Female playwrights say leadership must change for theater to be more diverse and representative

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Jennie Webb (left) is a playwright and co-founder of Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, and Diana Burbano (right). is an actor and playwright. “What we need is specificity of story. … In that specificity is where we're gonna find connection and empathy,” says Burbano. Photos courtesy of Peter Konerko and Cristina Burgos.

The Center Theatre Group (CTG) recently announced its 2022 season, after almost a two-year hiatus. The lineup included 10 plays to be performed at the Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre, one of which was the Tony-nominated “Slave Play” from playwright Jeremy O. Harris.  

Out of the 10 plays, however, only one was written by a woman. Many people were dismayed by the news. Then Harris threatened to withdraw his play from the season if the CTG didn’t act. Soon afterward, they issued an apology and committed to programming from women and non-binary playwrights for the following season. 

LA has had a longstanding problem of not producing many plays from female-identifying playwrights. “The people who pick the shows are majority older white men,” says playwright and actor Diana Burbano

For her, it all comes down to the leadership and who is choosing the plays to put on. She says, “It's definitely the leadership of CTG [that] is going to be where the change happens. And my big question right now is who's going to pick the leader? Is it going to be all white men picking another white man? Which is possible. Or is it going to be a greater range of people who will choose somebody who will maybe look at the fact that Los Angeles is a hugely Latino city?” 

Burbano is in a group called the Honor Roll, which is for female playwrights over age 40. She’s in it alongside playwright Jennie Webb, co-founder of the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative (LAFPI).

Webb says that the group has been fighting a longstanding battle against being invisible in the industry. While some folks look the other way, Webb says, “It takes those of us over and over again to say, ‘No [we’re] back here’ and hold them accountable. And it gets exhausting, but if that's what needs to be done, that's what needs to be done.”

Webb explains that often industry people want to make the safe move and put on plays that are in the same wheelhouse of previously successful ones. “But then you look at the lists of the most produced plays that American Theatre puts out every year, and for the last — I don't know how many years — over half of them have been by women. And statistically plays by women do better at the box office on Broadway. Women buy the tickets.” 

So as theater is returning, she believes that now is the time to put on new stories and hear from new voices. 

Burbano adds, “I think a huge thing that all the theaters have to do is really have a reckoning as to how they're going to build audiences, BIPOC audiences especially, and bring them to the theater.” She feels like that is the way to bring new audiences in and restore excitement to the theater industry. 

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