibly excited, thinking I had discovered a cache of magazines about politics and business and arts. Nope. It was the fashion section.

Re: the Sarah Kane comment--I was talking to a female playwright this afternoon (doing a sanity check on this whole thing), and we agreed that a sure way to get produced is to kill yourself. I laughed, my friend did not, but we both agreed. True? Who knows. I know I can feel absolutely crazy for having these thoughts and feelings, for feeling like I don't have a voice that counts.

Thanks for commenting.

derora noo said...


Thank you for commenting. I agree, it's only when women are produced in equal measure to men that we will be able to strengthen our work. Any playwright knows that there is a great leap in growth when you hear a new play read aloud, and an even larger leap when a new play is produced. How are we to strengthen our work if we are routinely overlooked in this important part of the process? Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where women are seen as creating inferior work, or are not given the same benefit of the doubt that male writers are given when their work is "challenging."

I'm glad I did this in retrospect, though this afternoon was difficult. (Not difficult because of anyone's comments--I appreciate the skepticism--but difficult to know how to address the skepticism, how to quantify sexism.)

I love how I write posts that seem so clear to me at the time, and how surprised I am when people disagree. There was a post I wrote a few years ago, where I questioned why it's so much easier for people to digest sexism in plays than it is for them to digest racism. The response was so upsetting that I shut down my blog!

(Not trying to make myself out to be a renegade, just marvelling at my own simple-headedness sometimes.)

derora noo said...

Holy moly. 275 unique hits, 448 total hits.

Though I understand people's trepidation, I wish more people would comment.

kirsten said...

In college at a prestigious university, I took the only two art history courses related to women: Women and Madness, and Women Who Kill. Go figure.

Now, we did study the works of women in other art history classes, but never to the same degree as we did the men, and it was still often noted that the women in question were either crazy or tomboys. I fully appreciate your comment about killing yourself to get produced.

derora noo said...

Wow. 561 page loads, 376 unique hits. Normally my page loads are like 20, seeing as I so rarely post.

Sooooo curious what you think. Three people have said they had trouble leaving comments here. If you have trouble, feel free to drop me an email and I will post them in full for you. Calliekimball (at) gmail (etc.). I reset the comments page to a different layout--maybe that will make a difference. Also, I wonder if browsers like Google Chrome are causing issues.

I just heard from the original letter-writer; she sent me a bunch of statistics I will post here tomorrow.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to further exploring this issue with you.

derora noo said...

And, Kirsten, I love the illustration of your anecdote. Thanks for sharing. It's funny and horrible at once.

JK said...

Seems to me that a lot of these responses miss the big picture. A theatre has finally taken the bold step of producing an all female season. Quibbling over statistics and sources doesn't change the fact that Primary Stages has taken a hit - for whatever reasons - and that people should get in line to support them. In the last few days, I've learned of at least six people pledging to buy subscriptions from Primary Stages - specifically to donate to emerging NYC playwrights. Add me to the list. That's the only statement that matters here - and to women playwrights!

Jodi SC said...

Let's pause for a second - regarding the original letter - this is NOT the first time that a theater in NYC has produced an all female season. There are theaters that are actually dedicated to producing work by women and that should not be ignored, it should also be celebrated.

And I have to agree with Jamie, I just don't believe that there is some revolt because of the fact that the writers are women. Primary Stages is one of absolute best theaters in the City and they have a wonderful line-up for next season of great playwrights (whether they are women or not but yeah that they are women).

I think that Jessica Sadowski Comas wrote a wonderful response. Let's not make a mountain out of a molehill. The few idiots who are commenting on it being an all female season don't deserve the credit for creating a drama and I would imagine a few of them didn't even mean it, just a lame excuse to the person who contacted them to renew.

Anonymous said...

Re: the Women's Project, New Georges, and other "gender-mandated" theaters, yes, of course, in New York have produced previous seasons of female playwrights. And they should be celebrated and supported. (Are you one of their subscribers?)

But, according to the Dramatists Guild Feb. 26 E-blast newsletter, Primary Stages was the only New York theater who has RESPONDED to the 2008 consciousness raising efforts by offering an all-female authored-season.

Who among among those who are saying "No, no, this can't be true!" actually ONLY supports theaters financially and energetically who produce seasons with 50% -100% female-authored plays?

derora noo said...

More info, people.

Statistics on women playwrights from the original email sender, as well as how the info on Primary Stages originally got out:


Info on a list started by Adam Szymkowicz, and added to by others, of women playwrights needing more productions:


Statistics from my script submissions log as Literary Manager:


Jillian said...

Great discussion thread. There are so many hot buttons and huge issues wrapped up in all of this.

I'll be passing this Primary Stages subscription letter on! Such a great, smart move they're making.

And yet it is still a bit sad to me that we have a long way to go in the realm of female artist popularity. Getting more female artists a larger representation in the mainstream will take pushes that go beyond pitching season subscriptions for aspiring female writers.

I personally believe where women really lack opportunity is in developing, selling, and making something of their own themes and being taken seriously. It gets troublesome when that happens only in the circle of the artists themselves. The outreach beyond is the difficult part.

Few female artists, as others have mentioned, make it past that check point or they get labeled as "genre" greats or niche artists, not just "greats." I think it's at that crossing where the bias is deeply entrenched. And I wonder if any amount of developing the artistic and entrepreneurial tools overcomes that bias. Perhaps this is where social change tactics is vital (god love the radicals). We need that as much as we need to encourage further female artistic development. And I don't discount the latter as an artist myself.

Jenk said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm getting my subscription this week.

Anonymous said...

First, congratulations to Primary Stages on what appears to be an amazing selection of provocative plays written and directed by exciting artists. I happily just purchased 2 subscriptions, and look forward to the season.

Second, I do hope that all of this great activism will continue in support of other companies that doggedly produce theater created by women, including Women's Project, New Georges, and W.E.T., among others.

With the statistics being what they are (and being proclaimed loudly for decades--this is not new information), we simply cannot afford to minimize the importance of the companies that exist daily and season after season to address the gross under-representation of women theater artists.

In other words, make it a priority to support women theater artists wherever they are produced.

Ethan Stanislawski said...

I definitely love the spirit behind this, and I'm glad someone's pointed it out. Of course, I would warn against bubble mentality. There was a story in Chuck Klosterman's book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs about how at a music criticism conference, a female professor described "music and academia as the two most sexist institutions in the world." I realize that theater in NYC is one of the few areas where women can raise this kind of issue. I would just like to remind everyone to keep some perspective on the matter.

derora noo said...

I'm out of town for a reading in DC, but I'm still reading the comments, and I'll be checking in with Primary Stages when I get back to NY to see if there are further thoughts or developments to share.

There's still a significant amount of traffic coming here--almost 1,578 page loads in the last 4 days, with about 1,000 unique visitors (hello, normally I get 20-30 hits a day!). So the attention's a little unnerving, but the takeaway is that this is an issue that clearly resonates with a lot of theater artists.

I also wanted to share that I fully appreciate the skepticism that some have expressed. Even moreso, I appreciate the WAY people are expressing these different opinions--it seems like a healthy exchange, and it sounds like a lot of people are debating it, which can only lead to good things.

There are many discussions to be had on this topic--I don't think it's just a one-issue argument. I, for one, think the parity argument, while illustrative, is not the best argument that can be made for producing women playwrights, and I think if we can take a rigorous look at the multitude of societal and industry conditions that have created this challenge--not to mention many women's own internalized sexism--we'll come closer to finding solutions than if we made this an us-them/male-female issue. And the beautiful thing about social media is that the ideas that truly are sound will percolate to the top and spread more quickly than they ever could have before.

It'll be a few days before I can share more. Wanted to say I'm still very engaged in thinking about this, and I appreciate how many people are visiting and sharing their thoughts.

Kate Temple-West said...

I'm basically in agreement with the blogger. The overall inequity seems fairly obvious from my vantage. I will be buying a subscription and spreading the word. Perhaps it will be a bonanza season for Primary Stages.

derora noo said...

In case you're interested, I've created a follow-up post to this issue, with a further response from Primary Stages, my own thoughts, and some developments in DC theatre.