How the Kilroys Are Beating Theater’s Boys Club

This faction of women writers, directors, and producers isn’t afraid to needle to see diverse voices on stage
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From the humblest of gatherings—in this case, a house party—great things can bloom. Back in 2013 playwright Annah Feinberg, newly arrived to L.A. and eager to make friends, invited several other playwrights, including sometime TV writers Daria Polatin (Jack Ryan) and Sheila Callaghan (Shameless), to her place to hang out and talk shop. As luck would have it, only women showed up. Before long the conversation shifted to how hard it was for female playwrights to get their works produced, and how, even now, plays by old white guys dominate the scene (a 2015 survey says that only about 22 percent of the works produced by nonprofit theaters were by women). “We were sitting around, eating and drinking and getting mad,” says playwright and This Is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter.

What to do? Not long after Feinberg’s party, the women at that informal get-together became the Kilroys, an equally informal collective of 13 writers, directors, performers, and agents dedicated to promoting gender parity in American theater (their name comes from the iconic graffiti tag “Kilroy Was Here,” which was left in unexpected places by American GIs during WWII). Before more plays by women could be staged, they reasoned, theater boards and marketing heads would have to know about them in the first place. So in 2014 the Kilroys created The List, polling the industry’s top leaders to create an annual collection of the country’s most-noteworthy-yet-underproduced plays by female and trans playwrights. Landing a spot is no easy feat: In any given year, only 5-9 percent of nominees make the cut. “When artistic directors say, ‘We don’t know where to find plays by women,’ we can say, ‘They’re here,’ ” says Carla Ching, one of the Kilroys’ founding members. “‘Now read them and hopefully produce them.’ ”’

Think of The List as the theater version of Hollywood’s famed Black List, which is to say it’s been a phenomenal success. Just as hundreds of unfairly neglected scripts have been produced thanks to film executive Franklin Leonard’s long-running survey, scores of The List’s plays have been staged in theaters across the country, from Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse—where you can catch the world premiere of Inda Craig-Galván’s Black Super Hero Magic Mama, a highlight of 2017’s List, from March 5 to April 14—to New York’s Second Stage Theater. Inclusion on The List has become so desirable that playwrights now lobby to get on it. “Some of us were initially concerned,” says Ching, “but then somebody really wisely said, ‘Why shouldn’t we be doing that as artists?’ ”

The original Kilroys crew spent five years advocating for change on the stage. Now there’s a new gang in town, 14 women culled from more than 200 applicants nationwide. There are directors (Jessica Hanna, Death Play) and TV writers (Hilary Bettis, The Americans), producers (Chalk Repertory Theatre’s Claudia de Vasco) and playwrights (Christina Ham, Nina Simone: Four Women). And then there’s 2019’s forthcoming List, still the collective’s most notorious and powerful creation. As with the original Kilroys, this new group will hector and cajole, and, when necessary, needle and shame. “Look at the Oscar nominations,” says Brunstetter. “Where are the fucking women? This is clearly still a thing.”


Four plays from The List that have since been produced

Peerless

Courtesy First Floor Theater

Asian American twin sisters M and L resort to Macbethian savagery when their college dreams are dashed in this brutal satire by Jiehae Park.

Boy

poster design by Mar De Ycaza for Actors’ Warehouse Inc.

Anna Ziegler’s play about gender identity is inspired by the true story of David Peter Reimer—whose parents, along with a doctor, made the call to raise him as a girl after a botched circumcision.

You Got Older

Poster Design by Donovan Foote for Steppenwolf Theatre Company

This dark comedy by Clare Barron, about a woman looking after her sick father, topped the Kilroys’ 2015 List.

Black Super Hero Magic Mama

Courtesy Geffen Playhouse

In Inda Craig-Galván’s piece, a grieving mother tries to cope with her son’s murder at the hands of police by retreating into the comic books he wrote before he died.

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