Jennie Webb and Laura Shamas

Jennie Webb and Laura Shamas

Taking Initiative

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It’s been almost a year since the first gathering of artists who had heard about something called the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative. The kick-off event was on March 6, 2010, and the unified response from writers who came out in the rain to listen to our scheme was, “I’m so glad you’re doing this! Someone needed to!” What we’re glad about is that today over 150 like-minded women and men, in LA and beyond, are part of the movement. Here’s a bit of our back story. And a look ahead.

Jennie Webb

Jennie Webb: The actual start of the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative — how playwright Laura Shamas approached me and we reached out to other playwrights in LA — is far less exciting than what pushed us to take action. That was the energy of women and men in New York who had come together to protest the fact that women playwrights — and women artists ““ were ridiculously underrepresented on American stages. At the end of 2008, it was estimated that women playwrights, directors and designers received fewer than 20% of the professional production opportunities nationwide. It was those loud and clear voices on the East Coast — drawing attention to the facts, raising questions, pushing for change — that made us ask ourselves, “If they can do something there, why can’t we do something here in Los Angeles?”

Laura Shamas

Laura Shamas: Jennie and I were both inspired by the movement in New York starting in 2008/2009. We had lots of female playwright friends who felt the same as we did. None of us wanted to start an “organization” since there are so many good playwrights’ organizations in LA and so many superb theaters. But as the percentage of women playwrights who were represented on American stages — 17% — kept popping up, we realized Los Angeles’ numbers weren’t specifically included. So Jennie and I tried to strategize about how to get the local statistics and how to get others talking about it in LA. In my opinion, the LA theater scene is too often maligned in terms of national reputation. My experiences in it have been so satisfying and enriching; there are so many talented artists here. We wanted to be sure whatever we did was supportive of the theater community, which we both love.

JW: Right. So from the earliest stages of LA FPI we wanted to make sure what we were doing wasn’t “us vs. them.” Right now we’re all in the same dire situation. We want to open doors and rally support in a positive way. The bottom line is we all want to get work, right? The more work we collectively get onstage, the more we all benefit.

LS: The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative began as a nexus ““ a way to connect theaters and organizations interested in raising visibility and opportunities for women playwrights and female theater artists, to move towards gender parity in the art form. Since its inception, LA FPI has morphed into a virtual community with volunteers who network to theaters directly. We have the only calendar listing of female-authored theater events in Los Angeles. And we have a free e-mail blast with information and opportunities for playwrights. Anyone can sign up for it.

JW: We both feel it’s important that LA FPI is not an exclusive movement. Our “members” — and I use the term loosely because there are no dues or fees; actually, I prefer the term “instigators!” — are people who are ready for change. We’ve been lucky enough to find women and men who are excited about what we’re doing and want to be an active part of it.

LS: And perhaps most important, LA FPI partnered with LA STAGE Alliance to collect statistics on gender parity in the LA-area theater scene in the 21st century. Theater artist Ella Martin was a huge factor in getting the numbers counted; we are in her debt.

JW: Now we’ve got a baseline statistic that gives us a starting point. We can use this as a tool when we talk about the need for fair representation of women playwrights. That number is 20%. Only 20% of the works on stages in the Greater LA area during the periods we studied were written by women.

LA FPI Session

LS: The first step towards change involves raising awareness. Hopefully this will lead to a concerted effort on the part of theaters to try to include more female voices in their seasons. I doubt that many here think 20% female-authored theater is ideal.

JW: One of our goals is to advocate for women playwrights, and by extension to open channels for all artists. The more people talk about what’s been the norm on stages across the country for far too long, the more we hear about other interesting numbers. For instance, women make up most of a theater’s audience. Women are the ones buying the tickets. And, as reported in the New York Times in coverage of the Sands study, on Broadway, plays by women are proven to be the top earners in the box office. So yes: it pays to put the work of women onstage.

LS: In the first years after the discussions in New York, the number of productions for women playwrights there rose significantly. I hope the same holds true for Los Angeles. We all love the LA theater scene and hope we’ll get more folks involved in LA FPI. We are going to start having mixers so that women theater artists can meet other potential collaborators.

JW: Again, we want to become a sort of hub for women playwrights and the people who love them. To paraphrase our colleague Julia Jordan, who’s very active in the movement back east, the fact that women haven’t been produced as frequently as men means there’s a huge pool of unseen plays which tell new stories. So in a way, female playwrights are an untapped resource. Why wouldn’t Los Angeles theatres and companies want to take advantage of that? And LA FPI pretty much exists to help make that happen. For more information, visit lafpi.com.

Laura Shamas‘ ten-minute play WHITE DRESS will be produced on March 7, 2011 at New World Stages in NY as part of the LPTW New Work Festival in honor of SWAN Day (Support Women Artists Now!). Jennie Webb is a member of LA’s Rogue Machine Theatre, the Playwrights Union and playwright-in-residence at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.

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