theatrical research: counting women and baselines for advocacy

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image 3 LPTW 2015 season launch at the Players
League of Professional Theatre Women season launch, September 28, 2015 The Players.

Coverage of efforts to track the status of and advocate for the parity for women in theater, film and television continues unabated this fall. I summarized a few efforts and data snapshots that have been collected in a post a month ago.

A group of power brokers in Hollywood have joined the call to track the status of women in the film industry and develop strategies to effect change. A report on their efforts in the LA Times this week inspires hope, and a sense of camaraderie for all who are working for parity and equity in the performing arts.

[F]or two days this fall, a group of 44 entertainment industry leaders gathered quietly, turning off their phones and setting aside their rivalries to tackle an increasingly visible problem in their business: the lack of women both in front of and behind the camera.

The private meeting, one of the first attempts by Hollywood decision makers to grapple with gender bias as a group, came as federal investigators conduct a probe into possible gender discrimination in Hollywood. After two days studying the issue, participants concluded with agreement on a series of steps, including developing a seal of approval to recognize studios and networks that show progress.

The League of Professional Theatre Women, of which I am a member and supported by which I have co-written an annual report on women in off-Broadway theater over the past two years (2014 Women Count  and 2015 Women Count), is involved in several efforts to track and advocate for women in theater. The League is developing its own “seal of approval” honors that will honor theater companies that offer women playwrights and directors at least parity among that theater’s productions. (More on this when the LPTW “seal” idea is finalized and announced.)

In the meantime, I conclude here with some of my musings published in a piece published December 1, 2015 in the Clyde Fitch Report on the role of counting efforts in advocacy, and the ongoing partnerships that have borne fruit for such efforts in past decades .

Another long-term counting and advocacy initiative could provide some additional context and vision. The Kids Count initiative began in 1990 funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to track the wide range of data on the status of children in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This project was first a national annual report (a kind of report card on child well-being), and spread at one time into funded state-based data and advocacy partnerships. I was part of one such partnership in Pennsylvania in the 1990s. The national initiative always had its sights on advocacy informed by the solid data it assembled. Before this initiative it was difficult to assess the general well-being of children over time on a consistent set of health and economic indicators in neighborhoods, cities, state and regions – all the data were held by different departments that didn’t talk to each other. Through this initiative, annual reports call the departments and their own data collectors to account and have provided data that many advocates can use. As AECF writes of the initiative, “Our signature resources tracking the well-being of children over time and across states in order to provide high-quality, unbiased information and encourage action on behalf of kids and families.” Twenty-five years on, it is no longer possible to claim ignorance of the range of information available in any US jurisdiction on the status of health and well-being status children and families. Policy makers start with information and engage immediately on strategies.

The advocacy on behalf of women working in theater that has come in tandem with efforts to count and assess has taken many forms, from challenges to action steps. Theresa Rebeck’s 2010 acceptance speech for her PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award challenged the theater community to acknowledge its gender problem and to change its way of doing business. The Lilly Awards – named for Lillian Hellman – have honored the work of women in theater since 2010. The 50/50 in 2020 grassroots movement works to achieve employment parity for women theater artists by the 100th anniversary of American suffrage in 2020. In late June 2014, The Kilroys released its first annual list of work by women writers (46 in 2014 and a second list of 53 released in 2015) recommended by playwrights, dramaturgs and artistic directors across the country to inform season selection.

A series of convenings in New York City and other locales in recent weeks expressly focuses attention on the “what next” stage of our parity considerations. The Good to Go Festival on November 18, 2015 asked for successes and action steps toward parity (asking where are we and where to we go from here), and the Percolating Gender Parity in Theatre convening organized by the Women in Arts & Media Coalition, with a similar “what’s next” agenda, is set for December 3, 2015.

The success of the Kids Count initiative provides lessons learned, and hope for the future. There is always value in keeping the baseline true and clean, preparing a solid foundation for creative thinking to achieve our joint goals, whether they be the health of young children, keeping children in school, or assuring that women have an equal shot at careers in the theater. Consistently collected data keep systems honest. On this foundation, we build creative and solid advocacy.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 2, 2015)

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