Women In Theatre: A History
In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we’re digging into the drama of women throughout theatre history. Spoiler alert: women have come a long way.
From watching their stories told from the audience to writing their stories themselves, women have always been an integral part of theatre history.
532 BC – 900 AD
Greek theatre hit the scene in the early 500s (BC, that is), but women weren’t allowed on stage because it was “too dangerous.” Talk about a Greek Tragedy.
For the next few hundred years, with very few exceptions, Roman and Medieval theatre makers continued the tradition of protecting women from the harrowing dangers of professional acting…
The Elizabethan Era
In the early 1600s, Shakespeare penned many fierce females. However, they were not played by actual females. Although, there were rumors of women pretending to be men to get on stage, Shakespeare in Love-style.
Opera allowed women to sing on stage (we see you, Opera!), but occasionally, a strict church leader couldn’t handle the accuracy of her pitch, requiring a male to take over the high notes.
It was also at this time that Aphra Behn broke the mold and became the first female to actually earn a living as a playwright.
In 1660, we also saw our first female actress on the English stage: Margaret Hughes.
Sarah Siddons decided to get thee to the lead, when she took on the title (male) role in Hamlet. Elizabeth Powell, Sarah Bartlet, Sarah Bernhardt, and more would continue this tradition for years to come.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, women made up the majority of theatergoers.
There was also a rise in aspiring actresses. From 1870 to 1880, the number of women who declared their profession as “actress” on the U.S. Census Bureau rose from 780 to 4,652 (596%), jumping to 15,432 in 1910.
Zona Gale was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Miss Lulu Bett in 1921.
By 1923, 18.4% of plays were written by women. This rose to 22% in 1945, a number which has unfortunately fallen to an estimated 8-12% today.
Amidst the Great Depression, the Federal Theatre Project was born, where director Hallie Flanagan led the project that funded regional theatres and created 15,000 jobs.
In 1947, the Tony Awards were named after Antoinette “Tony” Perry, co-founder of the American Theatre Wing.
That same year, Margot Jones opened the first professional regional theatre, Theatre ‘47, in Dallas, TX.
In 1959, Lorraine Hansbury was the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. That play, of course, was A Raisin in the Sun.
Vinnette Carol made history in 1971 when she directed Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, becoming the first black woman to direct on Broadway. (She was nominated for a Tony.)
Cindy Lauper became the first female composer to win the Tony for Best Score for Kinky Boots in 2013, while Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron became the first all-female writing team to win for Best Score for Fun Home in 2015, a musical that featured the first lesbian protagonist.
2014 saw six women make American Theatre’s “Most Produced” Plays list, which is sadly the highest on record.
2016 was a banner year with Waitress having an all-female creative team, led by Sara Bareilles, and Eclipsed having an all female cast and creative team, including Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira.
2017 and Beyond
This timeline is just a taste of all of the fabulous women that have graced Broadway and beyond. With amazing talents like Bernadette Peters, Chita Rivera, Bette Midler, Patti LuPone, Liesl Tommy, Idina Menzel, Paula Vogel, Kristin Chenoweth, Audra McDonald (we could literally go on with this list all day), it’s easy to feel like the battle is won.
However, the fight for gender parity continues with a fairly stagnant 2:1 ratio of men vs. women working in theatre. Good thing there are organizations like the League of Professional Theatre Women (read their 2015 report on gender parity: Women Count), and The Kilroys (see their List of ready-to-produce plays by female and transgendered playwrights).
We can’t wait to see what the women in this community do next!