[article originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, April 13, 2016.]

Data collection and advocacy efforts to count, sort and assess parity in theater production continue apace. But counting is only part of the story. And while I have been covering the data story myself here and elsewhere, aggregate understanding doesn’t tell us about an individual playwright’s experience and what support she needs to grow.

Rothstein headshot [2]
Sharyn Rothstein, winner of the 2015 Primus Prize.
A special annual playwright’s prize speaks to parity in a personal level. On April 8, 2016 during the American Theater Critics Association annual conference in Philadelphia, Sharyn Rothstein received the 2015 Francesca Primus Prize, for her play By the Water, which premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II in November 2014. The Prize was established to recognize and support emerging women artists who have not yet achieved national prominence.

While we as a theater community have committed resources to survey the general state of gender parity, we need to consider the individual effects of advocacy and support on individual playwrights, working for parity one playwright at a time.

As a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, I attend conferences to benefit from resources and collegial wisdom. I received a scholarship to attend the 2014 O’Neill National Critics Institute in part underwritten by ATCA, and vote on recommendations for the Special Tony® Award for Regional Theatre and on the annual inductees to the Theatre Hall of Fame. The organization offers Parity one playwright at a time.$51,000 in award money to playwrights every year, determined by committees composed of ATCA members. The Steinberg-ATCA New Play Award and citations (one $25,000 award and two $7,500 citations) and the Osborn Award for an emerging playwright ($1,000) for plays receiving their first production in a particular calendar year and has not yet been produced in New York City, are presented during the Actors Theater of Louisville’s annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.

The Primus Prize honors Francesca Primus who was an actress, playwright, advocate, and proud ATCA member. She was remembered by her brother, actor Barry Primus, in a letter written to Rothstein and read on April 8th by Chris Rawson, senior theater critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “She was especially interested in women playwrights,” wrote Primus of his sister, “feeling very strongly that their voice had not been registered fully in our culture, and it’s a glaring absence.”

Rothstein spoke in receiving the award about the power of support at key professional moments, that augmented the aggregate analyses in which I have been engaged over the past few years.

One of the most meaningful things that got me to this place in life is that I won a playwriting award in college, and it was at a time when I was trying desperately to figure out a more practical thing to do with my life. Winning that award was really the first thing that said to me: try this. try this. So I fully know the value and inspiration that receiving awards has, especially in this field and especially for women.

And beyond individual support of critics and advocates, she spoke of the several artistic homes she has found during her formative creative years.

I’ve been really lucky to be part of a lot of fantastic dynamic emerging playwright groups, including Youngblood at EST and Play Group at Ars Nova. Ars Nova is doing some of the most adventurous interesting work in New York right now, especially for younger writers, women writers, writers of color. The amount they produce is like insane. They do cabaret stuff. Natasha Pierre, started there, and they are champions of new work. I think they’re the future of theater in New York, and maybe the country.

Rothstein credits the support she received from Ars Nova (and co-producer Manhattan Theatre Club) with enabling her to succeed with her play By the Water that we had gathered to award with the Primus Prize.

Ars Nova is a tiny theater so far on the west side it may as well be in Jersey. If you get a chance to go see anything there I really recommend it. It’s always a good time. which is not always something you can say about theater. And their support for this play is why this play is what it is.

Ongoing national and regional parity data and advocacy efforts are designed to hold the theater community accountable – from play selection to design team assembly to casting decisions. The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Women Count project reported data for five Off Broadway seasons in its 2015 report, 2010-2011 through 2014-2015, measuring seasons from May 1—April 30. The third Women Count report in process will include the 2015-2016 season. The Kilroys, a group of LA playwrights and advocates, are collecting data for their third annual list (following the 2014 list and 2015 list) promoting women and trans writers, with a focus this year on plays that will not have their first productions prior to June 2016.

And The Count, a project conceived by playwrights Julia Jordan and Marsha Norman, funded by the Dramatists Guild and Lilly Awards, and managed by Jordan and DG Manager of Member Services Rebecca Stump, addresses the question of who is being produced in American theaters across the country. The first report was published in the November/December 2015 Dramatist and included data from three seasons, 2011-2012 through 2013-2014, measuring seasons from September 1—August 31. Rebecca Stump recently reported in an email exchange that the second report will cover the same data on dramatists produced across the country in regularly-producing and reviewed not-for-profit regional theaters for the 2014-2015 season, with a publication date not yet set. Stump reports, “We are collecting the same data points, with the same criteria, as we did last season. We do have some additional data points in the pipeline, but may or may not be including them this round.”

We count and analyze and hold systems accountable in aggregate and in summary. And it is essential to honor groups and gifts and awards and selection systems that tell a playwright: go on, try this.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 13, 2016)

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