[article originally published at The Clyde Fitch Report, March 16, 2016.]

Good Kids (photo from University of Michigan)
Good Kids (photo from University of Michigan)

A two-year-old project designed to create more roles for women student actors in plays by women playwrights takes a pragmatic tack to inspiring change. This project isn’t about counts or relative proportions or making the case. Rather than simply measure the inequities in roles for women (and of course there aren’t enough roles and it’s important to count), the Big Ten Plays project of theBig Ten Theatre Consortium now commissions plays by American women playwrights that feature at least six substantial roles for young women.

Beginning in spring 2014, the New Play Initiative began to commission, produce, and publicize a series of new plays by American woman playwrights, intended first to serve college theater programs then the professional theater as well. The vision is to commission one play each year for three years, and commit to additional years after assessing each phase. Each commission includes a $10,000 artist payment (cost of which is shared among the schools) with the provision that any Big Ten university can perform the play royalty-free for up to three years.

As of October, 2015, four plays have been commissioned – see the main project sitefor their continually updated production histories. The plays in order of commission are Good Kids, by Naomi Iizuka; Baltimore, by Kirsten Greenidge; Twilight Bowl, by Rebecca Gilman; and Dog Stars, by Madeleine George. Good Kids had its first productions during the 2014-2015 academic year and has eight parts for women, four for men. The second play Baltimore has six parts for women and three for men.

Alan MacVey, chair of the Theater Arts Department at the University of Iowa, oversees the $10,000 commissions that are awarded in the Initiative. He credits his wife Carol MacVey, colleague at Iowa and teacher at the summer Bread Loaf writing program at Middlebury College, with posing the initial observation: there aren’t enough plays with multiple strong parts for women, who outnumber men, in undergraduate acting programs.

Ethical considerations add to assessments of equity. A recent New York Times article by Laura Collins-Hughes on the project quotes Gregg Henry, artistic director of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. It’s a question of ethics for Henry, who is a great supporter of the program. Accept the students into your program and you have to give them something substantial to do. “If you accept the students, then it’s your obligation to make sure they are challenged with every opportunity to step foot on the stage,” he told Collins-Hughes.

Good Kids has been covered widely, including an American Theatre October 2014 article by Diep Tran reviewing the content and heralding the play’s appearance as the kick-off production for the New Play Initiative. The program’s “rolling premiere” nature allows playwrights to continue to refine their plays as their premiere period continues. Diep Tran quotes Iizuka’s reflections on the luxury of multiple productions in a condensed schedule. “I fully intend to look at the script and reprocess it, which is a luxury I wouldn’t have out in the non-university world. You can have six productions in a twelve-month period and rewrite. That’s a huge luxury; you can keep growing with a script.”

Kirsten Greenidge wrote the second commissioned work,Baltimore,inspired by Black Lives Matter. Maggie Gilroy observed in a February 2016 American Theatre February 2016 article, that everywhere the play was workshopped students were required to take a special course on race, and “Greenidge rewrote the play following each workshop at various colleges, and even included some of the personal stories students shared with her.”

So the Big Ten (originally ten institutions now fourteen but who’s counting) is famed for more than out-sized sports enthusiasts and stadiums these days. I grew up in a western Michigan household headed by two proud Michigan Wolverines, knew the Michigan fight song as a toddler (“Hail! to the victors valiant, Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes”), attended my first Ann Arbor football game before I hit my teens, spent some graduate school years on that same campus, and married a man who was brought up by two Ohio State Buckeyes. Big Ten language translates in many ways in the Midwest, and now, delightfully, beyond sports. The Big Ten New Play Initiative is a brilliantly simple idea, and answers questions of equity and fairness at a basic, ethical level. In order to be trained, young women need meaty roles to work on. There are more women than men in theater programs. The assessment is simple and clear: unless you cross dress, there aren’t enough roles for the women to take on to hone their craft.

It’s a small step from a solid ethical argument to provide equitable training opportunities in education programs to laying out the logic of equitable representation on stages around the country. The Big Ten Consortium and its New Play Initiative are addressing the call by The Kilroys and The Count and Women Count to support women playwrights, and have extended that call to expanding roles for women, of a certain young age. Change comes through initiatives and commissions, one play at a time.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 16, 2016)

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