The Best Plays

No artistic director wants his or her hands tied by quotas. No artistic director wants to be told what to program. Often you'll hear a producer say, "I don't want to produce plays by women; I want to produce the best plays." Forgoing the infuriating nature of that construction, what does "the best play" even mean, when aesthetics are variant and taste is subjective? In my mind the "best plays" of the year were Tanya Barfield's The Call and Andrea Thome's Pinkolandia, but neither of those are the splashiest award-winning plays of the season.

The "best plays" system allows you to choose based on gut decisions, without any metrics for measuring success, without any accountability for the larger effects that your decisions have on the ecosystem of theater. I have written previously about vastly expanding production volume so as to seek out new audiences, which would help counteract the inequities. I've also written about having the humility to hire a diversity officer. But honestly we'd be going a long way in the theater if we could just recognize that taste is subjective, and get this "best play" notion out of our lexicon.

If the "best plays" system were truly a meritocratic process, you would expect to see aberrations in the trends from season to season: a season where nearly all the plays are by women, a season where there are multiple writers of color produced in a single year. But that season rarely happens. One of the great initiatives that followed Julia Jordan's study was "50/50 in 2020," a grassroots effort to establish gender parity in the theater by the year 2020. Which sounds like a good idea initially, but then I'm like, "F*ck that. 50/50 NOW." No feasibility studies, no development labs, no special foundation for the advancement of women. The work is out there. Produce the work.

The Future

Most ethnic minorities (or women) have heard the old adage, "You have to work twice as hard as other people just to get by." I used to relish that -- relish that challenge. But now I wonder: what happens to a vast swath of talented people when their work is under-celebrated and under-sung for reasons that just might be other than merit? What happens to their creativity, their sense of innovation and adventure, when their work gets passed up again and again, or relegated to the small space in the basement?

Does going through all that adversity make you tougher, make your work sharper, make your voice that much harder to ignore? Maybe. If the people who were at the Lilly Awards are any indication, then yes, the crucible of working twice as hard seems to have birthed some astounding artists. But then again, after doing all of that X-ray work, Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 37. Martha Chanse fell into dementia and died in obscurity. Denise Scott Brown still doesn't have a Pritzker. I see history repeating itself, and I am powerless to do anything about it.

In fact, the pattern of bias in our industry just might be worse than in other industries, because in fields like science the outcomes are objective whereas in our field the outcomes are judged entirely based on subjective criteria. Reviews and awards are subjective, audience attendance is but a partial measure of success, nobody wants to tie art to commerce by using revenue as a metric, and as a seasoned grant writer I'm here to tell you that any outcome can be made to look good on a grant report. The disparities are considered, and accepted. Women will just have to wait longer.

Every year they give out a "Miss Lilly" award to a man, and in that crowd of fantastic women artists, somebody joked to me, "Oh don't worry -- some year they'll give one to you!" And I thought to myself, "Wouldn't that be something. What if I won a Lilly Award before my wife?"


Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza are New York-based playwrights.

Republished with permission.