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When Women Won’t Accept Theatrical Manspreading

So the news is not great. Yet I find myself optimistic, unable to shake the sense that something is changing — that in a year that began with women’s marches erupting around the globe, female theater makers are less willing to tolerate the stubborn status quo.

Ms. Vogel, whose show runs through Aug. 6 at the Cort Theater, is declining to exit Broadway with decorous gratitude, insisting instead on talking, in the news media and on Twitter, about what she sees as a system stacked against women. (She includes this newspaper.) Kate Whoriskey, the director of “Sweat,” told me this spring that she spent years batting away reporters’ questions about the gender gap in directing but now believes that refusing to discuss it is part of the problem.

It is awkward, in a field that espouses liberal values, to point out the disparity between women and their male colleagues. But it’s pretty glaring. You don’t have to squint to see it.


The Pocket Universe production of “Julius Caesar” was set in an all-girls high school.

Carol Julien

‘The Noblest Girl’

Earlier this summer, in a fourth-floor theater way downtown, there was a “Julius Caesar” that did not attract protesters or make the international news like the recent Shakespeare in the Park production did, with its Trump-like title character. Though less polished, the Pocket Universe staging was the more radical take on the tragedy — set in an all-girls high school and performed by young women building their dramatic muscles in roles that almost always go to men.

Not so different, you might think, from Phyllida Lloyd’s ferocious all-female Donmar Warehouse production a few years back at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Yet in the Pocket Universe version, all of Shakespeare’s characters were girls, and the word “girl” replaced “man” throughout the script, a strikingly potent change. “Thou art the ruins of the noblest girl that ever lived in the tide of times,” Mark Antony said over the dead body of Caesar, and I thought: When do we ever describe girls as noble? When, in the stories we tell, do we ever take them that seriously?

The capacity to take women seriously is at the heart of all of this: the idea that we’re not an aberration but half the population, and just as human as the other half. It is ridiculous to me that the need for equal footing even has to be a discussion — that the inherent value of a theater that looks and sounds and feels like all of us should require defending.

The perception that it does is why activist groups like Parity Productions and the Kilroys exist, applying pressure on behalf of female and transgender artists, and why the predominantly white, male critical establishment came in for an angry hit last month in another piece on HowlRound.

Reading up recently on the playwright Tina Howe, I was struck by an assertion she made several years ago: that male and female playwrights have different notions of what is stageworthy. I believe that’s true of critics as well. Doubtless there’s a lot of overlap, but sometimes a woman will recognize and be moved by things in a play that a man won’t, simply because he has never walked through the world the way she has. That’s not sexism; that’s having a different frame of reference. The more of those, the better.


Ashley D. Kelley, center, in the title role of the musical “Bella: An American Tall Tale” at Playwrights Horizons.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Solving the industry’s inclusion problem is going to require intrepid creativity, sustained nurturing and committed determination. It is also going to require women who — rather like Bella, the defiantly ebullient heroine of Kirsten Childs’s gorgeous Wild West musical “Bella: An American Tall Tale,” recently at Playwrights Horizons — will insist on their right to occupy traditionally male terrain, and won’t reshape themselves to fit it.

Pink Pussy Hats

One of the most stunning theatrical moments I’ve witnessed this year happened in February at St. Ann’s, on the last night of Ms. Lloyd’s all-female staging of “The Tempest.” I had seen the production before, so I knew how its wedding scene usually went, all ethereality and dreamy romance.

By that point, deep in the show, the actors’ femaleness had ceased to register; the audience had long since accepted them as male characters, from Harriet Walter’s Prospero on down. But at that performance, four weeks after the women’s marches, with political anger and exuberance still in the air, the women of “The Tempest” played their wedding scene in pink pussy hats — handmade closing-night gifts from one of the wardrobe people, worn with Ms. Lloyd’s O.K. And it was the strangest, most moving thing: The instant the actors donned them, the energy of the room transformed. Femaleness claimed the stage. All of it.

This isn’t a call for separatism, though. It’s a call for a theater that embraces women instead of pushing them to the margins. There’s no valid reason that they shouldn’t hold half the jobs across the field; earn as much money and wield as much power as the men do; and, being a solid majority of ticket buyers, see lives that look like theirs onstage at least half the time.

I keep thinking of a song in Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin’s “Groundhog Day,” my favorite Broadway musical of the past season. Called “Playing Nancy,” it’s sung by a woman relegated to a bit part in a man’s life. But on a meta level, it’s about being an actress trapped in flimsy supporting roles in shows about men, and longing to play something with greater substance.

It’s a lovely number, one I interpret as a salvo of feminist solidarity by Mr. Minchin in the middle of a show that revolves around a man, just as the original movie does. The actress inside the song wants to be taken seriously, not dismissed as decorative. She wants to grow in her career and be challenged in her work just like the guys are — a reasonable desire, and a common one.

As long as theater’s egregious gender gap remains, though, her male colleagues will have far better odds than she will. By any measure, that is not all right.

The manspreading, then? Dude, it needs to stop. There are women with just as much right to that space, and there’s plenty of room for you both.

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