Teenage Girls on Stage
Young Women Who Do Things
Oh to experience the world of a teenage girl in ninety minutes (disclosure: I wish my teenage years had only lasted ninety minutes). When I sat in the Duke on 42nd in New York City, next to the green, green Astroturf and girls in shorts dribbling soccer balls, I found myself back at sixteen—no more acne or braces, but with a distinct sense of longing for a time that felt both limitless and impossibly constricting. Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves has—naturally—excited audiences from Vassar to Playwrights Realm to, now, Lincoln Center. And it deserves it: The Wolves is a beautiful, funny, weird, lovely play and I cried when I first read it, I cried when I saw it Off-Broadway, and I’ll cry when I see it at Lincoln Center.
But something else about The Wolves struck me as I first read it: it was about girls. Girls! Ever since I’d cracked open a teenage monologue book when I was auditioning for the school play, I’ve found it impossible to find plays about girls. Sure, you have your myriad Little Women adaptations and I guess Annie is a tween, but where are the plays about teenage girls?
So I took to Facebook. I posed the question to my friends, asking them to shout out as many plays about teenage girls by women as they could think of. The Wolves was joined by Dry Land, last season’s favorite about two friends on a swim team, featuring a medically induced abortion.
But otherwise? A lot of head-scratching. (Granted, these are produced plays I’m counting. Unproduced plays—and unrepresented plays—took up a wide swath of the list at the end of this essay.)
My Kilroys List Jr. was very short—just thirty-one plays total. And, rest assured, I surround myself with people who enjoy sitting at home with plays as a way of life. If anyone could compile this list, it was the 1,069 dramaturgy nerds I call my Facebook friends.
…teenage girls are some of the most ardent theatregoers around. So why don’t we have more stories about them? And why, oh why, are more theatres not choosing to put teenage women at the center of their stories?
Now, as an agent and dramaturg, I see this question as a matter of great importance to our theatrical ecosystem. If we take our New Play Map (thanks, HowlRound!), how much of it will contain plays by women about young women? The Lilly Awards’ the Count tells us that 22 percent of the plays on stage would be written by women. And the Kilroys would tell you that, despite a huge amount of female writers graduating from prestigious grad schools and snagging agents, they still can release an extensive list of unproduced plays. And, in looking at catalogues for this season on Off-Broadway and on Broadway, I could only scrounge up two (brilliant, thrilling) plays by women about young women: The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh and… The Wolves. (Honorable mention to Michael Crowley’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias, which is, perhaps, one of the most sympathetic portrayals of a young woman by a man that I’ve ever read.)
What gives? According to the Broadway League’s 2015 study, over 1.45 million teenagers saw a Broadway show in the 2014–15 season, and 67 percent of theatregoers were female. (Their average age? Forty-four, just old enough to be raising a teen.) That’s not counting Off-Broadway, LORT theatres, college conservatories, high schools, your friend’s backyard, community theatre…. If my memory serves me and my intern applications keep coming up overwhelmingly female, I would argue that teenage girls are some of the most ardent theatregoers around. So why don’t we have more stories about them? And why, oh why, are more theatres not choosing to put teenage women at the center of their stories following the success of The Wolves?
It’s not that teenage girls haven’t been on stage, per se. After all, many male coming-of-age stories feature a young woman prominently (think Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth or Anna Jordan’s Yen), as do Shakespearean classics like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. But rarely do we see women at the center of their own stories rather than as objects of desire—or victims of violence (one could write a whole series on bodily harm done to young girls on stage and our culture’s fascination with sexual violence).
But to focus on the inner lives of teenage girls—to portray them as subject rather than object—is something that seems to have evaded us. While the Judy Blumes of the novelistic world were born, something stayed dormant in the theatre community. “Agency is something I want to see more of in plays about women,” Playwrights Horizons literary manager Sarah Lunnie told me over drinks as we pondered my list. I wanted it too: women who do things, not have things done to them. Did this seem too much to ask?
Rarely do we see women at the center of their own stories rather than as objects of desire—or victims of violence.
Maybe it’s the idea that only certain people can inhabit the world of drama. After all, before Willy Loman, we weren’t much interested in the everyman—let alone the everywoman. Theatre has often been reserved for the rich and proud and high in stature: if the 2016 election shows us anything, it’s that these seats aren’t open to even the most privileged of women. Indeed, when looking at the plays that do pass the teenage-girls test, it’s worth noting that most take place in the suburban, primary white, and decidedly upper-middle-class sphere. Is this surprising considering the high price tag of most MFA programs and the demographic makeup of most audiences? Well, no. But it is worth saying that male characters have their Sam Hunters and David Lindsay-Abaires, writers who focus on lower-income male characters. Female teens seem to have… no one. Aside from Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar, the majority of the list I compiled portrayed women in positions of relative financial security. And, as in the rest of stories represented on stage, the list was overwhelmingly white—Milk Like Sugar, BFE by Julia Cho, and Our Lady of Kibeho by Katori Hall were the only plays by women of color. None of the plays on the list were written by trans women.
To be a teenage girl is to be blisteringly vulnerable—to talk about periods, first kisses, crushes, sexual awakenings, fantasies, dying your hair in the sink, going shopping at Forever 21, crashing your mom’s car. Teenage girls are difficult and intense and awkward and unapologetically female. And perhaps, I wonder, that’s why we won’t put these stories onstage. After all, male theatre critics are slow to take to plays that play girlish. “I didn’t care for the show the first time I saw it. Female empowerment is fine for daytime television, but it’s flesh-crawling in a musical,” wrote Michael Riedel of teen-centric The Color Purple’s revival in 2015.
And the darkest thought remains: there’s much cause to think that our society may just have a seething hatred of teenage girls—point-blank. There are the capital “M” Misogynistic things: the Steubenville rape case; cuts in funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which works with organizations across the United States to implement evidence-based, proven programming; the erasure of Title IX protections by the Trump administration; a lack of sex education with a focus on issues of consent and female pleasure. There are the slyer, more creakingly sexist things: internalized misogyny; the way we dismiss young women’s emotions as irrational or dishonest or dangerous; how we tell girls to hide their tampons in their bags, their opinions in their throats, and their anger in their stomachs.
But, in my more optimistic moments, I think we do not have these plays because we are only just beginning. I think the most optimistic way to look is forward—and I think we must do so to create change. We will know trans girls and undocumented girls and girls who are not skinny and girls who are not “nice” and girls who like girls and girls who don’t particularly like anyone and girls who are unlikable and gross and mean and horrible.
On good days, I am excited for this future season of bustling teenage brilliance to come. On bad days, I wonder if we are too late for someone—if we’ve left too many young girls out in the cold and exiled them out of the theatre. I don’t want to think of that scenario, but think about it we must if we’re going to take full responsibility for our power as gatekeepers.
For me, perhaps the most exciting part of The Wolves was when the lights came up on a jumble of female bodies—different shapes, queer bodies, Brown bodies, athletic bodies, bodies that looked like my friends’ bodies, and bodies that looked like my body. It was exhilarating to see myself at sixteen on stage. I hope to have this experience again soon—one I wish I had known when I was a teenage girl.
- The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe
- Milk Like Sugar by Kirsten Greenidge
- Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel
- I’ll Never Love Again by Clare Barron
- Chimichangas and Zoloft by Fernanda Coppel
- Our Lady of Kibeho by Katori Hall
- How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them by Halley Feiffer
- All the Roads Home by Jen Silverman
- Dance Nation by Clare Barron
- BFE by Julia Cho
- tender of you too by Anya Richkind
- The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman
- Horse Girls by Jenny Rachel Weiner
- Little One by Hannah Moscovitch
- Scratch by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman
- I Am For You by Mieko Ouchi
- Scorch by Stacey Gregg
- Joan by Lucy Skilbeck
- SHE by Renée Darline Roden
- How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
- Jailbait by Deirdre O’Connor
- School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh
- Geek! by Crystal Skillman
- Chill by Eleanor Burgess
- Honors Students by Mariah MacCarthy
- I Know What Boys Want by Penny Jackson
- Fat Kids on Fire by Bekah Brunstetter
- The Tall Girls by Meg Miroshnik
- Giant Slalom by Jess Honovich
- That Poor Girl and How He Killed Her by Jen Silverman
- The Burials by Caitlin Parrish
*Note: This is a crowdsourced list and certainly not comprehensive.