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Page To Stage, Plays By Women Face Bias


Barfield on who will produce more diverse works: "You can ask people to move forward with intent, but chances are they’re not gonna do that because we’re innately drawn to things that speak to our experience."

Barfield on who will produce more diverse works: "You can ask people to move forward with intent, but chances are they’re not gonna do that because we’re innately drawn to things that speak to our experience."

Nick Fisher/OPB

Profile Theater is coming to the end of a season of plays written by Portland-born, New York-based writer Tanya Barfield. It’s just one of several efforts to bring more work by women writers to the stage. Artists Repertory Theater, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have made similar commitments.

Profile’s former artistic director, Adriana Baer (no relation to the reporter) was the driving force behind this year’s Barfield season. She says she’d hoped to spotlight work by a woman of color. As Baer puts it, “We are in an interesting time in which culturally, we’re [definitely] aware there’s a problem. My experience, as an artistic director was in asking a lot of questions about representation.”

She became aware of Barfield’s Portland connection through a group of women writers and producers in L.A. who go by The Kilroys.

“Every year,” Baer explained, “they put out a list of about 50 new plays by women that they deemed wonderful works. I was trying to figure out who we were going to do for 2016. I looked at the Kilroys’ list, and was reminded of Tanya’s work, I got very, very excited when I realized she was from Portland and it seemed like a perfect match.”

Nationally, women are understood to be about 60 percent of theater’s ticket buyers. Works by women, however, only represent 20 percent of all staged shows.

Emily Glassberg Sands spent years trying to codify the problem.

Sands is an Economics Ph.D who does data science work. But in 2009, she was doing her undergraduate degree at Princeton. She got to talking with the playwright Julia Jordan.

“We knew was there weren’t a lot of female-written plays in production,” Sands said. “At the time, Julia had done a quick tabulation — less than one-fifth of productions in non-profit subscription houses were written by women.”

Jordan was pretty sure women were writing plays. So they hatched a series of three studies to find out why women’s plays weren’t getting produced.

For the first, Sands pulled numbers from Duly.com — an online database for theatrical scripts. This wasn’t a perfect measurement — not every playwright uses Duly, and playwrights who do post don’t always upload everything they’ve written. But the data offered a broad snapshot. There were about two male playwrights for every female in the database, and more plays uploaded by men.

The next step was a field experiment.

Julia Jordan recruited four previously unseen scripts — one written by Tanya Barfield herself. Sands then selected 250 artistic directors and literary managers at random, and started sending the scripts out, with either a male or female name listed as the playwright.

“The names were chosen to be as similar as possible,” Sands said. “They had the same last name. They even had the same frequency in the U.S. Census.”

She told the readers she was rating the determinants for whether a script goes to production, asking them to  rate the plays on issues like overall quality, likability of characters, and the economic prospects for the play.

“The exact same scripts,” said Sands, “were deemed to be of lower overall quality when they were written by a women. The characters were deemed less likable.”

Here’s the kicker: The women readers she talked to rated plays with women’s names attached lower than male readers did.

Tanya Barfield said she wasn’t surprised, but, in a sense, relieved by the results.

“I was relieved to know I’m not crazy,” Barfield said. “But the part of the study that really shocked me and frankly scared me was the fact that it didn’t matter if the people reading the play were men or women. Across the board they’d undervalue what they thought to be women’s work. It’s very easy to blame the other, to say, ‘It’s all these male artistic directors.’ Then we found out women are also doing this to us.”

Both Barfield and Sands said there are possible solutions to address bias.

Sands noted she now works in tech, a highly male-dominated field.

“I interview lots of people very week,” she said. “Implicit bias is something that’s hard to see in yourself, but it’s often easier to see if you quantify your behavior. One path is to keep records, rather than just going on gut.”

Barfield noted she had a job reviewing new works for the Julliard School.

“I implemented blind submissions, because after the study I thought maybe I had bias and I can’t assume I’m beyond any other person, any other woman in this study,” she said.

This works reasonably well, she said for emerging playwrights, but might be less effective among companies that produce established writers.

“Even if you took the internet out of it,” Barfield said, “everyone knows everyone on some level once you get to a certain point in your career and they’re going to be familiar.”

Adriana Baer added, “I see a lot more talk about this on a national level — articles in the [New York] Times, American Theater magazine. I do see a slight shift in what’s happening in terms of producing. In the last year, Portland itself has gotten slightly better. The noise that’s being made is starting to have an impact.”

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