monica byrne

How systems change.

Picture: Wellesley archives.

HowlRound this week is devoted to discussions of gender parity in theatre. The week’s not up yet, but I feel like its very premise is still stuck in a place of hand-wringing and helplessness, operating under the assumption that women are—not are constructed as, but are—a special subset of human being. While somewhat useful in the short term, resulting in women-only prizes and reading series (and colleges—of which I’m a beneficiary), this framing is not useful in the long term. It reinforces separatism (“women are fundamentally different from men”) and essentialism (“women write fundamentally different stories than men”). Same goes for any kind of gender or racial categorization: “Y is fundamentally different from X and will write fundamentally different stories.” These assumptions then allow for categorical criticism and dismissal based on supposedly inalienable characteristics.

Instead, I would love to see the community operate under the assumption that women are human. Full stop. Then we’d see clearly that half the artistic contributions of the human race are ignored for no reason. Then we’d see clearly that the current state of theatre is quite embarrassing. Then we’d see clearly that all explanations for discrimination along the lines of “quality,” “readiness,” and “artistic freedom” are bankrupt.

And when we have data—which are forthcoming, as far as I understand—we will see clearly those who’ve taken conscious measures to dismantle internalized sexism and those who haven’t. As it is now, when my play gets rejected, I never know if it’s for the reasons they say it is, or if it’s because I’m a woman. The unfortunate thing is, often, neither do they—that’s the nature of unexamined bias—but it’s still discrimination. And the only antidote to discrimination is to put systems in place that protect against it.

Here’s what I want to see: by the end of 2014, a boycott of theaters that haven’t demonstrated or made a public commitment to gender parity. For our purposes, gender parity is defined as follows: a season of playwrights, directors, choreographers, dramaturgs, actors, musicians, and designers that reflects the gender makeup of the available labor pool to within a certain percentage; the percentage depends on the size of the theater and its workforce. (As for the statistics, theaters are responsible for tracking and reporting them. VIDA tracks these data for literary journals. Strange Horizons tracks these data for the speculative fiction journals. If they can do it, individual theaters can.) A boycott would take both the bravery of those with more power, because they will necessarily be taking stands against friends and colleagues; and the bravery of those with less power, who know that speaking up against institutions may endanger their opportunities going forward.

Speaking for myself, I’m fine with that. I’m a resident playwright with an amazing company, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, that is committed to gender parity. I don’t want to work with a theater that doesn’t practice gender parity. I don’t want to send them my work and I don’t want to see their shows. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve disqualified themselves from the conversation.

Who gets to define the conversation?

I do.

Because I’ve decided I do.

You do, if you decide you do.

That is how systems change.