D.C. festival puts spotlight on female playwrights

Lisa Kron (left) and Jeanine Tesori accept the award for best score for “Fun Home” at the 69th annual Tony Awards in June.

WASHINGTON — It was a historic moment in theater few people saw when the first female writing team won Tony Awards this year for “Fun Home.” The milestone symbolized a stubborn imbalance between the number of female playwrights who see their work produced on stage compared with men.

The breakthrough for Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori with Broadway’s “Fun Home” came at the Tonys. Writers are rarely recognized in the theater world. But for this team, the win cemented their place at a time when very few new plays picked up for production in theaters are written by women.

Now a large-scale theater festival in Washington is challenging this gender divide. Through Oct. 24, the Women’s Voices Theater Festival will involve more than 50 of the Washington region’s professional theaters and will present more than 50 world-premiere productions written by women.

New productions will be staged at theaters both large and small with the aim of launching plays that could move to other cities in the future. Washington’s busy Arena Stage will premiere two new works: one about the humor columnist Erma Bombeck, and another in the style of a Mexican telenovela comedy.

New statistics released this summer by the Dramatists Guild of America focused attention on the gender disparity in theater. Only 22 percent of some 2,500 contemporary theater productions in the past three seasons were written by women, according to the study.

“What you see is this is not about women’s feelings that they’re underrepresented,” Kron said. “This is about actual numbers.”

When it came to marketing “Fun Home” on Broadway, Kron said her team faced knee-jerk assumptions that theirs was a niche show mainstream audiences couldn’t relate to. Part of that was having a lesbian protagonist in a “serious musical” instead of light entertainment, she said. But Kron insisted they had a deeply emotional story worthy on its artistic merits.

“I don’t want any more discussions about, you know, if I can word process with a uterus,” Kron wrote sarcastically to her marketing team at one point. “I want to talk about the work.”

Women playwrights are often asked about their personal experiences, she said, while men are asked about their work. To have work produced, women often have to prove their accomplishments while male playwrights are chosen for their potential.

“What that says is that the bar is higher for women to be produced,” Kron said. But women playwrights “have the same authority to write about the world the way male playwrights have authority to write about the world. But we see the world from a different vantage point.”