Women playwrights’ work gets done ... in Seattle
Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson points out that in the 2013-14 Seattle theater season, patrons (and critics) enjoyed a season brimming with thought-provoking works by women — an area where much of the country lags behind.
Seattle Times theater critic
It wasn’t a politically driven agenda. Or a citywide arts festival or a joint programming decision.
Nor was it at the behest of an advocacy outfit like the Kilroys, an L.A. group of playwrights and producers that recently issued a list of 46 stage scripts by women recommended by selected theater professionals for production.
No, it just so happened that, during the 2013-14 Seattle theater season and particularly in the past six months, many of the plays that have most stimulated, provoked, amused and entertained on local stages were by women — by writers Charise Castro Smith, Johnna Adams, Charlayne Woodard, Laura Marks and the late Wendy Wasserstein, as well as Seattle’s Rachel Atkins, Sonya Schneider and Elizabeth Heffron, among others.
Don't get me wrong: there were some fine plays by guys, too. But more than the usual share, and more prominently displayed, were by female writers.
So what’s the big deal? Why should the dramatic output of women be noteworthy, given that they make up half the world’s population, and plenty of them are writing for the stage? And they’ve done so at least since 10th-century German poet-dramatist Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim first set quill to parchment?
I wish we had arrived at a time in our cultural history when the production of a dozen meaningful works by women, in a single U.S. city and a single season, was not at all remarkable.
We’re not there yet.
Several studies in recent years have estimated only about 17 to 22 percent of all plays presented by U.S. regional theaters are credited to women. (Things are not that much better, by the way, in England, and they’re worse for female and male playwrights of color).
The gender disparity has ignited impassioned discussion and outcry in theater circles, and has led such organizations as the nonprofit service agency Theatre Communications Group and the Lilly Awards, created to honor “women of distinction in American theater,” to highlight the issue.
The strange thing is, plays by women that do succeed do very well in terms of honors and number of productions. On Playbill.com’s list of the 14 works most presented in U.S. professional theaters over the past season, eight were by women, despite their underrepresentation overall. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama was awarded to Annie Baker (for “The Flick”), and the two Pulitzer finalists were also scripts by women. A 2009 research study by Emily Glassberg Sands, then of Princeton University, indicated that Broadway plays written by women earn on average 18 percent more than those written by men.
However, it’s another story when we look at how many female-scripted works actually get produced on Broadway.
This past season, just two out of 25 plays opening there had female authors: a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic, “A Raisin in the Sun,” and Lanie Robertson’s well-traveled 1986 bio-play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” More shows on Broadway this season focused on men dressed as women than were written by women.
Commonly suggested reasons why the play gender gap is so wide, off and on the Great White Way: 1) The preponderance (and box-office mojo) of popular classics penned by men, including Shakespeare’s canon. 2) The fear that plays focusing on women’s concerns are inherently uncommercial. (We’ve heard that one about movies, too.) 3) The remnants of a hard-to-crack, old-boy theater producers’ club, which favors well-established (mostly male) living writers.
And yet, Seattle has just encountered a plentiful buffet of plays by women in our playhouses. Why? The artistic environment here supports it — from the focus on play development by such institutions as the Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival, ACT and Seattle Rep, to the female-centric producing outfits like Macha Monkey and Live Girls! Theater, to the very proactive cadre of female directors and artistic leaders in the city.
The resulting productions can’t be glibly lumped together as stage “chick lit” either. During the season, women’s scripts have varied widely in genre, tone and, obviously, caliber. They were comedies and tragicomedies, satires and docudramas, presented by big companies (the Rep, ACT) and much smaller outfits (SIS Productions, Washington Ensemble Theatre).
And it wasn’t the authors’ gender that made such works worthwhile viewing. But one factor was, in many cases, how they delved intriguingly into dark corners and deep pockets of experience that few male dramatists address.
Examples: An incendiary, urgent conflict between parent and teacher, in an age of school violence (Adams’ “Gidion’s Knot”). Growing up female and different shades of black in Seattle’s Central District (Atkins’ “Black Like Us”). A single mom’s life-enhancing crush on a polar explorer (Valerie Vigoda’s “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me”). The ripple effects of a sexist billboard on a community ("Impenetrable").
Such topics certainly aren’t off-limits to men. But in these instances it was women scribes who gravitated to and mined them — often inspired by first hand, gender-influenced experiences and/or close personal observation, and with enough dramaturgical skill to grab our curiosity or concern, and hold it.
We saw plays as venerable, but still timely, as British author Cecily Hamilton’s witty 1908 take on low-wage workers, “Diana of Dobson’s,” as well-established as Woodard’s “Pretty Fire”and as hot-off-the-computer as Stephanie Timm’s new political stinger, “Tails of Wasps” (which, incidentally, won a spot on that Kilroys list).
The bottom line: When the American theater bypasses compelling, funny and insightful stories that women authors are more likely to tell, we’re depriving ourselves.
When playhouses welcome these different perspectives, from gifted storytellers of both sexes and many backgrounds, it can light up a season. In Seattle, that just happened. And let’s hope it wasn’t a fluke.
Misha Berson: email@example.com