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“The Count” for Liberal Arts Colleges

13 min read
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In 2015, The Dramatist published the findings of a study that sought to answer the question, “Who is being produced in the American theatre?” The findings, called “The Count,” documented the underrepresentation of women and playwrights of color on professional American stages. This study revealed that about 21 percent of plays professionally produced were written by women and about 12 percent were by playwrights of color. Reprised in 2019, “The Count 2.0” expanded the scope of the research and also sought to investigate any progress over the preceding four years.

Inspired by this work, I—Sharon Green—created an assignment in my spring 2020 class at Davidson College, in Davidson, North Carolina, “Women’s Work: Contemporary Female Playwrights,” which asked students to investigate a similar question but shifted the objective of our study to institutions closer to home: Who is being produced by liberal arts colleges—institutions that prioritize undergraduate student learning—around the country?

The class assignment was framed by readings done early in the semester, which set the stage for digging deep into the importance of representational equity and accountability. While those readings focused on professional theatres, we also discussed the link between college curricula and the world of professional theatre. Because I teach at a small, liberal arts college, I opted to situate the study in the context of our institutional peers—other highly ranked liberal arts colleges in the United States. Addressing gender inequity specifically, scholar Leslie Atkins Durham, in her book Women’s Voices on American Stages in the Early Twenty-First Century, claims that, “College faculty, male and female, simply do not know the range of women who are writing contemporary American drama, because in-depth analysis beyond production reviews and the occasional article-length inquiry on most of the[se] writers… does not yet exist.”

If my peers—faculty members in theatre departments around the country—and I are preparing the next generation of theatremakers, artistic directors, board members, and decision makers, the diversity of material students read in the classroom and experience in the rehearsal room matters. In an essay titled “Why Parity?” that accompanied the findings of the “The Count,” playwrights Lisa Kron and Madeline George argue that gender parity is about far more than fairness: “Demographics are a really important part of diversity… the more perspectives we’re allowed to occupy by proxy in our theatres, the richer our culture becomes, and the better every writer has the potential to get.”

The same argument applies to the classroom—research demonstrates that learning accelerates when people with multiple perspectives, life experiences, abilities, aptitudes, and identities share classroom space and dialogue. And, for theatre departments, the artistry, creativity, and resonance of our theatrical productions deepens when student actors, designers, directors, stage managers, and backstage crew of diverse identities and life experiences are part of the creative process of producing a show.

While gender and race certainly aren’t the only markers of such diversity, this class assignment followed in the footsteps of “The Count” to investigate the status of women and playwrights of color in the production seasons of Davidson College’s peers: undergraduate, liberal arts institutions.

The project also illustrates the capacity for undergraduates to participate in scholarly work that shapes how we think about our field.

Research Methods and Process

I include “public scholarship” assignments—research that results in material for general audiences rather than other academics—in many of my classes as a way of demonstrating that students’ academic work matters to the world, not just to me, and can have an impact. Together, all of my students and I generated a list of liberal arts colleges to include in our study, drawn from multiple sources, including Davidson’s own list of peer institutions and the U.S. News and World Report list of 223 liberal arts colleges. We sought to gather data about each institution’s official theatrical season, and didn’t include productions that were part of class projects or that were produced by an exclusively student-run group. Because of time constraints that were intensified by COVID-19 and remote learning, students opted to reject any institution for which information about the 2019–20 season wasn’t readily available. Our data set ended up including information from twenty institutions. We also opted to move forward with data regarding what each institution had planned, rather than what was actually executed, as COVID-19 cancellations were abundant.

The original assignment had students creating visualizations of the data they collected and then sharing these at our annual student research symposium. This didn’t happen because of our move to remote learning, but one student—David Lee, who happened to be a computer science major—asked if he could complete the data analysis and visualization as his final course project. Of course, I agreed to this. His work allowed me to see interesting patterns regarding the playwrights whose work was being produced, but because we had only considered twenty institutions, I didn’t consider it revelatory of larger patterns in higher education. But it did prompt my curiosity, and so, when the semester concluded, I invited David, along with other members of the class, to continue this research by expanding our data set and deepening our analysis and reflection. Landin Eldridge, Clare Harbin, and Katie Stewart joined the research team, and the five of us began collecting additional data. What follows is the result of our collaborative labor; whenever student researchers’ direct thoughts are shared, they will be quoted, and, unless otherwise noted, “I” refers to me, Sharon Green.

As an extension of a course project, our data isn’t as comprehensive as “The Count,” but rather provides a snapshot of how liberal arts institutions measure up to their professional counterparts. The project also illustrates the capacity for undergraduates to participate in scholarly work that shapes how we think about our field and demonstrates what faculty can do to prepare students to be advocates for equity and inclusion in the professional world.

Data Collection and Criteria

As we conducted our work together, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and murdered in Georgia, Breonna Taylor was murdered in her own bed, and protests erupted around the country. This necessarily impacted how we thought about our research and increased the sense of urgency we felt to support systemic change, because there is a connection between the devaluation of Black lives and lack of equity in representation.

We collected data from a total of 125 productions from 45 liberal arts colleges. When the project was embedded within the class, we researched the seasons of a set of schools identified by our own institution as peers; these are schools to which our own college compares itself when conducting other sorts of research. When we sought to expand our data set, we consulted Forbes’ and U.S. News and World Report’s list of top 100 liberal arts schools. To remain consistent with our comparison of undergraduate programs, we eliminated schools with graduate programs.

We primarily used a school’s website to gather information about their 2019–20 season. In cases where information about a theatre department’s season was unclear or unavailable, we sent an email requesting clarification to the chair of the department. If we did not receive a reply, and uncertainty remained, we deleted the school from our data set.

We included all plays that were a part of a department’s main production season. We excluded student-produced or student-created projects (though we did include plays directed by students that were part of a department’s official season), guest performances, and informal showings. We included originally devised, faculty-directed shows when they were included in a department’s main season.

When the research was part of the original class project, we had collected information for numerous data points. These included gender and race of directors, the total number of professors in a college’s theatre department, number of shows in the season, and total number of students at each institution. For the purpose of our continued research, we moved forward with our focus on only a few of these data points, specifically those related to our central inquiry of equity in representation and what could shift to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students. Within the context of institutions of higher education, certain factors can change more quickly and easily, and others are more entrenched. We opted to focus on those things that could change the most easily and quickly, namely the plays selected for inclusion in a department’s season.

Theatre departments at educational institutions have a critical role to play in this moment to avoid perpetuating systems of exclusion.

Categorization

For gender, we started with four categories: female, male, non-binary/genderqueer, and other. Our research yielded no plays written by playwrights who identified as non-binary/genderqueer, so that category doesn’t appear on the graphs and charts. To mirror the data reporting method regarding race and ethnicity in “The Count,” we displayed the results of the research in two categories: white playwrights and playwrights of color. However, our raw data collection included more specific categories regarding race and ethnicity, including Black, Asian, and Latinx. We sought to determine or confirm a playwright’s gender, race, and ethnicity by looking at their personal websites. If uncertainty remained, or the playwright didn’t have a website, we sought articles, interviews, or reviews in which they self-identified. If we were unsure of the playwright’s identity after this research, we categorized them as “unknown.” Finally, in cases where the play was collaboratively devised, we categorized gender and race as “other.” Like “The Count,” co-authored works were credited with partial points. For example, if a playwright and a composer collaborated for a musical, each was credited with 0.5 authorship. Similarly, if a play was co-written by a man and woman, each was credited with 0.5 authorship.

There are a few additional differences between our data collection and that of “The Count.” First, due to the limitations of time and labor, we only collected data for a single season, and we didn’t collect data from every liberal arts college in the country. Certainly, additional data collection would be possible and would likely reveal even more interesting patterns.

We also did not differentiate between a new play and a revival, but we did report plays’ original production dates in our graphs. This is an important point when considering that we were analyzing data gleaned from educational institutions rather than professional theatres, as some theatre departments have commitments to produce a certain number of “classical plays” each year—these classics are disproportionately authored by white men. But, as Eldridge, noted, “Despite the lack of productions to demonstrate this, women—such as Anna Cora Mowatt, María Ruiz de Burton, and Susanna Centlivre—were writing plays prior to the twentieth century.”

Finally, while most theatre departments experienced cancellations and alterations due to COVID-19, we looked at each season as though these cancellations had not occurred and collected data about the intended season rather than the actual one.

The Data

“Prior to this research, I was in a bubble of hope or naiveté,” Harbin said. “I thought the theatre world was progressive and inclusive, and that the people who worked in it were all dedicated to racial justice and gender equality.” But, after compiling the data, Harbin’s bubble was popped.

The charts and graphs below illustrate the results of our research. The first two pie charts follow in the footsteps of “The Count” and provide information about the identity of the playwrights. The bar graphs provide information about the date of publication of each play produced.

As Eldridge said, “Art is a powerful means through which to create intimate emotional connections, and this underrepresentation of BIPOC playwrights and stories means many missed opportunities for those connections.” For Harbin, if young theatre artists on the precipice of their careers in the field are limited to plays by men—and mostly white men—these artists are missing out on an entire world of thought different than their own.

The Takeaways

In comparison to professional theatres, as reported in “The Count,” our sample of liberal arts colleges produced a greater percentage of plays by female playwrights and playwrights of color than professional theatres did, though only slightly in the latter category.

  • We were surprised to discover that 39 percent of plays produced were authored by women. While not 50 percent, this number is certainly higher than the 20.3 percent reported in “The Count 1.0” and 28.8 percent reported in “The Count 2.0.” Our sample of liberal arts colleges are doing better than professional theatres in terms of gender equity.
  • Of the plays produced by the schools in our study, 16.7 percent were by playwrights of color. “The Count 1.0” reported that 10.2 percent of plays produced professionally were by playwrights of color and that increased to 15.1 percent in “The Count 2.0.” The statistical difference between 16.7 percent (liberal arts colleges) and 15.1 percent (professional theatres) is quite small, indicating that both professional and educational theatres have more work to do here.
  • Produced plays written between 2010 and the present were more likely to be written by women and/or playwrights of color than produced plays from any other period. As a matter of fact, productions of plays written in the last decade were more likely to be ones by women than men.
  • Of the forty-five schools included in our study, only two had seasons that included more than one play by a BIPOC playwright. Twenty-five schools had a season without any plays by BIPOC playwrights.

We can choose to fill our syllabi and classrooms with the words, plays, and experiences of people whose worlds haven’t been fully explored at predominantly white institutions.

Many theatre programs and departments are now facing challenges related to COVID-19 and have to reimagine or cancel plans for the 2020–21 season, just as professional theatres have. Perhaps this pause will provide the space and time for educational institutions to reflect on how we choose seasons and how we might address the inequities experienced by students of color resulting from our season selection.

Lee believes that if liberal arts colleges want to teach their students to be advocates for justice and equality, they must teach them to do so in every facet of their education including through the arts. “Watching and creating theatre in college has allowed me to express my feelings of oppression,” he said, “but also hear from those whose struggles I am too privileged to have experienced.”

With data collected from forty-five schools, this research is hardly definitive regarding trends in higher education. Yet it demonstrates two important things. First, undergraduate students are essential partners in conducting and designing interdisciplinary research that serves our field’s efforts towards justice and equity. Second, efforts to attain gender parity in professional theatres are having an impact on educational institutions. “The Count” and the Kilroys (whose now famous “List” advocates for the production of more new plays by women) have taken specific and practical action to address the underrepresentation of women in professional theatre. The fact that 59 percent of the plays produced at liberal arts colleges that were published after 2010 were written by women demonstrates the success of those activist efforts.

We wonder if the current moment’s political and social action will yield the same results for playwrights and theatre artists of color. How will current conversations about systemic racism within the American theatre contribute to dismantling white supremacy and anti-Blackness within our professional and educational institutions? And, more specifically, how will this work impact the production of plays by playwrights of color? We encourage those with the resources and ability to continue this research and find out.

Moving Forward

“Equity starts with an active choice to produce a season that will spark discussion and make college campuses more accepting and anti-racist spaces,” said Stewart. “That requires open conversation, courage, and sometimes the ability to be uncomfortable.” When playwrights of color remain underrepresented on our national stages, the stories they tell and the lives they document remain marginalized. When playwrights of color are underrepresented at our colleges and universities, students of color have inferior learning opportunities in our departments and programs and, as theatre artists and audience members, they have fewer opportunities to see their lives, histories, and experiences in our production seasons.

Theatre departments at educational institutions have a critical role to play in this moment to avoid perpetuating systems of exclusion. “In order to address systemic racism or any other form of oppression,” added Stewart, “we need to start honestly talking about it. Theatre—especially college theatre, where viewers are relatively young and impressionable—provides an excellent place to do that.”

Lee mentioned that one of the most valuable experiences he had in college was working on the production of Facing Our Truth, a series of short plays on police brutality against African Americans. “I learned so much history, had meaningful conversations, and became more empathetic to the everyday struggles that African Americans face in this country,” he said. “For the students involved in producing such plays, there really is no better way to learn and engage with the relevant social topics.”

As a faculty member, my thoughts are focused on ways to activate change: We can choose to tell Black stories by Black writers. We can choose to tell Latinx stories, Indigenous stories, Asian American stories, women’s stories. We can choose to fill our syllabi and classrooms with the words, plays, and experiences of people whose worlds haven’t been fully explored at predominantly white institutions. We can do these things, and we must do these things; there is no more time to wait or waste. We—faculty in theatre departments around the country—can use our voices, our systems of production, our power, to be a part of the fight for justice and equity.

Let’s be radical, let’s be creative, let’s be imaginative. If we are going to be partners, allies, and instigators in dismantling oppressive ideologies and the systems they support, then we must be bold. It is our students’ future at risk here, and they are worth the risk. They are worth the labor, the time, the effort, the energy, because they will create the future.

It is time to yell—and loudly.

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