Gender Breakdown, Collaboraction’s angry and absorbing ensemble piece about inequity in the theater community, is rooted in something equally dramatic, but a lot drier: a ten-month research project undertaken by Kay Kron, an actor, writer, and, currently, development associate at Chicago Children’s Theatre, as the “capstone” project for the DePaul University master’s degree in nonprofit management she’ll complete this year.
Kron’s research was inspired by her experience in local theater since graduating from DePaul with a BFA in acting in 2009. As she notes in an FAQ about the project, she decided to conduct the study because “I envy the talent of my female peers, but the careers of my male peers, and I think that’s fucked.”
Conducted with coresearcher (and Collaboraction intern) Mariah Schultz, the study is a look at female representation in various theater-industry job categories at theaters nominated for Jeff Awards for the 2015-2016 season. The data, which does not include musicals, covers 52 theaters and 250 plays.
The results are sobering but not surprising, as show creator Dani Bryant observes in a Gender Breakdown program note. “We had a pretty good collective understanding of what that data might be . . . because we were living it,” Bryant wrote. The show is made up of “qualitative” material—personal stories informally culled and distilled from more than 200 interviews—but the Kron-Schultz research, represented by a few graphs in the program, puts the numbers to it.
Even allowing for the likely conservative tilt of the Jeff-nomination filter, those numbers are revealing: 75 percent of the plays produced in Chicago in 2015-2016 were written by men. And 77 percent of those produced by large Equity theaters had majority-male casts.
In all but a single job category the positions that include artistic control were dominated by men. And there’s a pretty good chance you can guess the outlier: yep, 89 percent of costume designers were women.
Otherwise, women were more likely to get hired to carry out administrative duties, whether in the wings or in the office: 75 percent of stage managers were female, and so were 61 percent of managing directors.
Women buy the majority of theater tickets and make up the majority of theater audiences, but they accounted for only 43 percent of the actors hired, 38 percent of artistic directors, 36 percent of directors, 35 percent of lighting designers, 30 percent of scene designers, and 12 percent of sound designers.
Kron, who told me she wishes she had data on the acting pool, which she thinks is much larger for women than for men, says the results for Chicago may be slightly better than those elsewhere. And the trend isn’t necessarily positive: she cites other studies, including one that found that, in 2008-2009, only 12.6 percent of plays on Broadway were authored by women, lower than the 12.8 percent they wrote a century earlier.
Still, Kron’s 38 percent finding for female artistic directors is significantly higher than the 15 percent the League of Chicago Theatres reported among its member organizations in 2010. And it’s hugely higher than recently released figures for the film industry, where, according to a University of Southern California-Annenberg School study, only 4 percent of the 1,000 top-grossing films in the last decade were directed by women. (For more about that, check out this weekend’s Chicago Feminist Film Festival at Columbia College.)
Bryant’s program note—and some of the most memorable stories in Gender Breakdown—attests that the real “gut-punch” situations turn up when another factor besides gender is included. If you’re a woman, you’re underrepresented, but if you’re a woman of color, you’re barely there. Kron says there’s some guesswork in their data on this, but according to their study, females of color constituted only 5 percent of playwrights, 4 percent of directors, and 2 percent of artistic directors in their pool of Chicago theaters.
And the research doesn’t include data on transgender or gender-nonconforming persons, though the issue is raised in the show. (Kron says they had to limit the number of variables in order to make the study feasible.)
That contributed to what Bryant explains as a shift in her own assumptions about “what’s not working,” from the conviction that “straight white men take up too much space,” to something more personal.
“Yes, straight white men still take up too much space,” Bryant wrote, “but so do cisgendered, heterosexual white women, including myself.”
Kron quotes playwright Marsha Norman in reference to another study that showed only 22 percent of shows produced were written by women: “If life worked like theater, four out of five things you had ever heard would have been said by men.” v