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Washington Stages More Plays by Women Than New York and Los Angeles

DC also outperforms Philadelphia and Seattle.

Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, is one of many DC theater insiders championing for women playwrights. Photo by Tony Powell.

Washington’s nonprofit theaters have staged more productions by women than their counterparts in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, according to a recent study released by the Dramatists Guild of America and the Lilly Awards. Out of 104 productions put on here in the past three seasons, 30 percent were written by female playwrights.

Though New York put on a whopping 234 productions, only a quarter were by women. By comparison, 23 percent of plays in Los Angeles, which had 74 productions, were written by women. Washington ranked behind only Chicago, where out of 120 productions, 36 percent were written by women.

To get these numbers, guild representatives and volunteers combed through 2,508 productions— put on by well-established, nonprofit theaters across the country, between 2011 and 2014. (Small companies, Broadway, and other for-profit theaters were excluded from the study.) Nationwide, they found, only 22 percent of plays were written by women. That number has crept up slightly over the last decade. In 2002, the New York State Council on the Arts reported that 17 percent of productions nationwide were by female playwrights.

“The important take-away from these studies,” says Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, “is that women playwrights are an important voice that has been and is overlooked more often than not.”

In 2013, Smith met with the artistic directors of six other local theaters–including Studio, Signature, and Ford’s–and discussed gender disparity. That discussion led them to hatch plans for a festival of female-written plays. This fall, following years of planning, more than 50 Washington theaters join the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, featuring a wide-range of world-premiere plays by women. Productions include everything from a one-woman show (Queens Girl in the World by Caleen Sinnette Jennings at Theater J) to musicals (Cake Off by Sheri Wilner, Julia Jordan, and Adam Gwon at Signature Theatre).

Michelle Obama serves as honorary chair for the two-month festival, which kicks off in late September.

Update: An earlier version of this article stated Smith met with the artistic directors of seven local theaters. The correct number is six.