Intrepid reading series promotes equity in theatre

From Broadway to Victoria, the picture is the same: women make up the vast majority of theatre goers, but relatively few plays produced are written by their sex. Although women dominate theatre industry jobs, men occupy most high level positions. Women, meanwhile, are paid less for equal work. Such were the findings of a Playwrights Guild of Canada 2006 report on the Status of Women in Canadian Theatre. Last year, the guild started an Equity in Theatre campaign to redress gender inequalities. Intrepid Theatre artistic director and Victoria playwright Janet Munsil, whose plays have been staged across Canada and in the UK, has developed a New Play Reading Series with a focus on local playwrights who are women. Munsil talks to Stephanie Harrington about the initiative.

A Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) report found that 70 per cent of theatre goers are women. Yet women playwrights produced only 22 per cent of plays in Canadian theatres in 2013/14. In British Columbia, disappointingly, the numbers were even lower, with women producing only 18 per cent of plays. What do you make of these disparities? And how is Intrepid Theatre’s New Play Reading Series addressing historical inequalities?

I’ve been following and promoting the Equity in Theatre initiative since its launch, as the regional rep for the B.C. Islands Caucus of the Playwrights Guild. I started the series specifically to address the issue of gender inequity for playwrights, devoting the first six months to plays by women–and this has been extended to eight months of plays. At a time when attention is being drawn to the issue, it’s notable that there are no plays by women being produced locally in the professional mainstage seasons in Victoria this season.

The perceptual problem is mostly about how the industry talks about playwrights who are women–they are Women Playwrights. An audience might justifiably jump to the conclusion that Women Playwrights write “women’s plays” about “women’s issues” or that they fall into one of the film/novel stereotypes we are so used to, like “frothy chick-flick” or “angry feminism.”

I can’t argue with the statistics and I don’t know how to solve the problem, but it’s important to acknowledge it, and the series is a way for us to do that. I believe that half of the members of the PGC are women, so it’s not that there are fewer women writing plays. Seventy eight per cent of the script submissions I’ve received for the series are by women.

Five plays have featured so far as part of the series which started in November, including Karen Lee Pickett’s Hand of Jane and The Wonderful Naked Man by Sandi Johnson. Besides the obvious factor that women wrote these plays, how have the characters, issues or stories explored differed? In other words, are audiences being exposed to new perspectives and what do these stories offer theatre goers that they haven’t experienced before?

The plays thus far have been very different, by design–I think it’s the wide range of styles and themes that these playwrights are exploring that makes the series most interesting. We’ve had everything from musical biography to surreal poetry to a thriller–they couldn’t be more individual in their voice and content, and their take on the human experience.

Regardless of gender, every playwright has a different perspective and a different “ear” for dialogue–which is at the heart of dramatic writing. If we are exposed to more plays by women, or by more diverse playwrights in general, we’re of course exposed to a broader range of unique voices. The key is to tell an interesting story in a fresh, relevant way.

As dismal as the statistics are for women playwrights, racial inequality is even worse.  The Playwrights Guild found “people of colour comprised nine per cent of produced playwrights, with five per cent of the plays written by men and four per cent written by women,” from nearly 2000 productions staged in Canada from 2000-05. How is the Equity in Theatre project addressing issues around (the lack of) diversity in Canadian theatre? Is this something you think about in your own work?

Improving diversity on Victoria’s stages is at the front of my mind when I’m programing festivals and presenting–and I think this is a going concern for most presenters I know. In curating Uno Fest (our annual solo performance festival), I am very conscious in my decision making about gender balance and cultural diversity. Sad to say, Victoria doesn’t have a very diverse theatre community at this time, so this is usually in the form of touring productions. I am working on two plays at the moment, one about black history and the other about disability, but these are the stories I feel I have to share. It’s not based on a feeling that it’s my job to address certain issues or cultural biases as a playwright.

What can audience members expect when attending Intrepid Theatre’s New Play Reading Series?

It’s a cross between two things you will be familiar with–a radio play and a live stage performance. Once we select a script, the readers are cast from a roster of local actors. They have a read-though rehearsal prior to the public reading. On the night of the performance, the cast sits at a table under stage lights, and the audience assembles in our 50-seat studio at the Intrepid Theatre Club. Admission is by donation. Someone reads the stage directions to help paint the picture. There are no sets or costumes, so it requires some active participation in the imagination of the audience. The main difference between a play reading (aka “Reader’s Theatre”) and a radio play is that you are in the room with live actors, sharing that experience with the other people in the room on stage and off–and that’s unique to live theatre.

Intrepid’s series features full-length, unproduced plays that the playwrights consider “complete,” and we are sharing them with the audience as a complete, bare-bones performance. There are other kinds of readings in theatre – sometimes a company might do a reading of a play it is considering for an upcoming season, or as part of a workshop of a new script in progress where the audience or actors are asked for feedback in the end. In that case, it’s possible for a brand-new play to be presented as a problem to be fixed by a room of relative strangers, and a playwright can be put in the vulnerable position of feeling that they must answer all the questions or remove all the ambiguities in their subsequent drafts, or to submit to a kind of thesis defense moments after having heard their work for the first time. Mystery and ambiguity, and the magic that happens when actors bring the work to life, are the essential things that make theatre worth thinking about.

Are there long-term plans for the reading series? For example, will any of the plays be produced? There is a reading on March 31 (before a break until June), a play from Coastal Spectator reviewer Joy Fisher, called Writing As a Kind of Magic. It’s described as an historical melodrama inspired by the witchcraft trial of Katharina Kepler, the mother of the astronomer, Johannes Kepler.

Intrepid Theatre doesn’t produce plays–it isn’t really our mandate, and we aren’t funded as a producing company. We present local and touring work in festivals that is “audience-ready,” providing venues and events where small companies and independent producers can do their work. But as part of our support of emerging artists and our outreach to the community, we can take this modest measure to recognize and promote the work of local playwrights, to invite those who are looking for new plays to produce to join the audience, and most of all, to encourage writers who may have been discouraged by the many challenges (not just gender-biases) to having their plays produced, to hear their work out-loud, alive, with an audience that is there to enjoy their work.