So You Want a Revolution? 10 Things to Know About Theatre's New Activists, The Kilroys

Daria Polatin, Zakiyyah Alexander and Sarah Gubbins, members of the advocacy group The Kilroys, talk with Playbill.com about the motivations behind The List and their plans for the future.

Sarah Gubbins
Sarah Gubbins

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"You all love these plays — why ain't you doin' them?" Sarah Gubbins asked rhetorically. The question, which was voiced during a discussion of the recently formed advocacy group The Kilroys, devoted to promoting female playwrights, inspired laughter but also contained a more serious undertone. 

The Kilroys, which consists of playwrights and producers and was formed in 2013, asked 127 playwrights, dramaturgs and artistic directors to recommend plays written by women that were among the best they had seen or read over the previous year but had one or no productions. Of the more than 300 plays that were recommended, 46 were selected. Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, and Adam Greenfield, director of new play development at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway, were among the participants.

In June, in a response to the lack of plays by women being produced both on and Off-Broadway, and in an effort to encourage more productions of works by female playwrights, The Kilroys publicly released this list of 46 plays written by women and recommended for production.

Among the recommended plays were works by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, Tanya Barfield, Halley Feiffer, Janine Nabers and Anna Ziegler.

The lack of plays written by women has been a topic of discussion both on and Off-Broadway. The recently concluded 2013-14 Broadway season did not include any new plays written by women. Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy was the last new play by a woman seen on Broadway. It opened April 1, 2013.

Read Playbill.com's recommendations of works by women to see in New York this fall

Click through to learn from Daria Polatin ( In Tandem, Guidance), Zakiyyah Alexander ( 10 Things To Do Before I Die, After The Show: A Play In Mask) and Sarah Gubbins ( fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life, I am Bradley Manning) how the Kilroys began and the change they hope to accomplish.

Zakiyyah Alexander
Zakiyyah Alexander

1. It all started with a quiona salad.

"It started in a very casual and organic way. It started with basically a dinner party — a pot-luck dinner — that some LA-based playwrights were having to get to know each other. It was all women," Zakiyyah Alexander said.

"I remember there was a really big quiona salad that Shelia Callaghan made, and we really loved it," Gubbins added.

Alexander quickly followed: "I think it really started as organic conversations about the problems that we saw in theatre — the ones we talked about individually and often talk about when we're in a group. And somehow we came up with the idea of creating an advocacy group and we would be discussing all of the issues that we have problems with, which is basically gender parity."

 

Daria Polatin
Daria Polatin

"What became pretty clear by the time we met for our second meeting... We decided really early on that we needed to come up with some positive actions that would address the very thing we had discussed, which was this issue of gender parity," Gubbins said. "I would say the switch into action came very quickly because we didn't want to keep meeting and getting frustrated by that. There were just a lot of different ideas that we wanted to discuss and think about. And it happened. By December we had narrowed down the idea of The List and were starting to have very detailed discussions. We have this thing called Base Camp that we use to organize ourselves. We had a lot of e-mails and a lot of meetings, just really thinking through what this would be, what it would look like and how we would execute it."

"We wanted to make something direct, accessible, easy to use," Daria Polatin said. "We wanted to make a streamlined tool for artistic directors, literary managers, any theatre professional. And we put a lot of thought into how to make it something that is easy to use and that people have access to at a wide range."

"One of the things we've all noted in our individual experiences is we've all heard or read of an artistic director that said, 'I am interested in producing plays by women, but we just don't have any in our company. We don't know any women writers that are available that are new,'" Alexander added. "We really wanted to answer that question in an obvious way."

 

3. They received more nominations than they expected.

"We had no idea what our nominators were going to give us," Gubbins said. "We had, a little bit amongst ourselves, thought, 'We're probably going to get a lot of nominations for the same five plays. So maybe The List is going to be 10 plays.' We really thought that was how it was going to go. We really thought, 'From everyone across the country, we're going to get 70 nominations for the same play.' Guess what? Didn't happen by a long shot. I think for me that was the most amazing thing. We thought there was going to be a really small pool of plays by women that everybody wants to do. The richness and the diversity was astonishing and so encouraging and also heartbreaking to us because there are so many amazing plays that people in theatres all across the country think are the best plays that they've seen that year aren't getting produced. That was a really astonishing piece of data."

"We all got a handout of all the plays that were nominated and we were all marveling, reading over all these plays and just in wonder and so excited about the variety and breadth and volume of the plays," Polatin said. "We were really shocked and overjoyed by it. It was not what we expected. It was really exciting."

"It did illuminate that there's some sort of disconnect between maybe what theatres are seeing as plays they value and are attracted to, not by male writers, and actually getting those plays into their mainstage productions," Gubbins added. "Highlight that little circle and that's what we're trying to say: 'How can we help make the leap here? You all love these plays — why ain't you doin' them?'"

 

4. They think — and hope — that gender bias is unconscious.

"I want to stay optimistic and say it is an unconscious bias because it's too disheartening to think of it as a conscious bias," Gubbins said. "That's an insupportable thought, so let's say that it's totally unconscious. Consciousness is about getting into the hearts and minds of audiences and theatre makers and decision makers and saying, 'What are you guys doing about this?' We don't necessarily need to stamp a number or figure or ratio. Consciousness is about crawling inside those heads and saying, 'Where are those voices?' And I think that's the first step to change. When subscribers, boards, marketing heads look at their season and they e-mail us and say, 'We're doing good! We've achieved this kind of parity,' or 'Oh my God, I realize we haven't produced a play by a woman in four seasons.' That is happening. We are getting those e-mails. We are having those conversations with people... I think there's been a lot of discussions about 'I want to do the best plays' that gender parity is somehow pitted against aesthetic excellence. And what The List is doing is saying, 'Oh, no, no, no! These are 46 plays — the top selections of very, very well-read theatregoers — and these are really good plays. 46 of them. Don't worry. Gender parity does not come at aesthetic exclusion.'"

 

5. Established, award-winning playwrights were excited to be on The List.

"The most exciting small thing that happened doing this was we contacted all the playwrights who were nominated on the top list and nominated in general, and I think I was really surprised to hear people — Pulitzer Prize nominees, winners, really successful writers — still feel this extreme moment of validation that I realized is missing from our field," Alexander said. "That we could call Paula Vogel, someone I've respected my entire career, and have her be just as excited as an emerging playwright that's just beginning their career, really speaks to the fact that some of us are being left out and some of us aren't being validated. And it's obvious that gender is a part of this."

 

6. They think audiences don't care about the gender of a playwright.

"Audiences really don't care [about gender of a playwright]," Gubbins said. "They want to connect. They want art excellence. I think the bias is not lodged in the audiences. I think that's our own field anxiety about where gender lives. I think the audience is much more pliable and willing and open than we give them credit for."

 

7. The name comes from a World War II graffiti tag.

"We spent quite a bit of time trying to find the right name," Polatin said. "We did a lot of internal surveys and we landed on things that got the majority of the vote but were like, 'That's not quite it.' We spent some time and a lot of thought into finding the right name that represented who we are, what we were doing and where we want to go. One of our members suggested the name The Kilroys and we all looked it up. It's a World War II graffiti tag — Kilroy was here. This little symbol that we kind of emulated in our own logo. It has such a great spirit to it, it's expansive, it's irreverent. It's just a fun, odd name that we sort of felt a kinship to. So we decided to do that."

 

8. A lot of men have spoken up with support.

"There's been a lot of male responses," Alexander said. "A lot of playwrights who have not only been positive but champions of gender parity. I think that the conscious man sort of realizes the state of theatre is about women and men and everyone in between. So it isn't a male playing field any more. I think the male playwrights have noted, retweed us, have liked us on social media and really helped to push our message forward."

"So many artistic directors came up, wanted to know what they could do, wanted to be nominators next year, wanted to thank us for organizing this and making it something that people were thinking about and talking about," Gubbins added. "In LA we had a launch party, and it was such a celebration. There were so many male advocates there, excited to get their Kilroys sticker, wear it proud, hashtag us and also bring it back to the theatres that are producing their work. I feel like that kind of one-on-one advocacy is crucial to what we're doing."

See photos from the Kilroy's launch party here

9. The List is going to be an annual publication.

"The List is going to be an annual thing and we want to do it every year and as we go, keep working out the kinks," Polatin said. "I think we'll assess as much information as we can gather moving forward. It would be lovely to say 12 plays that were on The List of 2014 are scheduled to be produced in 2015. I think we hope to include as many statistics as we can get our hands on. Hopefully there will be some positive ones."

"Theatres are already using The List and the inclusion of some plays and playwrights on The List as a marketing tool," Gubbins added. "They're already talking about their seasons as, 'Three of our playwrights are on The List!' That's very exciting to think that some of these plays and playwrights are getting that kind of attention as a result."

 

10. They want the change to move beyond the theatre.

"This is not something that just theatre is worrying about," Gubbins said. "This is the result of where we are in our society, and theatre reflects that. We are hopeful that we can try to address some changes and push, and maybe through pushing our theatre community and our theatre arts ahead of this game, that that can have a profound effect in a broader sense societally. The question isn't, Why is it happening still? The question is, Why is it happening all over? Why is this, in every art form and so many disciplines, still an issue? The glass curtain is not singular to us."

"I think part of the issue is it was never fixed in the very first place," Alexander added. "There's never been equality on the stage. It's not a new thing. It's an old thing. And I think part of the issue is it's been allowed to continue without any break in the system. I think there have been a couple of initiatives that are new, that we're trying to start: the Lilly Awards is one of those things. The 50/50 in 2020 by Julia Jordan, that was started a few years ago. There's been reflections and mirrors held up about the situation. And I think it's going to take brave people to shake the system, to think about what marketing and money means for theatre, and maybe what the value system is ultimately and the legacy that you really want to leave behind."

"I think it has to change eventually. If we as a theatre community and artistic community as a whole want our audiences to be broad, we need the widest perspectives in our storytelling," Polatin said. "We need to be inclusive because plays are about the human experiences. And it's not necessarily that men are only going to write plays about men and women are only going to write plays about women, but as a whole, our artistic efforts are richer for having the widest array of viewpoints in our storytelling. It feels like it has to be inevitable; otherwise, the art form will just become narrower."

For more information about The Kilroys, visit thekilroys.org

For further coverage on women in theatre, read Playbill.com's interview with Dominique Morisseau, Annie Baker and Sheila Callaghan on the roles women play in the industry and how they think they should change. Playbill.com reported exclusively on the recent changes in leadership at Women's Project Theater. Read that interview here. (Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)