Two Women Playwrights Are Stars at N.Y. Festival

At a recent off-off-Broadway festival, the brightest stars were two women writers who are the exception to the rule that women playwrights, composers and theater directors are finding fewer opportunities.

Rachel Ladutke/Donna Stearns

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-Two women playwrights presented some of the most acclaimed works at an off-off-Broadway theater festival this summer; together their plays accounted for 20 percent of the ticket sales for this 26-show event.

Rachel Rubin Ladutke and Donna Stearns were selected by the The Third Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival for their musicals “Belles of the Mill” and “All the World's a Stage.” Held annually, the festival acts as a clearinghouse for new talents.

Ladutke and Stearns' success is a bright spot in a time when women are generally underrepresented in theater.

“Things are still not equal, but slowly we're starting to break through,” Ladutke said.

The hardest part of the selection process is to actually get people to read your script, Ladutke said. “Subconsciously or not, producers are less likely to open a script written by a woman,” she said.

Having a Non-Gender Specific Name Helps in Blind Competitions

Many women playwrights claim that blind submissions give women a higher chance of being read. Ladutke adds that having a non-gender specific name also helps.

When she submitted “Belles of the Mill” to the Midtown International Theatre Festival, she was quickly selected.

“A good script is a good script,” said John Chatterton, executive producer and artistic director of the festival. Beside the quality of the text, the committee weighs whether the playwrights have the ability to produce and market their work. Chatterton says that diversity is also one of the festival's primary goals.

About one-third of the shows featured this year at the festival were written by women. While the numbers fall short of gender parity, women's representation at the festival was much stronger than in New York and other regional productions overall.

In the 2001-2002 season, only 16 percent of theater productions-regional and off-Broadway-were written by women, and 17 percent had female directors, according to a report by the New York State Council on the Arts. On Broadway, the numbers of women in charge was even lower: In 1999, women wrote only 8 percent of all plays and only 1 percent of musicals.

In comparison, the figures recorded for the Midtown International Theatre Festival are more encouraging, but appear to be not so unusual for a theater of its size. A 1998 study commissioned also by the arts council found that women participate more often in off-off Broadway theaters with total operating budgets of less than $500,000. The report concludes that the more money at stake, the less likely women are to be found in writing and directing positions.

“We know that for a fact,” said Ladukte. “But I care less if I ever get Broadway. My ultimate goal is to make it to regional theaters.” Ladutke, expecting a child this fall, left the city right after the festival to settle in Richmond, Va.

Festival Organizers Hope This Year's Stars Will Be Back Next Year

For women composers, the road to recognition is not an easy one either. Stearns, who wrote all the lyrics and music for “All the World's a Stage,” says that she often is confronted with producers who second-guess her ability as a songwriter.

“People believe that a woman can sing or dance, but when it comes to writing and composing, we are not taken seriously,” said Stearns, with over 20 years experience in music. “It is so frustrating, especially when I know that I have the training and that I can do all that.”

Stearns has had songs played in other productions before, but “All the World's a Stage” is actually her first musical. This parody of Shakespeare's “As You Like It” brings in elements of today's cultural diversity, transforming the story into a gay-friendly farce.

“I wanted to make something entertaining that would speak to the New York community,” said Stearns.

Ladutke also chose a gender-centered topic for “Belles of Mill.” Inspired by a 1912 strike organized by thousands of immigrant textile workers in rural Massachusetts, the story is focused on the lives of the women and their fight for better wages.

While many women playwrights, as reported in the art council's study, fear to be stigmatized if they write about women, this is not a concern for Ladutke.

“I write stories that appeal to me,” she said. “That doesn't make me more a feminist than a male playwright who writes about men is a misogynist.”

Ladutke admits, though, that she was happy to find a female composer and director.

“I don't exclude men. I am just more women-oriented when it comes to my work,” she said.

Chatterton says that the women's playwrights, directors and composers in this year's festival did a wonderful job at producing their work. “We want them back next year with something new,” he added.

Ladutke and Stearns said that they benefited from such experiences, which they hoped would act as a trampoline for their careers.

Marieme Daff is a Women's Enews summer intern.

For more information:

The Theatre Program of the New York State Council on the Arts:
“Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement?”

Women's Project and Productions:

The Third Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival: