We are excited to present The Kilroys as our Featured Artists for the month of August! The Kilroys are a group of playwrights and producers “who are done talking about gender parity and are taking action.” Every year, with the help of hundreds of influential industry leaders, the Kilroys compile the List, an annual survey of the best new plays by female and trans playwrights. Prose reader and Playhouse Tuesdays blog segment author Erica Wachs had the opportunity to talk to co-founders Joy Meads and Meg Miroshnik.
Joy Meads currently works as a Literary Manager and Artistic Engagement Strategist at Center
Theatre Group. Her recent dramaturgy credits include the 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison, The Royale by Marco Ramirez, Radiate by Daniel Alexander Jones, and Forever by Dael Orlandersmith. She has also developed plays with NYTW, Denver Center, the O’Neill, Portland Center Stage, and South Coast Rep, among others.
Meg Miroshnik completed her MFA at the Yale School of Drama under Paula Vogel. Her plays include The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls (Yale Rep, Alliance), The Tall Girls (Alliance, O’Neill, La Jolla Playhouse DNA Series), The Droll (Pacific Playwrights Festival) and Lady Tattoo. She is the recipient of the Whiting Award, the Alliance/Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award, and was a Susan Smith Blackburn finalist. She is currently a Core Writer at the Playwright's Center.
Both currently reside in Los Angeles. The Kilroy's website is located here, THE LIST 2015 can be found here, and you can read our interview with them below:
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Erica: What sparked your interest in creating a list like this?
Joy: What happened was that we were talking at a party and we got a little overexcited, and one of the things we were talking about was the fact that at the time of this party and what we were seeing in the season announcements were the things reflected in the count that again and again we’re seeing disproportionality low numbers of women being produced. As I’m tracking playwrights throughout the company, I have noticed slight differences that become amplified over time. Cumulative advantage: what can start as a small percentage of difference can become amplified over time. If there’s a thumb on the scale for male playwrights, at the step of getting read, at the step of getting an agent, at the step of getting commissioned… what you see over time is that that amplifies into a very large distinction.
I’m ten years in now and I’m starting to see big differential outcome that led to the female playwrights I knew feeling discouraged. It was the beginning of women leaving the field, and a generation of voices being silenced, voices with promise, merit, and incredible talent. It’s too intolerable, and so we started talking about organizing and doing something different. That’s my perspective. What I was seeing also was not a single person I’ve met in the field who is like “I don’t want to produce women’s plays.” None of this is about bad people, who want to keep women offstage. What I felt like I was seeing was unconscious bias manifesting itself in decision making. People’s eyes gliding towards the white dudes, all of those messages we receive over time. They don’t know where the plays are or they’ll “choose the best plays” which I call the quality dodge. So this is a way of making the abundance of women’s work known.
Meg: The List was meant to be a practical answer or response to the season announcements where people express interest in producing playwrights that are women or people of color and this was meant to be a practical tool to address that.
Erica: Why should an end user - a producer- believe that this is a well-curated list?
Meg: The strength of the list is in the strength of our recommenders. Three hundred and twenty one people who have read or seen forty new plays in the year, these are people very deep into the pool of the new plays and they’re recommending their top three to five plays that they’ve read or seen in the past year. Between four and twenty people recommended the plays on the list. There’s a strength in those numbers.
Joy: if you look at the list of people they’re folks who are in their jobs because their tastes are respected, people who choose these plays for playwrights’ horizons.
Erica: How does that trickle down to the consuming audience? Does this improve theater, or just the role women play in theater?
Meg: Probably too early to tell how the list trickles down because production cycles are so long. I don’t know we’ll be able to see how list figures specifically into a larger consolation of efforts, but as an audience member I want to be told stories that I haven’t seen before. One way to see new stories is to hear voices that you haven’t heard before and to hear people with access to worlds that you’re not a part of. Hopefully amassing this list will allow audiences to see stories they haven’t seen.
Joy: It is about improving women’s roles in the theater, which will also improve theater, because our theater is strongest when it presents the most perspectives and the most varied ways of seeing the world. You want your audience to be like ‘oh yes I am being seen and I am validated by the fact that my story is being told’ and also people find themselves in somebody who seems different from them from the outside and viewer perspective and to feel more connected to all of humanity because of that. “Theater is a gem for the empathetic imagination.” I feel that’s really true how it can take a group of strangers connected by the fact that they’re there at the same space and time and it turns them into explorers. Theater connects us in this really beautiful palpable way, and I think if we’re seeing the same stories again and again it neglects a great power of the theater and it distorts the power of the theater being shown.
Erica: You told me that your list was inspired by Franklin Leonard's Black List of unproduced screenplays. Is the implication here that these plays are controversial?
Meg: In its first years it was a very similar models where people who read their screenplays for a living were recommending their favorite unproduced screenplays, so they’re similar in terms of the plays and screenplays that people like and want to champion.
Joy: Some of the unproduced plays are there because they’re controversial, but not necessarily most of them. There’s a perception of risk that happens in an unconscious play when a producer decides if they want to do a play or not. Is it worth it? How risky is it? There’s that unconscious bias that may factor in, there’s a validation of the excellence of the play that comes from the fact that multiple experts in the field have regarded it as one of the best that they’ve read this year that have mitigated this perception of risk – that risk might come in a stronger way when a producer is looking at a play by a woman. The way that our brains are unconsciously creating a link between "success" and "male writer". There’s something that feels a little riskier with a play written by a woman.
Meg: I think that plays end up beloved but underproduced plays end up on the list because they also might just be by a writer who is just starting to be known to literary managers and that may be a writer who is going to be produced in the next couple of years or may be a mid-career writer… the list is representing a snapshot of many different places and phases in a career.
Joy: In a world outside of the theater when managers are looking at hiring decisions, they tend to hire men based on potential, and they tend to hire women based on demonstrated success. We may see some of that bias in theater and when I look inside of that I think of it as anatomizing an issue, there’s a one thing responsible for these inequities and it’s fascinating to look at and there’s a lot of dynamics and when you look at potential versus experience is that we’re much quicker to apply words like “genius” or “brilliant” to men than to women.
Erica: Switching topics a bit, as a female playwright, or through speaking with female playwrights, do you feel a certain responsibility to represent a “real woman” or showcase anything about women that male playwrights might not be able to grasp?
Meg: I think one beauty of the list from my perspective is that there are no parameters or directives given to the nominators about content or cast breakdown, that there’s a real sense that this is just work by women playwrights and it doesn’t matter what it is, that it’s excellent work and you know it doesn’t have to in any way represent women’s writing or trans writing because that’s not a burden that we place upon any individual male playwright. There’s a beauty in being able to represent only your own perspective, because that means there’s enough of you out there that means you don’t have to stand in for a group.
Some of the responses that I’ve personally heard have been about “do women write differently” and I personally have absolutely no interest in that question. Because I do have a lot of interest in the representation issue that you’re talking about but I was protesting it with a disclaimer of not wanting to make a woman feel like they are standing in to represent for a group experience and they are free to be an individual in the way that white male writers are.
I personally want to create an abundance of roles for female writers and this idea, my own background and formative experiences was getting an MFA and going to a conservatory experience and completely shaped – to have an experience as an adult formative in the way that experiences after the age 25 don’t get to be – and so that was an amazing experience and gave me a lot for my collaborators and shaped the way that I looked about theater and the amount that I read and saw. The thing that I thought I would like to someday see change in programs like this, and Yale isn’t the only one, is the number of men and women who are being trained. As a standard practice, there were always 20% more male actors admitted and that is a logical response to the state of the fields because these top training programs only want to train people who will go on to work. If you look at the landscape of theater—and Shakespeare is an important component of this—you can expect that 20% more men will go on to work than women.
That is a disappointing thing because of course there are amazing actors who have no training at all, but it is a place where theater companies are formed and directors find the collaborators they will go on to cast for the rest of their careers and there are really important ground floor experiences where you have 20% fewer women participating. And so I want to write a lot of complicated central roles for women so situations like that only exist because of demand, so if there are greater demands for roles for those actors then they’ll have to be invited in to some of those circles, and for me the progression of starting out acting and doing theater as a teenager and transitioning into professional American theater is I’ve just seen an inversion of the numbers. To see those numbers whittle down as you move into those elite training sessions is a sad thing, so I want to write complicated meaty roles fulfilling arcs and to let women do the heavy lifting on stage, to sort of not be on the margins of someone else’s story is important for me personally. It’s also important for the Kilroys that the list contains plays by women that may feature all-male casts to see that breadth of what individual writers are able to explore.
Joy: We did another interview where we were being interviewed by a white male playwright, and he was just wondering how he could help as a white male writer and this is something that we talked about in this idea of writing great roles for women: we’re excited when women do it and we’re excited when men do it. New research—they saw that if you look at crowd scenes in films and TV that they’re only 17% female. Which says something about that unconscious bias because that’s the way that the world has been shown to us, far more male than it actually is, so we’re excited for all writers to explore the universe of the experience that is female while also having their freedom. A play by a woman is whatever that person wants to write.
Erica: Finally, what does success look like for the Kilroys?
Joy: We very much see ourselves as part of a larger movement – we are very much inspired and standing upon the shoulder of other activists that have come before and those working today. There’s a really exciting development in that movement where the Dramatists Guild released what they’re calling the count, which is the first nationwide study of production in the first thirteen years that shows there has been some progress for women but we are still far behind our population and our ticket buying population. They reflect what was seen in a public study on Broadway – we are 50% of the population but 68% of population – for the parity raid movement we want our stages to reflect what we actually see in the world
I want to make sure that these plays aren’t relegated to second stages but given the same resources and budgets as white male writers so I want to make sure that not only is there parity in production but that you don’t see a season of three full productions and three woman shows.
Meg: Having a baseline – part of this struggle of bringing this unconscious bias to general consciousness is that there weren’t numbers—so we were relying on people’s perception and as Joy has pointed out we noticed the exceptions and some outliers have gotten a lot of attention, but it’s not addressing the fact that there is this disparity so I think it’s really exciting to be excited to look forward to parity and to be able to measure it.