In my final dispatch as your Southern California Regional Rep, the topic is ageism, or, more specifically, sageism, as L.A. playwright SARAH TUFT calls it, “the intersection between sexism and ageism.” It’s real. And it keeps legions of good writers from being produced.
Tuft is a member of the executive committee of Honor Roll!, an advocacy and action group of nearly 1000 women+ playwrights over 40 and their allies, whose goal is robust inclusion. They are the generation excluded at the outset of their careers because of sexism, and now are overlooked because of ageism. Honor Roll! celebrates diversity in theatre and works to call attention to the negative impact of age discrimination alongside all other forms of discrimination—including racism and ableism—on the American stage. The group includes ciswomen, transwomen, gender fluid and non-binary persons, and anyone who identifies as a woman. “We feel confident that when theatre becomes more equitable for women+ over 40,” says Tuft, “it will be a more welcoming place for all people.”
Joshua Gershick: You’ve been writing to theatres and foundations, urging them to remove questions regarding applicant age from submission and fellowship opportunities.
Sarah Tuft: Yes! Last year, I asked Honor Roll! members how they felt when asked for their age on submissions. Their responses were passionate, with many saying they simply stopped applying. I knew I had to do something. The biggest surprise was how easy it has been to have that question removed. So much of ageism is intrinsic, woven into the fabric of our deeply held assumptions. Institutions often have no idea that they’re acting out of bias. For instance, the Sundance Institute’s Theatre Lab said the age question was actually an oversight in their application process. My favorite response came out of my query to Emily Morse, artistic director at New Dramatists, who kindly engaged the Princess Grace Foundation-USA “in deeper consideration of that question.” As a result, the foundation, “which nurtures emerging artistic excellence,” recognized that “age is of no consequence when considering applicants for an award” and agreed to remove the question going forward.
JG: What’s the relevance of an “age” question anyway?
ST: Demographic information generally has two functions: 1) It can be used internally to understand applicants; and/or 2) It can be used externally to seek funding. But there are no large funding sources that foster age diversity in theatre, even though there are dozens of reasons (many of them rooted in gender inequity) that women+ playwrights over 40 can still be emerging. Therefore, disclosure of a playwright’s age is unlikely to have fundraising value for a theatre. That gave me a persuasive argument.
JG: Do literary managers consider age?
ST: I understand from literary-manager friends that there is bias against playwrights who are older, unless they are already renowned. Most LM’s, I imagine, would never admit it. Or they don’t recognize it for what it is. It’s more like, Oh, if she’s this age and I’ve never heard of her, she must not be very good. Like all prejudice, ageism gets cloaked in assumptions that are experienced as facts, not as bias. Another sentiment is that women+ playwrights over 40 aren’t “with it.” But we are extremely aware of “the current conversation” in theatre. We also buy tickets. And teach. And run theatre companies. And write fierce plays. We have to help our colleagues identify their bias for what it is.
JG: Are there statistics on the ages of playwrights being produced?
ST: Our research committee’s data revealed that the only women+ playwrights over 40 being produced were those who already had a track record. These writers were all “discovered” in their 20s and 30s, as the token women+ who were “let in” when sexism was the uncontested reality of our industry. We also found that emerging playwright fellowships—crucial development programs that provide a vital step up the ladder—are overwhelmingly awarded to playwrights in their 20s and 30s.
JG: Why is it vital for theatre folk to understand that a dramatist can emerge at any age?
ST: Great work is being overlooked. That’s a loss to all of us, not just theatres and playwrights, but also to audiences, especially since it’s widely accepted that what makes a good writer is what older writers tend to have more of: a honed craft, experience to draw on and a seasoned understanding of human behavior.
Find Honor Roll! at www.facebook.com/groups/womenplaywrights40 and on Twitter @HonorRollWrites