Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Problem of Representation: KCACTF Region 6

            Over the course of the last year, the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements have found themselves imprinted onto the public consciousness. In the past, theatre artists marched out in front of issues like these through provocative new works, and performances. Today, however, many theatres settle for tried, true, and safe expressions in art, recycling the old war-horses instead of confronting systems of oppression and advocating for change. Other branches of the arts are fighting for improvements in equality and representation, but where can we find the theatre? The Region 6 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival indicates that theatre has a lot of catching up to do.
            Of the seven invited productions at this year’s festival, only one of them—Luna Gale—was penned by a female playwright (Rebecca Gilman). Nationally, productions of plays written by women make up a paltry 22% of theatre offerings. Region 6 of the Kennedy Center suffers an additional 7% drop in this representation. The argument has been made that men write better and more plays, and therefore of course producers select their work more often. That statement doesn’t stand up to the facts. In the National Playwriting Program’s 10-Minute Play Competition, blind submissions are evaluated to choose the regional finalists. Of the six plays selected, five of them were written by women. If 83% of plays by female playwrights are selected on blind submission, how do we explain such a precipitous drop once identities are revealed?
            The problem goes beyond the playwrights. Male directors outnumber female directors 4 to 3. On the surface it appears that female actors outnumber male actors at KCACTF, but much of that depends on the monologue play Shakespeare’s Other Women. Without that play, men would outnumber the women 16 to 11. Are female theatre artists absent? A quick glance at any common area during the festival proves that women outnumber the men, yet the symptom persists. We must correct this disparity between available resources and representation.
            When female characters are represented in these plays, they are often subject to misogynistic tropes at the hands of the playwrights and creative teams. Robert Askins’s Hand to God makes no attempt to create female characters that have agency as anything other than a sexual object. When protagonist Jason’s mother does show a sense of being in control of the situation, she does so by committing statutory rape. Jason’s love interest Jessica almost maintains her innocence throughout the play before succumbing to sexual deviancy in the way of explicit puppet sex. She must use sex as a tool to stop the evil since a woman couldn’t possibly have any other skills available. These women are not characters so much as props designed for men’s pleasure.
            Lydia by Octavo Solis, for all its beauty, reduces the women of the play to sexual objects, jilted lovers, or helpless creatures that cannot care for themselves. The Royale by Marco Ramirez only includes one woman in the story of the play. Once introduced late in the evening she serves mostly as a sounding board. Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph levels the playing field in terms of representation as it features one male and one female character, but Kayleen serves little purpose outside of being a comforter for Y-chromasomed Doug. He calls on her to heal him physically, emotionally, and mentally throughout the play to the detriment of her own health. In the one moment of the play that she seems to really need him, he attacks her saying, “Make me stay;” The onus moves to her. Even in her vulnerable moments, the script requires she serve as caretaker to a man. The festival includes Gilman as the one female playwright in the mix, and even she finds herself guilty of the negative portrayals of women that pervade the festival. Luna Gale, though full of strong female characters, focuses a bit too much on the ways that some women tear each other down to achieve their goals.
            When the issue of representation comes up at KCACTF6, theatre professionals trumpet the aforementioned play Shakespeare’s Other Women. On the surface, a play directed by a woman featuring 12 women playing 36 female roles deserves credit as a triumph, right? Not so fast. Although the play appears to bridge the divide, the production proves quite problematic. In the casting of the show, stereotypes are invoked across the board. More attractive women play queens and love interests while other body types play clowns, jilted lovers, and servants. Furthermore, the characters are only allowed to speak when prompted by the two male characters in the play. After these men have listened to these words from female characters that give agency, power, and depth, the papers holding their stories are left strewn about the floor as the men head to the bar to show off the bound copy of Shakespeare’s first folio—a book filled with stereotypical female tropes. The final moment of the play features the women standing alone in the library, no longer able to act or speak without the permission of a man. They remain there, steadfast as the building catches fire. With these closing acts, the play appears to suggest that women stepping out of line leads to being burned alive: hardly a positive message for women.
            Given all of these problems, how do we correct this imbalance? Do we simply instruct responders to balance representation when inviting productions to participate in the festival? Perhaps, but with the 78/22% disparity between productions of male and female playwrights, can we level the playing field? If the solution does not exist at the regional level, where else should we look? The answer lies elsewhere on the totem pole: the students. Educational institutions must make a more concerted effort to include students at the molecular level. Get a balanced representation of artists involved in season selection, dramaturgical presentations, direction, playwriting. We may bemoan that the region should do a better job in selecting works by female artists featuring female characters, but if schools aren’t producing those works, how can Region 6 possibly extend an invitation to the festival?
            But can we count on young theatre artists? Can they really enact real change? To answer that question, I point your attention to the national debate on gun control, especially as related to school shootings. Politicians have been running circles around each other for years on this issue. A tragedy happens, words are thrown about, but no real change happens. Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the students took control of the narrative. They were able to force face-to-face meetings with Senators, law enforcement, and the NRA while getting their message out to major media outlets across the country. In the wake of their efforts, almost ten gun-control bills have been filed in the Senate. They did all of this in little over a week. If a group of students can have this kind of effect on a national issue of such importance, they certainly can when it comes to the problem at hand. These are powerful, driven individuals ready to make a change. We must trust them to shape the future not only of KCACTF, but of American Theatre as a whole.
---Shane Strawbridge

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