The Evolving Role of Women in Theater

Today, women make pivotal contributions to theater.

The Smith Center presents many productions with women as the driving creative force, including Disney’s “The Lion King” — for which Julie Taymor became the first woman to earn the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical — and hit musical “Waitress,” offering Broadway’s first all-female creative team writing, directing and songwriting.

Many talented women who perform at the center earn acclaim as Broadway’s top stars, such as Sutton Foster, Megan Hilty, Kelli O’Hara and Kristin Chenoweth.

But women faced a long journey to reach this point.

Starting from theater’s very beginnings, women around the world were barred for centuries from participating.

Below, The Smith Center offers a quick history of women’s evolving role in theater, as audiences look forward to applauding women on the center’s stages again.

The Birth of Theater — No Women Allowed

Ancient Greece remains hailed for inventing Western theater, by penning plays and training actors as far back as the 6th century.

While this advanced civilization churned out comedies and tragedies rife with goddesses like Nike and heroines like Antigone, women were forbidden from acting on stage.

Men performed the roles of both male and female characters, and some historians believe women weren’t even allowed to attend theatrical performances.

This reflected women’s inferior role in society at the time, as they were also banned from voting, inheriting or holding a job.

The Middle Ages — Juliette With a Beard

Plays offered a popular diversion for all classes during Europe’s middle ages. The Elizabethan era particularly ushered in a golden age of theater in England.

Yet the casts for these performances remained full of testosterone. Even in Shakespeare’s plays with iconic characters such as Juliette and Viola, men still played both the male and female roles.

This tied to the Catholic church’s sweeping influence, and a perception that women on stage was immoral.

In spite of that, this era saw a nun become the first female playwright, the German Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. Writing religious-based plays, her occupation allowed her to write because she didn’t need to make a living from it.

Women Take the Stage in Europe

The 1600s saw Europe’s first female actors tread the boards.

One event largely brought this about: the creation of opera.

With productions suddenly performed completely in song, women were needed on stage to reach the dizzyingly high notes for female characters.

Even then, women’s roles were still sometimes given to castrati — men who had undergone a forced procedure during boyhood to preserve their angelic sopranos.

The restoration of England’s King Charles II to the throne in 1660 also resulted in him supporting a new freedom in the arts. This included allowing women to perform in plays… And to write them.

Following the restoration, Englishwoman Aphra Behn became the first professional female playwright. She also somehow found time to serve as a spy for the king.

Women Taken Out of the Spotlight in Japan

That same century didn’t deliver equality for women worldwide, however.

The early 1600s saw the creation of Kabuki theater in Japan. This remains one of the country’s popular art forms, with performances featuring singing, dancing, an orchestra and lively, dramatic scenes.

A group of women originated this art form, by giving dramatic dance performances in a dry riverbed in Kyoto. Performances flourished and expanded into other cities.

In 1629, however, the government mandated for all roles in Kabuki theater to be played by men, due to suspicion that women performers were involved with unseemly activities.

Women of All Color on Stage

The late 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to a whole new theatrical frontier, especially with the development of the Broadway and West End theater districts in New York City and London. Women were welcomed as actresses and playwrights, and gained prominence through their work.

This included the emergence of African-American women on stage.

The Hyers Sisters, Anna and Emma, served as pioneers for African-Americans in theater, by becoming the first African-American women to perform opera in the country’s leading theaters in the mid-1800s. They worked with their family to start a theater company featuring racially integrated casts and produced original musical productions that put a spotlight on African-American heritage.

Vinnette Justine Carrol became the first African-American woman to direct a Broadway musical in 1972. Also the creator of the Urban Arts Corps promoting minority performers in theater, Carrol’s gospel-musical “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” earned four Tony nominations.

Moving Forward

There still remains room for progress.

While Japan lifted its ban on female performers in the late 19th century, Kabuki productions continue to use all-male casts to this day, due to the longstanding tradition.

And women comprise just 30 percent of Broadway directors and 11 percent of Broadway playwrights, according to Parity Productions advocacy company.

Yet with groundbreaking women shaping the arts each year, they will surely continue to make history.

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