Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Feminine Playwright Mystique: Expanding My Knowledge of Women Dramatists

I have a confession to make:  when I am asked to name my favorite playwrights, very few women tend to make my top list. As someone who considers myself a feminist, this is completely unacceptable.
On some level, I feel like a lot of it has to to with the fact that most of my chief influences in the theatre have been men, starting from my Dad, with whom I can exchange lines and lyrics from Guys and Dolls and The Producers the way Catholics trade Bible verses.  As I started to develop as a theatre artist and scholar, my inspirations turned to people like Tony Kushner, Christopher Durang, David Ives, Jose Rivera and Lee Blessing.  Not that I didn't read some female playwrights along the way--Maria Irene Fornes' Fefu and Her Friends and Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice made huge impressions on me. But in the absence of a large female theatre community, I felt a lot more at home in the easy banter of (mostly) Jewish men of the Boomer generation. The women--or "broads" as a Damon Runyon character might say--in these plays were witty, ascerbic, and ballsy, with little of the wishy washy crap in many of the female-written plays I had encountered.  And yet on some level I sometimes wondered how much these plays were watching them rather than living them.  

Things started to change when I got to New York, where for the first time I was surrounded not only by a diversity of female writers, but male and female writers who talked about female writers. In 2012 I was honored to participate in the first incarnation of Mariah McCarthy's kick ass PussyFest monologue festival.  Last February thanks to my friend Kellie Powell I participated in La Petite Morgue's Bloody Gorgeous Monologues, a selection of entirely women writers in celebration of Women in Horror Month.  Through these experiences I began to see the many ways one can be a female writer.  

Still, my own personal repertoire of successful female writers was pathetically slim.  I may have known who contemporary women writers were from reading blogs, but I still hadn't read them.  To be honest, since I stopped acting and don't need to find monologues anymore I don't really read a lot of published plays.  Mainly what I encounter are either new plays by people in my writers' groups or readings/productions by friends or people in said writing groups.  On a practical level, this makes perfect sense--my peers are the ones a lot more likely to give me professional opportunities and be invested in my success.  And also money, Yo.  Buying plays and seeing productions--even at under-30 discounts--can get really pricey.

And while I've enjoyed delving into my own community, at the same time I sometimes miss being a part of a larger theatre conversation.  It's already bad enough when I roll my eyes every time the topic of Broadway comes up in Ohio--now I was even getting jaded about Off-Broadway.  Even with the successes and controversies surrounding productions like Annie Baker's The Flick, I found myself not really part of them.  

So in an attempt to avoid the onset of theatre hipsterism, I decided to start correcting this deficiency.  One of my favorite parts of living in New York is access to New Dramatists, a playwrights theatre whose library of resident plays (and free coffee) is open to the public during weekdays.  If you're lucky, you might end up sitting on the couch next to someone famous.  While I visited there a few times during my first year in New York, it had been a while.  For a time, surrounding myself with playwrights much more successful than me gave me too much anxiety about the direction (or lack of direction of my own career.  

In January, I started visiting New Dramatists roughly every other week on my days off, a handful of papers in tow.  After grading two or three papers, I'd reward myself by reading a play.  My focus didn't initially begin with female writers; I started simply reading plays by people I've either gotten to know or had workshops with.  But after a couple of recommendations, I started to pick up more and more lady-penned plays.  

And I discovered some awesome shit.  

What was great to see was how varied in shape, tone and subject matter female writing could be.  I was absolutely chilled by the threat biblical violence in Laura Marks' post-partum fever dream Mine and 
roared with laughter at the catty teenage girls in Wendy Macleod's black comedy Schoolgirl Figure. In Kate Fodor's RX, I felt Meena's struggles with workplace depression.  In The Hour of Feeling byMona Mansour, I got a rendering of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a powerfully Arab and Feminist perspective.  

Probably my favorite discovery was Madeline George, the only playwright of the latest bunch for whom I decided to read two plays.  Those of you who know me are aware of how much I dig plays that blend heady academic subject with character-driven comedy, so The Zero Hour and Seven Homeless Wooly Mammoths Wander New England hit all of my sweet spots.  In The Zero Hour, an academic is wrestling with the absurdity of writing middle-school aged educational materials about the Holocaust and finds herself speaking to visions of smiling Nazis on the 7 train to Woodside.  It's like you get me, Madeline George.  You really get me.  

What all of these women's plays have done is help me expand the possibilities of stories that are available to me not only as a female storyteller, but a female human being.  I realized as a woman I don't have to feel trapped in tropes and structures of femininity, and that there is an audience for whatever person (or mix of people) I turn out to be.  We can indulge in our feelings without being basket-cases and embrace our intellects without forfeiting our sexuality.  And not only can we be all these things, but there are audiences who will actually appreciate these narratives.

But that audience isn't large enough.  While organizations like New Dramatists, Playwrights Horizons The Women's Project, and the Public Theatre are doing amazing work supporting a diverse collection of female voices, those groups still occupy a tiny sliver of the American theatre landscape.  If you didn't attend a university program, you might be forgiven for assuming the entirety of American theatre is composed of musical theatre productions adapted from 80s and 90s movies.  There's barely mention of any nonmusical playwrights, let alone female ones.  And the few plays that do manage to trickle down to university, community, and regional theaters tend to be the same handful that end up getting pummeled to death. I loved Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, but I can name at least three theaters off the top of my head that produced it the year the rights were released. 

Many of these decisions by theaters and universities are no doubt financial: New York hits are a surefire way to guarantee something resembling box office revenue in an industry where commercial prospects are slim.  But in cowing to short-term financial pressure, we are missing opportunities to discover rich, engaging storytellers that may be able to speak to communities in personal and specific ways.  

This is an issue that won't be solved in a day by any means, but I want to challenge us all to do better.  If you're a theatre producer, consider a couple of slots in your seasons for female writers.  If you're an educator, assign plays and scenes from women's playwrights that your students might not have heard of.  Challenge yourself to discover one or two new women writers each year.  Wondering where to start?  The open-source list WE EXIST  is a great place (I'm on it!).  Look up the list of residents at New Dramatists or The Public Theatre. Read Adam Szymkowicz's blog. Check out The International Center for Women Playwrights. Not only will future female dramatists thank you, but also young actresses looking for meatier characters.  

It might take work--but it's not like any of us got into this crazy business because we expected it to be easy.  


  1. As the Director of WIT-Women in Theatre, I'm having an awful time finding plays for my small band of women using a minimal set and lighting. I'm looking, reading, looking, reading,... I'll follow any lead I'm given. WIT performs plays by, for, and about women.

  2. Do the plays need to be all-women? Lucy Thurber's stuff is pretty great. You can also purchase plays for cheap on Indie Theatre Now. You can search for small casts and plays by women. Here's a link to WE EXIST, the Google Docs list of current female playwrights. It's exhaustive, but a start.. Good luck!