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Cross Post: How To Build Gender Parity Initiatives and Influence Theatre

by Laura Shamas
October 17, 2012 11:43 AM
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The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a grassroots advocacy group of women and men whose mission is to promote female theater artists in LA and beyond. We’ve been around for two and a half years now, and we want to encourage others to start initiatives in their own theater communities to promote female artists. Every month, LA FPI gets inquiries: “How did you do it? What are the steps?” The beauty of an initiative is that you can tailor it to your own area and resources; you don’t need a grant or a venue or a budget. You can start now.

Our Launch
LA FPI began, informally, in September 2009, when playwright Jennie Webb and I decided to do something. We knew there were hundreds of women playwrights in Los Angeles who, like us, were inspired by the 2008 calls for more gender parity coming from New York theater artists; we were impressed by statistics that told a disappointing story for women writers in New York theaters—Theresa Rebeck’s Guardian op-ed cited a 12.6% production rate for female playwrights on New York stages in 2008. Our many friends and colleagues in the LA theater scene expressed concern about the problem. But no one knew quite what to do—perhaps arrange a community-wide symposium? But would that really help? Is a dialogue enough to make it better? And shouldn’t we define it? What are the stats for LA, anyway? Should we wait until someone releases data specifically for Southern California before we act?

By the time Jennie and I had lunch together in 2009, it was clear to both of us that no one was going to gather the stats for Los Angeles. We’d have to find a way to get them ourselves. We also knew that we needed to somehow liaise with everyone who cared about this issue in Southern California. We wanted to hear from the theater community and beyond. We wanted to co-create remedies as part of a vibrant, robust, collaborative theater scene—a community we both love.

Step One:
Define Goals. Gather Your Team.
In November 2009, Jennie and I begged actor/writer/artistic director Ella Martin to head up a study of women playwrights in Los Angeles, covering the first decade of the twenty-first century. And we asked her to do it for free because we had no money! Much to our joy, Ella said yes. She embarked on a fourteen-month process to research the SoCal stats and more; Ella’s process involved over one hundred volunteers (female playwrights and others), several theater organizations, Survey Monkey, and twenty local theaters. Ella evolved the idea of the study well beyond what we’d imagined; she coordinated with the LA STAGE Alliance, who generously shared their ticket data from 2002 to 2010 (as related to female playwrights), so we could have an unbiased statistic as a starting point for the first decade of the twenty-first century. The number of female-authored plays from 2002 to 2010 in LA was 20% of all productions. Then, Ella created case studies of LA women playwrights and of specific theaters, with fascinating results; the official LA FPI study was completed in 2011.

In the meantime, Jennie and I launched a temporary web page and began to spread the word. Jennie and I explored how LA FPI could potentially work. We didn’t want to start a theater company. We wanted to be a true theater advocacy collective, with equality among all artists, and no single leader. We crafted language about being a nexus between theaters and groups already in existence. We wanted to initiate discussion and action. We hesitated to use the word membership to refer to those who would join; instead, we all became instigators. We wanted to foster respect for women dramatists, and that respect began with how we treated each other as theater artists. We aspired to support all involved to be able to maintain or accelerate their careers as playwrights.

Step Two:
Have an Open First Meeting.
By the end of 2009, Jennie, Ella, and I had formalized some basic objectives to accomplish, and in January 2010, we issued an invitation to the LA theater community via the web for an open meeting in March 2010 to explore the problem. (All are welcome!) Our motto: Take positive action. The space for this meeting, as with all our meetings, was generously donated to us by Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon; subsequent LA FPI meetings have been held at Theatricum, The Victory Theatre in Burbank, Atwater Crossing, Rogue Machine, and a church on the west side.

Even though it was stormy on that March day, many women and men braved the weather for the first LA FPI meeting at Theatricum. In a cold, crowded room, we took turns voicing our concerns and opinions. From that wellspring of community, the LA FPI “calls to action” were born.

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  • Mary | October 17, 2012 7:32 PMReply

    Awesome! Such a great idea. Regarding getting women to financially support women-written and women-directed works, we're trying to do something similar on Meetup, except with film. For the past year Orange County Women and Film has been going to see films by and about women, and the newly created Los Angeles Women and Film is doing the same on the other side of the Orange Curtain. Building and nurturing a fanbase is so important!

  • Dee Jae Cox | October 17, 2012 3:47 PMReply

    This is an excellent and informative outline of all that the LA Female Playwrights Initiative has brought to Los Angeles Theatre. From the first time I heard of this group I breathed a sigh of relief that there were others out there searching for answers on how to bring gender parity to the stage. Laura Shamus and Jennie Webb are two amazing playwrights and advocates for women in theatre and I am thrilled beyond words to see their achievements and contributions to the LA Theatre Community. I encourage everyone to support this incredible group.
    Dee Jae Cox
    Cofounder/Artistic Director
    The Los Angeles Women's Theatre Project

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