Fourteen women showed up to the callback for Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at Willows Theatre Company the other night, seven for the part of Nora, the female lead, and seven for the part of Nora’s friend Christine. Among them was Amy Prosser, a 45-year-old actress who launched her career 23 years ago, armed with an MFA from the now-defunct National Conservatory Theater in Denver. Prosser spent more than a decade acting for peanuts in the Bay Area before eventually landing a corporate job in New York. But she returned a couple years ago, determined to pursue acting anew. It’s what she loved, after all.
What she hadn’t really anticipated, even after years of working in cash-strapped and cutthroat arts markets, was the level of competition that women actors face for a limited number of roles. The Doll House audition was a perfect example. Fourteen women had showed up — “all powerhouse actresses,” Prosser said — compared to only three men who came to read for the part of Torvald, the leading man. The lead roles ultimately went to young women.
Prosser said she didn’t begrudge the actress who ultimately got to play Kristine, a role she’d wanted for herself. But she did think the director’s preference for younger actresses signified a continued unsettling trend in theater — something that’s become more pronounced to Prosser the older she gets. It’s an unfortunate but widely accepted truism that female actors are at a disadvantage in the theater world because they vastly outnumber men. That’s true even in the progressive Bay Area, where many directors make a conscious effort to reinvent male roles for women, and where feminist theater companies, like Women’s Will and 3Girls Theatre Company, specifically cater to female actors.
What’s even more apparent, to middle-age women like Prosser, is that once an actress hits her forties, her salability seems to plummet. “When I was 22 I made a living as an actor,” Prosser recalled. “I was non-union, I was young, and I was pretty. As a 45-year-old, I had two shows last year.” One of them, at the Capital Stage in Sacramento, paid just enough to cover transportation costs. The other, at Sleepwalkers Theatre in San Francisco, offered a $400 stipend for two months, even on an Actors Equity contract (a union contract with minimum salary requirements and health benefits). The idea of eking out a living on acting wages wasn’t just a challenge, it was suddenly impossible.
There are many reasons why women face an uphill battle in the acting world, said Carey Perloff, the artistic director at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. “There is certainly still a dearth of good roles for women in the theater, and it continues to be true that most produced plays are by men,” Perloff wrote in a recent email. Local actress Valerie Weak, who collects data about local theater on her blog, looked at the gender breakdown for one hundred shows performed in the Bay Area since June 2011. Of them, there were eighteen classics, and all but one had been written by a man. The 82 contemporary shows featured work by 95 writers and co-writers, and of those, 69 percent were men, 31 percent women.
Indeed, it seems that gender parity in acting will be a hard thing to achieve if playwrights aren’t consciously generating more roles for women. And productions of classics — which generally feature more male parts — always tip the balance. When Weak looked at the hundred plays in aggregate, she saw that they featured 406 male actors and 324 women. Because men were in higher demand, it was also easier for them to land better-paying union contracts.
Yet Prosser and other actresses say that female playwrights are equally culpable. After all, a play by a woman isn’t guaranteed to feature women actors, nor is it obligated to use feminist themes. A recent New York Times review of Seminar, a play by up-and-coming Pulitzer finalist Theresa Rebeck, accused the author of espousing retrograde politics. Even the more conscientious playwrights — both male and female — often write for younger actors. Plays like Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, which features two middle-age female leads, are few and far between.
Evidently, girls are drawn to acting at a young age, which leads to a glut of female actors down the road. Impact Theatre Artistic Director Melissa Hillman put it diplomatically: “There is something in Western culture that sees art as feminine,” she said, acknowledging at the same time, “we don’t value women’s stories.” Thus, women get “cultural approval” for going into acting, whereas men are encouraged to write the plays.
That said, Hillman still sees a sliver of hope, at least at the local theater level. Despite the gender imbalance at large, she can easily rattle off the names of female playwrights, artistic directors, and founders of acting companies. “I’m working at a small theater, and I see tons of women,” she said. “I know more female directors than I know male directors.” That could be a sign of a nascent cultural shift. It could mean that more directors will try what Hillman did in her recent production of Titus Andronicus: deliberately reimagining one of the male parts, Lucius, for a female actor. That’s may not be revolutionary, but at least it’s one more role.