The G.L.Horton file - "The Playwright's predicament"

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"The G.L.Horton file"

note: entire contents copyright 1997 by G.L.Horton

The Playwright's Predicament

From Sun Feb 16 06:15:17 1997

I've been conversing with my sisterlisters on the ICWP (International Center for Women Playwrights) list. I'll paste some of it here below.

Did I mention that my play "Inquest" has been picked to be part of the ICWP conference in Galway the last week of June? So David I are definitely planning to go to Ireland for that this summer.

The ICWP organizers asked the listmembers for thoughts on the "State of the Art" for women playwrights, to help them put together discussions and workshops for Ireland, and to plan programs for the coming year.
I chimed in with:

[ME]I'm not up to prescribing for women playwrights the world over, at least not at the moment. I've had a 2 week head cold and my brain's been glued shut by mucus.
However, and as usual, Olga and Linda are inspirational. I'm throwing my $.02 in as a response to their thoughts (incapable as I am at present of generating thoughts on my own)

[Olga says]
>>The issue of why women playwrights are ignored by so many theaters has perturbed me to no end.

[ME]Yes, indeed. Me, too.

[O]>I think the powers that be (artistic directors, literary managers, producers, etc.) still don't get it.

[ME]There's a great deal of variation on the "developmental" level. One-act bills are more likely to include women. Louisville seems to be about equal (but doesn't do the sort of plays that interest ME). The Midwest usually has a good female representation, though not approaching equality. Sundance is about 10-3. The O'Neill was getting better for a while, but last I looked it was back to mostly male: as much as 8-1 or 10-2.
New play readings locally seem to be about one in three female.

Productions, however, are an entirely different story.

First, theatres do mostly "old" plays, and plays that have name recognition.
That lets us out (except for Agatha Christie, and maybe Wendy). I have only informal statistics (I look up the week's listings and count 'em on my fingers) but I think that theatres that do obscure or "newish" plays do more British than American ones, probably because the British scripts come with the glow of critical approval that is doled out more frequently on the other side of the water. Phyllis Ngy moved there, so now she's produced here.

Second, Theatres seem to relegate plays by women into one of the "slots" reserved for all the plays labeled "other"-- there's the African-American slot, the gay slot, etc. If the "Woman's play" is written by an Irish woman, or an African-American, or a lesbian, that's it for the season. For the Irish and gays and African-Americans, as well as for women. An 8-play season might have one slot. It would save a lot of postage and disappointment if there were a way to tell for sure that a theatre that has FINALLY done a woman's play won't have another "Slot" for one for at least 3 seasons -- rather than that it has (as eternally springing hope suggests) opened up to women's writing generally.

[O]>>I make a habit every so often of counting the number of plays by women that actually get produced and, compared to the numbers of women who are writing, it's a pathetically small part of the whole.


[O]>> You would think that in the theater, where the playwright is the driving force, the true creative visionary..

[ME]Is this really so?
Or do we have a managerially-driven theatre?

[O]>>..that more works by women would be produced, but that is clearly not the case.
Frankly, I am sick and tired of Wendy Wasserstein being considered the premiere woman playwright in America.

[ME]"The female Neil Simon" is her usual title. Is Simon the premiere male playwright? Who else is considered to be in competition? Are dollars points? And how can we know what soul- wrenching tragedies may lie unfinished in Wendy's desk-- or in her dreams? The same commercial forces that are pushing her to write ethnic entertainments have pushed at Arthur Miller, too.

[O]>>The only other women whose names are familiar are Marsha Norman (who seems not to be as prolific as Wendy these days, probably because she's doing a lot of writing for TV and cable) and Caryl Churchill, who is British. What ever happened to Beth Henley....

[ME]My question is, not "whatever happened to Megan Terry?" -- I think I know what happened, she's writing and producing in Omaha -- but "is Terry still writing ambitious plays of epic scope and philosophic depth?" and "Why don't I ever get a chance to see one of them?"

[O]>> Emily Mann has done and continues to do important important work....

[ME]I hate to say this, because I admire and like Emily, but "Having Our Say" was a mediocre play. A great evening of theatre: inspirational, uplifting, important, even. If I could, I'd distribute tickets to every junior high school in America. But as a play.....

[O]- Paula Vogel is ...

[ME](beginning to be)

[O]>> ...produced on a regular basis, but that's about it. Certainly, the numbers of produced women writers are probably better if you look at the small community theaters.

[ME]I don't think so, if you don't count Agatha Christie.
Community theatre is in a worse position, because there is no "extra credit" with the press and with grant-givers involved, and no "psychic reward" or professional advancement accruing to an "artistic success" that is a box office failure.
Community theatre actors seldom audition with monologues. They want to be able to check the script -- or better yet, the video -- out at the library before they read for a part: and they want to know that the parts are worth doing and that their friends will come and applaud them in the play.
I'm presently in rehearsal for a University and grant-supported production of an original script by a woman. The talent pool that turned out for auditions was very small, and 3 of the better actors dropped out after the 1st read-through.

[O]>>One thing that particularly irks me to no end is when men describe my work as feminist, and they advise me that there are feminist theaters out there who would be interested in it. AAARRRRGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!

[ME]In my experience, feminist theatres tend to do solo/performance art or group-generated work, or to be focused on a particular "issue". They work with artists who are involved with the on-going process, rather than expecting that a script that says what they want to say at this time and in this particular place will happen to come in the mail. There is a grant-funded "Women On Top" festival playing locally right now: 7 pieces, none of them approaching full-length, maximum cast 2. If the producers of it ever issued a call for scripts, it escaped my notice -- and I'm on innumerable mailing lists and pore over the arts section of the newspaper obsessively, trying to find out who's doing what where when and with whom.
Lesbian theatres seem to be more open to scripts -- by and about lesbians, of course.

[O]>> Although I consider myself a feminist, I try not to use that label because to many it means that I only write for a small group and I have found my niche and need to stay in it. It also means that whatever I write will be of no interest to men or any type of general audience.

[ME]I think that we have to face a discouraging situation: most men aren't very interested in women. It isn't just feminists who get consigned to the reject pile. If a woman's not talking about him, she's boring.
There are exceptions, of course.
But it starts early. Surveys show that little girls happily read books about either boys or girls. Boys only want to read about boys. There may be something about boys having to tune out women's voices in order to separate from their mothers and be admitted to men's estate. Anyway, because the theatre is a collaborative art, this relative lack of interest translates to a relative lack of productions.
When you also take into account that many of the people who keep theatres going are there at great personal sacrifice because they want to tell their stories -- and their stories aren't our stories -- the prospect is bleak.
I keep repeating to myself: "Sixty per cent of the audience is women, seven out of ten undergraduate theatre majors are women... something will have to give, eventually."
But eventually may be too late for me, or for my talented friends.
Reading through the statements of the young pros profiled in Am. Theatre last month, I noticed that although one of the directors specifically mentioned wanting to work with women writers (not exclusively, among the "others") he envisioned working with young women, his contemporaries, and sharing their artistic growth.
Pretty daunting, when one considers that the young pros of my generation didn't want to work with women writers at all; or under women directors, either. The project of the era was to rescue art and literature from the castrating or trivializing influence of females. It was fashionable, then, to claim that the only place for women backstage was on the casting couch.
A surprising number of men still think so, but at least it's no longer fashionable to say so.

[O]>> I am not a feminist playwright.

[ME]Olga, I doubt this. According to my dictionary, a feminist is one who holds that women are essentially men's equals. Nonfeminists hold that women are by nature inferior and should be so by law and custom. Although this has been and probably is the opinion of the majority of humankind, surely it is not yours? Or the position "proved" by your plays? Even if you wrote for an all-male cast, I suspect the more admirable characters would not make a life-project of asserting masculine dominance??? (This isn't entirely a silly question. It's Creon's flaw in "Antigone", and Sophocles slaps him down for it)

[O]>>I am a playwright. I do not write feminist plays. I write plays. I have an African-American playwright friend who faces the same dilemma. He wants to be known as a playwright, not a black playwright.

[ME]You mean he wants to be free of the idiotic assumption that he must have only one proper subject matter, and that even his take on that must conform to PC expectations?
Oh, freedom!

[O]>>Having a label attached to us winds up being a double- edged sword. On the one hand we have to separate ourselves as women in order to get attention and get the theaters to notice that PLAYS WRITTEN BY WOMEN (not "women's plays" -- another label that reflects ghettoization) are only a small number of the total plays being produced, but on the other, we don't want our work to be put in a special "female" category.

[ME]If the "female" category gets 1/2 the productions, and if men will be as willing to sit in the audience for them as women are for men's, then I've no objection!!!

[O]>>Another reason I've been given for the lack of productions for us is that women tend to write more internal dramas that are basically a bunch of women sitting around talking about their feelings.

[ME]So they say. I don't write that kind, however: and I've never found not writing them to be an advantage.

[O]>>Hence, there's no "dramatic action," which men are supposedly better at.

[ME]I think there IS a kind of play that is descended from the warriors' boasting-contests: "dissing" and "dozens" plays, like Shepard's "Tooth of Crime" and Mamet's "Glengarry".
Women don't do these very often. (But we could if we wanted to, nyah, nyah, nyah!)

[O]>> Perhaps we need to dispell these myths and show that women write plays that are as varied as the ones that men write.

[ME]Who's "we"?
How, show?
Show whom?
I'm trying, in a small way. I read and see and review every play written by a woman that I can, and I try to respond to them and describe them in a way based on no preconceptions about what a play, or a woman's play, ought to be.

[O]>>I've also heard that since men are socialized to go out and get what they want, they are simply better at schmoozing and networking and getting their work out there. Since, I know I am bad at that aspect of the business, I assume other women are, too.

[ME]Not necessarily. I know a number of women with this "go out and get it" temperament -- but few of them are playwrights. As a subgroup, aren't writers, male or female, most likely to be manic-depressive introverts? They hide in their studies, they read, they brood, they type.

[O]>> I would love to learn more techniques for approaching people in a successful way.

[ME]Charm school?
Maybe we need to be trained to present ourselves and our work more dynamically.
Or maybe we need to hide at home and write passionate manifestos that inspire some of the charming and dynamic to take up our cause?
Linda suggests prizes.
What rewards (other than an SRO audience) could be offered producers, directors, actors, for engaging women's work? -- Rewards would have to be BIG, to compensate for the risk of being labeled trivial, sissy, pc, etc.

[O]>>How resistent the theater is to the plight of women playwrights was made clear to me when a group of women sought to revitalize the Women's Committee of the Dramatists Guild. The Women's Committee had been listed as a service of the Guild in every publication that carries information about the DG.
However, it was a dinosaur with no members. Recently, a group of passionate women said, hey, let's start doing things for women playwrights and addressing these issues.

[ME]I used to commute from Boston for WC meetings. I remember when, years ago, PEN came to a Guild-sponsored WC event and described how they had pressured the NY Times Book Review to be fair to women. Women wrote something like 65% of the books on the Best Seller list, got 30% of the reviews. Less than 15% of the reviewers hired were women. Big-name writers made a fuss, a threatened to make a bigger fuss if their concerns weren't addressed. This was a real risk: the NY Times could blackball any writer -- it happened to Gore Vidal: for years the NYT simply refused to review his books. PEN won concessions -- the Book Review used twice as many female reviewers after as before the action. There may have been some retaliation, nobody was quite sure, but for such a good cause... The WC at the Guild talked about doing something similar, but the risks always seemed too great -- nothing ever came of it. Like your recent effort.

[O]>>We were not planning on having endless seminars to talk about the issues. We were planning constructive action. Well, the Dramatists Guild freaked out and dissolved the Committee. Their reason: the Guild exists only to help playwrights with contracts, meaning they really don't care about 75% of the issues that are important to playwrights. One female member of the DG Board actually told one of the women trying to revitalize the Committee that it would be "career suicide" for the Board to get involved with this issue.

[ME]Iit very well might BE career suicide. With 20,000 playwrights to choose from, why deal with a trouble-maker?
We had a theatre women's organization here in Boston for a while -- Radcliffe donated meeting space. We gathered statistics, discussed picketing, went so far as to write to Bob Brustein at the Am Rep Theatre after he hired an acting company of a dozen white males, two white females and one black male for his season of all male-written and male-directed plays (we wrote without the group's name and/or official authorization, after carefully spinning off an "action force" from the group to shield those actresses who had hopes of being hired at the ART some day from guilt-by-association). Brustein replied in a return letter that he had worked his whole life to build "his" theatre, and no pressures would ever induce him to change his standards and practices. "You want a theatre where women set policy, start your own" he said. "I'll go so far as to set up a meeting so my assistant can explain to you how to raise funds."
We tossed around the idea of passing out leaflets to women outside the theatre, showing them how their taxes were supporting an institution that denied women's voices. But we didn't do it. We concluded that although with a mighty effort we might be able to shut the theatre down, we could never open it up. The ART theatre is indeed the shadow of one man; and "a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."

[O]>>I think a disparaging remark was also made about these women being a bunch of losers who couldn't get productions. Many women who have become successful, like that Board Member, don't seem to want to help other women who are still struggling.
Where are the mentors? I think we need to apply more techniques used by the business world for success to our careers as playwrights.

[ME]That's one idea, and it may be a good one.
Alternatively, maybe we could refound the Dionysian religion, consecrate actors, directors and playwrights as a poverty-vowed priesthood, convert the population -- or some largish chunk of it -- to a ritual observance that included daily psychodrama and weekly attendance at a (woman-written?) play, and preach and practice a code of aesthetic and empathic virtue utterly opposed to what the business world calls "success".
Well, it's an idea.
But probably not one I should bring up.

G.L.Horton -- Newton, MA, USA

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