It is hard to reach 40 years of age feeling like you have not accomplished much. As the WP Theater celebrates this anniversary next year, the non-profit organization dedicated to the production of women’s plays is confronted with the fact that the works of female playwrights only make up 21 percent of all works produced in the country.
“Gender is being thought about very differently now than it was in 1978 when the theater was formed,” said Lisa McNulty, producing artistic director of the WP Theater. McNulty has been thinking about what it means to be a theater focusing on gender right now.
The WP Theater is the nation’s oldest and largest theater company dedicated to developing, producing and promoting the work of female-identified and transgender theater artists. For nearly four decades, the theater has been at the forefront of a global movement toward gender parity, empowering female-identified artists to get their work out into the world by challenging preconceptions about the kinds of plays women write and the stories they tell.
As the smallest off-Broadway theater in New York City, the WP Theater finds itself going through some of the same struggles as other identity-focused theaters in the city. “We often struggle institutionally with people’s biases about what they think about women with a capital ‘w.’ Then whatever they think about women is what they think what a women’s theater is and what it might do,” McNulty pointed out. “And so, we struggle against people presupposing that the work isn’t maybe as professional, it’s not as entertaining, it’s certainly not funny, because women aren’t funny, all of these things that are limitations of what people think about women.”
Due to these overarching biases, McNulty felt as though she needed to do a lot of things such as changing the branding of the theater, wanting to actively combat those biases in the programming of this season. According to McNulty, not only do identity-focused theaters struggle, but they also remain small. As a leader for the theater, she is determined to actively have conversations with other identity-focused theaters. These conversations serve to create an envelope around the theater’s work that can help serve its mission.
The theater’s mission for the past four decades has been to take its artists and give them the resources, production and institutional support that will allow them to go forward in their careers. The current season is a great expression of this purpose, according to McNulty. This season includes a great spectrum of works that feature dance, vaudeville theater and even a play that includes social satire about workplace bias.
The WP Theater also takes pride in its Pipeline Festival, which McNulty believes is the most important thing the theater does. For an identity-based theater that struggles with remaining small, this festival pushes boundaries in attempts to get its work noticed beyond an off-Broadway stage. The theater has a two-year lab residency which takes five writers, five producers and five directors — female and transgender — who are guided in aspects such as career development, pitch coaching and collaboration development during the first year.
During the second year of the residency, the focus shifts to the creation of the Pipeline Festival where the theater takes a writer, producer and director trio and produces a festival with five of their plays in five weeks of the spring.
The most important thing the identity-focused theater does is graduate a cohort of artists every two years to show the industry that often says women are not ready, that these are the people the WP Theater says are ready.
The struggle in remaining small does not seem like a struggle that will last forever for the theater, as some of about 300 to 400 people who graduated from the residency since its start in 1983 have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, Writers Guild of America Awards and Emmy Awards. About 30 graduates have even gone on to run major institutions as artistic directors.
The role of women in theater is a topic that has been at the forefront for the WP Theater, which has been trying to break out of the mold of remaining a small identity-focused theater. “Sadly, [the role of women] hasn’t changed as much as you’d think and I think some things have actually gone backwards.” McNulty added that she is glad that there has been more of a conversation about the way that women occupy professional space recently.
It takes more than one identity-focused theater to make a change when it comes to diversity and gender equality. When asked why she thinks there is a lack of gender equality in theater, McNulty replied, “…It’s not just gender biases … I think most of the work being done is by straight, white guys.”