New list of unproduced plays tallies those disrupted by pandemic
By Sarah Bahr
Trying to salvage a spring and summer of shelved and scrapped scripts, the Kilroys, a group of Los Angeles-based female-identified playwrights and producers, is spotlighting new plays and musicals by female, transgender and nonbinary writers that have had their runs disrupted by the pandemic.
More than 140 planned productions by writers ranging from the Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok to the comedian Sarah Silverman appear on the group’s sixth annual list, released on Tuesday.
The tally typically counts a few dozen unproduced and underproduced new plays that are nominated by approximately 300 theater professionals.
But this year the list isn’t curated. Any writer who’s had a first or second professional production of their work canceled, postponed or shortened by COVID-19 can submit their information to be included, said Obehi Janice, a playwright and member of the collective.
“It’s a rejection of status, which this list has unintentionally been a part of,” she said. “We wanted to take a true survey of our community.”
The list, which takes its name from the subversive World War II graffiti tag “Kilroy Was Here,” will be updated each month through the end of the year, she said. (The Dramatists Guild, Theater Communications Group and National New Play Network provided information for the first round.)
Several included productions will be familiar to New York audiences: Both Hilary Bettis’ “72 Miles to Go…” and Claudia Rankine’s “Help” had begun performances at the Roundabout Theater Company and the Shed, respectively. Silverman’s highly anticipated musical “The Bedwetter” (co-written with Joshua Harmon and Adam Schlesinger) had its April 25 opening date at the Atlantic Theater Company postponed indefinitely.
Other plays were aimed for spring at smaller, regional theaters, including Audrey Cefaly’s “Alabaster” at Know Theater of Cincinnati and Elaine Jarvik’s “Four Women Talking About the Man Under the Sheet” at Salt Lake Acting Company in Utah.
Majok, whose “Cost of Living” was on an earlier Kilroys list, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for the play. Her “Sanctuary City” is on the new list after a New York Theater Workshop production was postponed indefinitely.
In an interview Tuesday, Majok said she believes that advocacy by the Kilroys has nudged industry gatekeepers to more strongly consider plays by female and nonbinary writers. And she hopes such progress won’t be lost to the pandemic.
“The cost and, therefore, the exclusivity makes it so difficult for lower income artists to break into theater — or to keep going within it,” she said. “And I worry that further exclusivity could kill vital stories and perspectives in our cultural conversation.”
Inda Craig-Galván, a Los Angeles-based playwright, had two works on this year’s list, “A Hit Dog Will Holler” and “Black Super Hero Magic Mama.” She said it’s disheartening that productions have been scuttled in a cultural moment perfect for plays that tackle racism and oppression.
“It’s a great time in our country for these plays to be produced,” she said. “But now I’m wondering if they’ll ever be produced.”
She said that, as a writer of color, it’s frustrating when spaces are interested in developing her plays or showering them with prizes, but not in actually producing them. “‘Black Super Hero Magic Mama’ has won, like, every award,” she said. “And it’s had one full production.”
Approximately 49% of the plays and musicals on this year’s list are by writers of color, Janice said.
While a majority of plays produced in American theaters are written by white men, there has been progress: In 2016-17, approximately 70% of plays produced in regional theaters were written by men, compared with 2011 to 2014, when that figure was almost 80%, according to the results of a national survey financed by the Lilly Awards and the Dramatists Guild. The percentage of produced plays by writers of color also increased from 10.2% to 15.1% over that period.
But female playwrights still face a steep climb to Broadway. The pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season featured only a handful of shows written by women: Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons,” Rona Munro’s “My Name is Lucy Barton” and Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” plus the books for the musicals “Six,” “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” and “Jagged Little Pill.”
“Yes, there have been amazing gains,” Janice said. “But at the end of the day, American theater still struggles with taking the breadth of voices in our country into account.”