Although women make up 70 percent of the theater-going audience, according to Theatre Communications Group, only 26 percent of the plays produced in the U.S. this season are written by women. And according to a Wellesly College study, only 15 of the 74 top-tier theaters in the country were helmed by women in 2013.
Atlanta is an exception, especially when it comes to leadership. Susan Booth has been artistic director of Alliance Theatre since 2001. Lisa Adler is founding producing artistic director at Horizon Theatre. Ann-Carol Pence is co-founding associate producer at Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville. And that’s a just a few of the Atlanta theater companies that have women in executive roles.
Perhaps most notable among women-run theater companies in Atlanta is Synchronicity Theatre, established 22 years ago with the goal of “uplifting the voices of women and girls,” according to its website. The majority of the company’s directors, designers and playwrights are women, says Producing Artistic Director Rachel May, who co-founded the company with three other women.
In addition to its Playmaking for Girls program that teaches collaboration through theater to girls from under-served communities, May is especially proud of the role the theater has played in launching women’s careers.
“We are an excellent training ground for newer artists,” she says. “We have a lot of tremendous interns that go on to do great things. One is on ‘Orange is the New Black.’ … One is a literary agent for some of the top writers. When you make the list of our past interns and what they’re doing now, it’s great to see how successful they’ve been.”
Now a new generation of women are producing plays in Atlanta, and many of them are pushing the boundaries of innovation.
Vernal & Sere Theatre was founded in 2016 by four women and one man — Kathrine Barnes, Erin Boswell, Sawyer Estes, Lindsay Sharpless and Erin O’Connor — who all moved here from other cities. Noticing a gap in Atlanta for the type of edgy, black box theater work they were used to seeing Off-Off-Broadway, they decided to create it themselves. Although the company, which stages productions at the Robert Mello Studio in Doraville, does not exclusively produce plays by and about women, it does consciously look for ways to create opportunities for women, says Barnes who moved to Atlanta from New York.
The company’s first play, “Sincerity Forever,” was about a small Southern town run by the Ku Klux Klan that receives a visit from Jesus H. Christ — a black woman. The most recent production, “4:48 Psychosis,” was written by the late British playwright Sarah Kane. It took the audience inside the minds of people grappling with depression and suicide.
Producing new plays in nontraditional venues is the goal of Found Stages, started by Artistic Director Nichole Palmietto and resident playwright Neeley Gossett in 2014. So far they have staged shows in a tech office and the Dunwoody Nature Center.
“We’ve found so far that (by) bringing new stories to a place that people have a relationship with already … (audiences are) willing to give a story they haven’t heard of an opportunity,” says Palmietto.
In addition to producing “Frankenstein’s Ball,” an immersive experience based on Mary Shelley’s novel at The Highland Inn Ballroom on New Year’s Eve, Found Stages has experimented with a futuristic play called “The Year Without Summer” that was delivered to its smartphone-wielding audience entirely through text messages.
Working Title Playwrights is a long-established Atlanta nonprofit run by Managing Director Amber Bradshaw that is devoted to the development of new plays through workshops and readings. Plays staged at Actor’s Express, the Alliance Theatre, Aurora Theatre and 7 Stages, as well as other theaters around the country, have benefited from the organization’s programming. Sixty-five percent of its members are women.
“In general, women’s stories are not as valued as men’s stories in our culture,” says Bradshaw. “I think that a lot of the work that’s being done is older work and that means white men — Shakespeare being one of them.”
She and Working Title Playwrights are striving to cultivate more diversity in theater, not just for women but for African-Americans as well.
For all the progress Atlanta has made with women in leadership, there is still a wide gap in opportunities for people of color. Of the two dozen or so professional theaters in the metro area, True Colors Theatre Company’s Managing Director Chandra Stephens-Albright is the only African-American woman in a top-level management position.
In 2015, the Lily Awards, a national program for women playwrights, announced its goal to see women have “50 percent of the airtime, 50 percent of the walls of the museum and 50 percent of the stage time in the theaters.” Currently an estimated 30 percent of Atlanta’s plays are written by women, so we’re already ahead of the curve. And there are many women working on improving those odds to make Atlanta a beacon for gender diversity in theater.