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Timeline: Women in Theater

Timeline: Women in Theater

by Rebecca Adelsheim

Shakespeare in Love hinges on 16th-century English theater restrictions that banned women from performing on stage. In fact, throughout history, women have had to fight to take their place on and behind the English and American stages. This timeline highlights only a few of the major figures whose participation marked seismic shifts in that theatrical landscape.

1600 - Moll Cut-Purse (Mary Frith) was a notorious member of London’s underworld. She gave the first recorded female performance on stage: she dressed in men’s clothing for comedic musical performances and was later the subject of Middleton and Dekker’s play The Roaring Girl.

1610 - Queen Anne and aristocratic ladies performed silent roles in Court Masques, which combined music, dance, stylized language, and complex production elements.

1660 - At the end of the English Civil War, women’s role in English theater flourished. Anne Marshall was the first professional actress on stage, performing as Desdemona in Othello.

1670 - Aphra Behn, one of the early female playwrights, produced her first play, The Forc’d Marriage. Behn’s comedies, notably The Rover, are still produced today.

1830 - Eliza Vestris, the first woman actor-manager in London, took over the Olympic Theater and encouraged
the use of “period” costumes and box sets.

1836 - Charlotte Cushman became one of the most celebrated actresses in America and England. She was most famous for playing male Shakespearean roles like Romeo and Hamlet.


Where are We Today?

The fight for women on stage did not end with Charlotte Cushman. While performers have made notable strides, female and nonbinary playwrights make up only 26% of those produced in the United States. Some of the efforts underway to combat the gender imbalance include:


2014 – The Kilroys List is published every summer by a group of playwrights and producers who collect nominations for unproduced plays by female and nonbinary playwrights. The list aims to take action around gender parity and racial equity.

2015 – Women’s Voices Theater Festival was created as a response to the claim that there is little work by women in the pipeline; this year's festival of women-driven work will run in January and February of 2018 in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Baltimore Center Stage’s Skeleton Crew (Jan 24–Mar 4, 2018) will be part of the festival!