Ask the playwright Julia Jordan what the need was for the Lilly Awards, which she co-founded in 2010 to honor women in theater, and the answer is a mix of anecdote and statistic.
Her mind goes straight to the years after she completed the playwriting program at the Juilliard School in 1996. As two men in her class, David Auburn and Stephen Belber, became some of the hottest young playwrights around, she struggled to get her work staged.
“Very good friends of mine, no slam against them,” Jordan, 56, said on a December afternoon before she stepped down as executive director of the Lillys. “It was just odd.”
The numbers bore out her perception. A report, published in 2002 by the New York State Council on the Arts Theater Program, found that only 17 percent of productions on U.S. stages in the 2001-02 season had been written by women.
One day around 2003, she recalled, Auburn came over “because I was really depressed about it. And he said, ‘Why don’t you try switching the gender of your protagonists?’” (Auburn, reached by email, confirmed he was a good friend of Jordan, but said he does not remember this incident.) Writing male-focused narratives was, in any case, a conventional strategy for female playwrights at the time.
“I literally took my most autobiographical play, and I made me male. And I called it ‘Boy,’” Jordan said. “Almost immediately people wanted to produce it.”
To Jordan, a longtime leader in the fight for gender parity in theatrical production, all of this was context for the creation of the Lillys, which she started with the playwrights Marsha Norman and Theresa Rebeck. The catalyst, though, was their collective outrage, in the spring of 2010, that one of the season’s best-reviewed Off Broadway hits, Melissa James Gibson’s “This,” was ignored by the existing award-giving bodies.
The new accolade was for “everybody who should be getting awards, and who should have been getting awards and didn’t,” said Jordan, who, with Juliana Nash, wrote the acclaimed musical “Murder Ballad.”
At the 2023 Lilly Awards, held in late November on the “Stereophonic” set at Playwrights Horizons, the hair and wig designer Cookie Jordan and the actors Liza Colón-Zayas and Ruthie Ann Miles were among the honorees. The playwright Kirsten Greenidge and the composer Georgia Stitt each received $25,000 prizes, funded by the Broadway producer Stacey Mindich, meant to buy them time to write.
Under Jordan, the Lillys organization — named for Lillian Hellman — blossomed to include the Count, which tracks theatrical production statistics by gender and race; an artist residency program with child care; the online publication 3Views on Theater; and the Lorraine Hansberry Initiative, which awards graduate school fellowships for female and nonbinary dramatic writers of color.
Creating the Hansberry Initiative was one goal that Jordan felt she had to achieve before she could move on. The other was reaching gender parity for playwrights, which the Count’s preliminary figures indicate has happened this season on Off Broadway stages dedicated to new-play production.
“We didn’t get 50/50 in 2020, but we have it now,” Jordan said.
So on Dec. 31 she handed off her job to Sarah Rose Leonard and Brittani Samuel, the founders and editors of 3Views — though Jordan plans to share her connections and expertise as needed. (Samuel also contributes theater reviews to The New York Times.)
Last month, with her tenure nearly finished, Jordan sat down to talk at a cafe in Flatbush, Brooklyn. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
At the awards in November, you said the Lillys are the thing in your career that you’re proudest of.
I do feel like I had a little bit of a playwriting career happening, and then this was so time-consuming. But I got so much love for it, you know? I respond well to love [laughs], so it really started to kind of push my writing aside. That was always a little bit of a sadness, if I thought about it. At the same time, I feel like it’s kind of split my brain. I actually have to work at it to stay organized, you know? So between that and being a mom with young kids, that’s like three different brains, and I can only do two. I stopped teaching, which I loved, but that would have been four.
So your work became being a champion?
Yeah. Mostly I’m really proud of it. I meet young female writers, and they almost don’t know what happened, or they don’t know that it was so recent. Nobody has ever told them to write a play with a male lead. They’ve never been told that women’s plays are not very dramatic and are really poetic. They have never been told that the audience doesn’t really want to see plays by women. It’s just not on their radar. And that [progress] happened really quickly.
How has doing this job changed you?
Before this happened, I didn’t really ever think of myself as activist-y. I’m sort of surprised I was good at it.
What are you going to do now?
I have one project that I can’t talk about yet, kind of in my political, troublemaking world. But then I’m starting to write. I have a play that I’m working on, and I’m writing a musical with a pop star; she’s huge in Europe and England. Her name is Emeli Sandé. I get to go to London every few months and hang out in her studio. And then the play is a family drama.
Do you think your activism will filter into your playwriting?
I often wonder about that, because I don’t feel like I’m a super political writer. I always did write about girls, you know; I always did write about gender, in some sense. I really do like when people can write a political play really well. But I don’t know that if I went straight at it, I would be able to do a good job.
As a playwright, do you feel like you’re going back into a theater that is changed from when you started the Lillys?
A hundred percent. Everybody gets produced now. There’s much more competition. In a good way.
The deck was really stacked when you started.
It was stupid. And we had to sit through a lot of bad theater because of it. But yeah, I feel like it’s wildly different. I also feel like theater goes through these phases of what it’s interested in. What I write about, I don’t know anymore how that fits in.
Your final Lilly Awards honored women over 40?
Over 50. There were a couple [in their 40s]. Close enough.
Why that focus?
The women that were my level and a little bit older who got passed by when they weren’t producing women, nobody went back and read the Susan Smith Blackburn [Prize] lists [of plays by women] and went, “Hey, we should probably look at these again.” It’s a whole ecosystem problem because for the most part, literary managers and their assistants tend to be young — tend to be female, but tend to be young. So they’re not going back. The women over 50, they were the ones who really kind of made all this happen. And they didn’t benefit from it in the same way [as younger women]. They really didn’t. That’s why we wanted to start shining a light in that direction and just say, “Hey, not dead yet.”
But I also think that those plays by those women would really speak to a piece of the audience that needs to be kept around during this sort of building the new audience. Instead of like, “Let’s just not have anybody go to the theater for a while while we build a new audience,” how about we do both?