Dear Community Theaters: Play to Your Strengths and Produce More Female Driven Material

Liz Chirico

It’s audition season. Over the coming days and weeks I know I’m going to see plenty of requests for men. Extending auditions or callbacks looking for more male participants. Male actors receiving phone calls asking, begging, pleading with them to not merely come audition but come be in the show. Because for seemingly every ten females who audition, maybe one or two males come out. And yet theaters continue to produce works that require more men than women in roles. Why? I think it’s more than time the ladies took center stage. And there’s more than enough material out there for us to do just that.

Let’s start with musicals since for the majority of community theaters use these as their bread and butter for funding. Yes, they sell tickets and are fun to watch (and perform in) but sadly in the world of Community Theater (at least my corner of the world) men dance or at least move in rhythm and sing at the same time are harder to find. Of course, you can add more women to the ensemble but you don’t want it so female heavy that it looks awkward.

Surprisingly musicals that you might think “certainly they’re female heavy casts” aren’t necessarily so. Take Chicago with their infamous cell-block girls. It’s actually a show of 9 women to 6 men (and 4 of those 6 men better be strong dancers). Cabaret is the same vein; slightly more women than men but those men need to dance. There are newer musicals like Side Show and Violet which feature female leads yes, but more supporting men than women. All this adds up to making musicals harder to cast than plays especially when you have a shortage of men. 

Fortunately, there’s never a shortage of women! The website, Performer Stuff, recently put together a list (in two parts released in October and November) of female heavy plays. It’s a well thought out list featuring classics and modern works from well-known and brand new playwrights. Some of those playwrights are even women! (Fancy that- a woman writing about women!) There’s 21 total between the two lists. I would also like to add two more plays, Stepping Out by Richard Harris and Decision Height by Meredith Dayna Levy, both of which I’ve been in, both of which are female heavy (only one needed male between the two plays). That’s 23 works featuring all female or majority female casts needing women of all ages. No more worrying when 28 women audition and no men show up the first night. 

So why don’t more community theaters perform plays featuring female-heavy casts? To answer that, we’ll need to break the question down into two parts- Why community theaters don’t perform more plays? and Why don’t they perform shows featuring women?

First, plays don’t sell enough to carry a budget. At least they don’t typically sell as well as musicals. Ask anyone on the street to name three musicals and they can. They might be all Disney movies but they’re still musicals. Ask them to name plays and there’s going to be a lot of hemming and hawing. If you’re lucky they’re remember something they read in high school, maybe a Shakespeare or an Arthur Miller title. For most people, plays are boring, part of the required reading in high school. What most people don’t realize is plays are meant to be acted out not merely read. And the play they may not have understood in high school will resonate with who and where they are today. 

The issue of plays not selling though doesn’t really hold water. If you market to the right group(s), if you have a solid piece with a solid cast, people will come. Just this month I performed in Decision Height a new work by an unknown playwright centered on female pilots during WW2. It was a larger cast for a play with 12 actors, which does help sell tickets but the majority of the seats were sold through marketing and most of that was free. Facebook was our friend in promoting the show through a series of “Meet the Cast” photos and bios, and a video was produced with rehearsal shots and footage that was shared and viewed hundreds of times. Articles about the show appeared in several local papers and online, and various cast members appeared on 2 different local access television shows which were also streamed and available online. The theater group did pay for some advertising; posters and postcards were handed out and displayed in various stores and offices in the immediate area. 

Local groups with an affinity to the material were contacted as well and invited to attend the show with a group discount. Those included historical societies, women’s groups, air force and other military personnel. In the end, the proper marketing of the show led to sold-out audiences the entire second weekend, and the house was well more than half full the first weekend. Audiences that saw the show were universally enthusiastic in the response to the piece. Many had never known that women flew during WW2 and were moved and motivated to learn more. Proof that plays, and plays with all-female casts do sell tickets.

So we’ve established that with the right marketing, plays (and plays with a female cast even) earns money at the box office. Therefore the next issue, why companies don’t produce works with female-driven casts?  This leaves me at a loss. It seems to be a no-brainer. Many groups have great difficulty recruiting enough or any males, those men who are in theater can be severely overworked which may lead to burnout, and a lot of supremely talented females aren’t cast because there’s too many of them and not enough roles. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of works with either all-female or predominately female casts to choose from ranging from classic to contemporary. In short, no excuses, produce plays like a champion. 

I’m not saying every company needs to devote their entire season to female shows. That makes about as much sense as doing shows requiring significant amounts of trained male dancers. Start small. Replace one show a year with one of the 23 plays mentioned above or find one that fits your community, your actors. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We’re seeing a rise in women everywhere- in business, in politics, it’s time for the community theater world to get with the program. 

Photo: Decision Height / Hollins University