In Defense of Supporting Work by Women

Thoughts from a Loud Mouthed Feminist Theater Girl

I am the founder and producing artistic director of Live Girls! Theater, a company that produces and develops new work by women in Seattle. Since most of my adult life has centered around building this company, I often find myself in the middle of debates about the state of women in the theater. And what action should or shouldn’t be taken in response.

A Few Assumptions to Begin With
First, I am writing this with the assumption that new plays matter. That could be the source of a good long argument between theater makers but lets say we are on the same page with that idea. Now for another assumption: to have a robust, exciting and relevant body of new work in the theater, we should have a wide variety of world-views shaping those stories.

The Issue
Here, in the early part of the 21st century, several decades past the declarations of a “post-feminist” era, work by women makes up a very small portion of the new plays being produced in this country. That means that the perspective of more than half our population is left out of theater. In my opinion that makes our theater much less robust and exciting, and certainly less relevant.

In the last few years there has been a fresh wave of attention paid to the lack of plays produced by women. In thirteen years of producing new work by women (and having to often vigorously defend my choice to do so) I have done a lot of digging on this topic. I have never been able to find any statistics that show more than 19% of new work being written by women. And it’s usually more in the 12% range. Take a peek over here and here for some great discussions about statistics on women in theater and a 2009 study digging into gender bias in theater.

Statistics are not the main thing I want to share here. I have heard the claims that producing work by women is not economically viable (primarily anecdotal and not backed up with real evidence) but the real questions posed directly to me are often the most surprising. In the interest of putting them out to the wider public to promote discussion, I present:

PROBLEMATIC THINGS PEOPLE ASK ME ALL THE TIME

Why don’t you just do good plays?
Who doesn’t want to do good work?  Everyone is trying to do good work. But posing the question insinuates that I won’t be able to find enough good work by women to, you know, do all good work.  That by choosing to do all work by women I will probably have to do some bad plays.

So (insert name of any company that does theater relating to women in any way) exists, why do you need to?
As the statistics show, we have a long way to go, so the more help the better. We have a targeted mission to hit the problem of gender inequality from a specific angle. The less obvious problem with this question is that it is an example of how easily people lump us into a generalized “lady theater” category while paying little attention to what we actually do.

I thought you did plays by women, why did you do that play about that guy?
This one fascinates me. A writer friend once said to me, “The issue is not just a lack of women on stage, it's a lack of women creating the stage, or a lack of respect for the female lens of life…”. I am specifically working to produce plays by women, not just about women.  Part of doing that means challenging the assumptions about what women can and should write about.

Why are you biased against male writers?
It is possible to support one thing without being against something else. Really. It is. Please consider that making room for the ladies does not have to be a threat.

So, what if I wrote a play and I said I was a woman and you didn’t know I was a man and you really liked it, would you produce it?
Seriously?  (Insert eye roll here) I have been asked this question very seriously.  Very often. I don’t feel compelled to actually debate it anymore I hear it so often.

Here, in the early part of the 21st century, several decades past the declarations of a “post-feminist” era, work by women makes up a very small portion of the new plays being produced in this country. That means that the perspective of more than half our population is left out of theater. In my opinion that makes our theater much less robust and exciting, and certainly less relevant.

A Quick Question for You
Quick! Name three female playwrights you like:
*
*
*

How did you do?  Did it take you long? If not you are the exception to the rule (and I am sure many readers of this blog are). If it did, don’t feel bad. Most theater makers I ask can’t do it.

Here is my quick answer: Maria Irene Fornes, Victoria Stewart, S.P. Miskowski. I would also love to add Sarah Ruhl, Keri Healey, Suzan Lori-Parks, Joann Farias, Aditi Kapil, Young Jean Lee, Lillian Hellman, Elizabeth Heffron, Deborah Stein, Lauren Yee, Caryl Churchill, Stephanie Timm, Sheila Callaghan, Biljana Srbjanovich, Darian Lindle, Sarah Hammond, Krista Knight, Crystal Skillman, Allison Gregory, Kimber Lee, Juliet Waller-Pruzan, Joy McCullough-Carranza, Molly Smith-Metzler, Susan Stanton, Trista Baldwin, Julia Jordan, and Naomi Izuka.

Ok, now I am just showing off. Of course I can answer this and list a hundred more. Obviously I spend a ton of time thinking about it. But that ability to identify female writers that you think are worthwhile is a great starting point. Not sure where to start? I would be happy to recommend specific writers—people ask me all the time. If you teach or run a theater program, make sure your students perform plays and scenes from female playwrights. Start paying attention to who is actually putting plays by women onstage and support those theaters and organizations.

I realize that these may seem like simplistic recommendations. We could deal with the issues of raising families and the career gap that still happens for so many women. (I have started providing occasional babysitting time for new moms to get some writing time in.  Network of family support anyone?  We could do it!). But the reality is, I hear the questions above way more than I hear great recommendations of female playwrights and their work. And those questions are really getting old. So today I could just use a simple restart to the conversation. Here we go—who do you love?

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I have never howled before, but my name was mentioned and you got my attention. I'm really middle class that way. I am honored to be somewhere on this list but more than that, I am thrilled to see so many names here, and so many people whose work I care about. I believe that these plays begin to answer questions the culture is asking, and that's why we are aware of so many of them. "Female" playwrighting then is becoming important not because it's written by an entire gender not heard from before, but because the culture needs our perspective. Audiences are craving it. A play like MILK LIKE SUGAR leaves people stunned speechless and stumbling from the theatre, changed. That's the kind of theatre I want to go to, and to write. I am so happy to be mentioned among this amazing group of writers.

I was lucky enough to get name-checked in this article - Thanks, Meghan! - but I can't say how important theaters like Live Girls are. I've had two plays that everyone read, loved, and passed on. (800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick and Hardball.) Hardball won the Francesca Primus and was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn. Still couldn't get a production to save my life. Live Girls premiered BOTH of these plays - I will always be eternally grateful. So keep the faith, you plucky women's theater companies. We need you.

My company Workhaus Collective just happens to have more women than men - Trista Baldwin, Deborah Stein, Carson Kreitzer, Jeannine Coulombe, Christina Ham and myself - and I'm delighted when by chance, with no planning, we happen to have an all female season.

My list of favorite women is too long and many of them have been listed. But here's an awesome list of plays with tons of roles for women - some are by men but I think it's an awesome list for people looking to give women actors more roles.

http://pwritescom.wordpress...

Meghan this is a terrific and timely article. Your enthusiastic support has long been a call to arms for Seattle women playwrights. Brava on you!I'm not going to add more faves to the looong list of kickass female playmakers because it's kind of depressing how many there are...and how few are being heard with any regularity. As the amazing Amy Wheeler (Hedgebrook Exec Director and playwright fantastique) says, 'Occupy theatre! Get us out of your lobby and onto the stage!'. Or something like that.

Christine--

I highly recommend WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE by Deborah Breevort as a terrific play for colleges wanting to produce plays with a number of great roles for women. Challenging (a contemporary play written with the structure of Greek tragedies), an opportunity for deep research into recent history, and very moving. Deb also makes herself available for residencies and she's a treasure.

I've been thinking more about this , and there are women playwrights who are not primarily known as playwrights , either because they left the theatre or found another home within it. So here's that small list . Julie Hebert, Aya Ogawa, Susan Bernfield,Tanya Palmer, Juliana Francis Kelly and Thalia Field. Her Hey-Stop-That is crying out for a production. Also, since someone brought up Aphra Benn, there's also Margaret Cavendish, Susanna Centrelivre and a playwright very few people know about, who wrote her chamber play/closet drama Mariam, Fair Queen of Jewry in 1603 -- Elizabeth Cary.

Dear Meghan,

I've been keeping tabs on Live Girls from the University of San Francisco where I teach a course called "Women in Theater" featuring many of the wonderful playwrights on your list and those mentioned in the comments above. I think universities - theoretically the training grounds for the next generation of theater-makers - are great places to develop this conversation further. One of the aphorisms I really believe in is "You are what you eat." If theater students read and perform plays by and about women, they will want to keep reading and performing them as professionals. In our program, 85% of our students are women. When I choose plays for our season, my ideal is a piece with 7-9 roles for women and 1-3 roles for men - not so easy to find! It would be good to develop some partnerships between professional companies focusing on work by and about women and universities eager to create more opportunities for women on and behind educational stages.

I am joining this conversation a bit late after hearing about it at the TBA conference on Monday. May I second David Dower's plea for everyone to produce "Trouble in Mind" by Alice Childress right now! My thanks to the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley for doing so recently and giving me the chance to see this engrossing and important play. And while I am thanking local theatres--I am looking forward to seeing Dael Orlandersmith's new play at the Berkeley Rep next weekend; her earlier play "Yellowman" (a Pulitzer Prize nominee) is one of the most moving and lyrical plays I have ever seen. [Is Orlandersmith on this list yet?]

An additional note about Aphra Behn: she was the first woman to earn her living as a writer. In "A Room of One's Own" (still a relevant essay) Virginia Woolf says that all women writers should lay flowers on her grave.

To this long and rich list of exciting female playwrights, I think I can add a few more not already mentioned:Carolyn GageEmily Mann (It's time to revive her Vietnam era play "Still Life" about the toll of military service.)Megan TerryJoan Holden

Like everybody else posting here, I keep thinking of more ... but I've got to tear myself away from the internet and write.

(And big thanks to Susannah Martin, a terrific San Francisco director, for adding my name to this list..)

At the TBA conference yesterday, Valerie Weak mentioned this post and the "name 3" challenge. (Mine were Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl and Gina Gionfriddo, for the record.) I realized I could come up with 3 female writers that excite me more quickly than I would have named 3 males. Women's writing is a lot more likely to achieve an honest, deeper emotional response in me, as a playgoer, reader, producer, director etc - and isn't that what theatre is supposed to do? As for theatres/ADs/play selectors who are basing choices on the gender of the playwright, well - that's just dumb.

Barry MartinLucky Penny Productions, Napa CA

Thanks for all the additions of great female playwrights. Some I know and a good chunk to add to my list of folks to check out. Love it!

I'm a classical theater geek, so I have to mention Aphra Behn. Seventeenth Century, when it was _really_ out of the question.

I thought of more than three and had to narrow it down, then read the women-of-color challenge in the thread (Lynn Nottage, Lydia Diamond, Nandita Shenoy). And now I too am feeling guilty and incomplete about my list!

I don't run a theater, but the corollary questions to female playwrights start with: Why don't you just use a male pen name? Why don't you write childrens theater? (I do, actually, which makes this all the more infuriating to answer, if you know what I mean, and I bet you do.) and my very least favorite piece of advice/observation: You don't want your work done by a woman's theater, because then people (that would be males) won't think it's good. That last one is actually well-meant, which is just painful

OMG, I forgot some of my fav playwrights: Betty Shamieh, Liz Duffy Adams, Catherine Trieschmann.And I'll stop here although I'm sure another name will pop into my mind.The good thing about such lists is that it reminds people how many (and how many more) wonderful women playwrights are out there.The bad thing is that some great playwrights might not be mentioned.

Let's not forget the brilliant women playwrights: Amy Herzog, Lynn Rosen, Caridad Svich, Chiori Miyagawa, Neena Beeber, Jenny Lyn Bader, Kelly Stuart, Chisa Hutchinson, Andrea Thome, Migdalia Cruz, Tanya Saracho, Stefanie Zadravec, Joy Tomasko

Thank you for writing this and for all of the work that you do. Lately, I've been stewing over the state of women theatre artists in America. It really feels like it's gotten worse in the last 10 years with less women writers produced, less women in artistic leaderships positions, less women directors hired - or certainly where I'm living. But stewing isn't doing me any good. Silence is dangerous. Angry silence is deadly.

A few writers not mentioned already: E. Hunter Spreen, Carol S. Lashof, Laura Jacqmin, and the writer who taught me to embrace the feminist artist within: Sarah Daniels.

p.s.: Erin Merritt: thanks for taking a risk and hiring me as a director all those years ago!

Thank you for this article as well as starting of these lists. Everyone has added all the playwrights I was going to add except for Madeleine George, Pat Milton and Judy Juanita (okay and Susan Sokoloff and Andrea Kuchlewska and the sublime Tania Katan) so I'll just say we all need to challenge the bull about women writers much more loudly and constantly. Women are more than 50% of the population, so they should be at least 50% of the modern playwrights we produce. Plays written by women are not "women's plays" necessarily—to me, Wendy Wasserstein's are "women's plays" but most of these other writers are writing on topics that would engage and interest anyone. Most of these women's plays are not even obviously by women. Pat Milton's group just did a blind script reading, and 7 of the 8 plays they chose turned out to have been written by women. There are tons and tons of great plays out there by women. There are tons and tons of great women directing as well, producing, designing, etc. Producers need to look for inherent talent, because many of these women fall into an insidious Catch-22—they aren't hired (or produced) because they don't have name recognition or long resumes, because they aren't hired (or produced). I ran a woman-focused company for 11 years, during which time we hired women for every job we could, even if it meant digging under rocks to find them. Guess what? Those women now have name recognition and decent resumes and are getting more work. Honestly it's that easy. Same thing goes for writers/performers/designers/directors of color. My favorite 3 writers of color? Two of them are already listed here: Suzan-Lori Parks and Naomi Iizuka. I also love Octavio Solis, Chay Yew, Roy Conboy, and many more. Women writers of color you might not know yet include Cat Callejas and the aforementioned Marisela Treviño Orta. Get out there and see new people folks—make yourselves prospectors of the new, and you will find these gems with no effort. They are gleaming right there waiting to be discovered, and you will look like a genius when you show them off to others.

I loved this article. Having been cast in "No More Than Reason" by Louise Penberthy, and having an amazing time doing it, I don't see why men dominate the theater scene so. Sure, there may be a "greater numbers writing" argument but, that isn't a good enough argument for me. As for the question Meghan got along the lines of, "if I pretended to be a woman playwright, would you produce my play?" Maybe he should ask that to all the people who praised work by women, thinking they were men, in the past. Why did *those* women choose to hide their gender to get their work out there?

"Why do you have to focus on producing plays by women?"

Queue Josh Whedon's answer to a slightly different question.

"Because you keep asking me that question."

Good article. With increasing globalization, it is even more critical that theater reflects the multiplicity and diversity of experiences of our world, from both a gender and a cultural standpoint.

I'd like to add three of my favorites to the list: Pearl Cleage, Lydia Diamond and Lynn Nottage.

Here here!

A few Bostonians not already mentioned (I think):
Melinda Lopez, Jacqui Parker, Martha Jane Kaufman, Masha Obolensky Rebekah Maggor, Miranda Craigwell, Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro, Kate Snodgrass, Joyce Van Dyke, And many many others I'm still just learning about.... (AND Lydia and Kirsten mentioned above)

Thank you so much for writing this. I am a single mom and a student at Antioch University. Over the past year, I wrote and performed a one-woman show as part of my senior synthesis project.

It has been both grueling and fulfilling. Two things of the things that kept me going were encouragement from Lauren Weedman who I had the pleasure of talking to after one of her shows and a sweet note I got from Elizabeth Heffron saying, "Please keep writing. The world needs to hear from women who are juggling as much as you are."

I'm all for celebrating what we want to see more of. I want to see more successful women artists. Thanks for being a voice for that and for making a space for that to happen.

Meghan,

I founded and am the producing artistic director of the Airmid Theatre in NY. I started the company in 2000 for similar reasons; it's been my life's work and am still struggling to make a permanent home for my company and the artists that work with us. And I say and hear the exact same things you do, even rolling my eyes in the same places I bet, except I ask people to try to name 5 playwrights not 3!

Airmid recovers, collects and produces classics by women. Like you I believe that we are short on women's voices and want to help change that. My approach is a bit different though. My hope is that we can show the history of "good plays" by women dating back to the 10th century to help expand the work of contemporary women artists. We commission translations done by female playwrights whose work we also want to see flourish. I hope to bridge the vast gaps that exist for women in the arts through our work.

I applaud you and your tenacity and wish you all the success and funding you can find! Maybe one day we will be lucky enough to collaborate on something!!!!!

best Tricia McDermottAirmid Theatre Companyairmidtheatre.org

Loved the article, Meghan. Thank you. And all the comments listing wonderful women playwrights. I'd like to add Anne Devlin, Naomi Wallace, Sarah Kane and Tina Howe, as well as many playwright friends whose work I admire: Colleen Cosgrove, Deborah Smith, Fengar Gael, and Suzanne Kistler. And then there's me, too...

Okay, so now I feel like I have to credit writers whose work has lit me up whether I have had the chance to work with them or not. That list includes:
Caryl Churchill
Kathleen Tolan
Beth Henley
Marsha Norman
Paula Vogel
Marlane Meyer
Lucinda Cox
Ellen MacLaughlin (who I left off the other list! Shit! See! Sorry Ellen!)
Cherylene Lee, ditto! Sorry Cherylene!
Anne Marie MacDonald
Naomi Wallace
Naomi Iizuka
Darrah Cloud (somebody please take a look at Stick Wife!)
Alice Childress (everybody produce Trouble In Mind right now, please!)
Sarah Ruhl
Clare Chaffe
Linda Griffiths (Age of Arousal is hiding in the shadow of Vibrator Play- read it!)
Okay, so I am stopping. It is hopeless that I will get everyone in.
If you think You should have been here you are right. Add yourself!

Women writers have entirely surrounded, shaped, and sustained my journey in theater. Thank you for the impetus to dwell in this world a while this morning...

Edward Albee always resists making lists like this in public because he inevitably leaves someone important out. But it's a good list you have building and I will just trust that someone has my back if I do space on someone.

Just naming women writers whose work I have admired would take the whole morning. So I'll just focus on women playwrights I have been honored to know and work with in my professional life so far. That list would include:

Amy Freed
Anne Galjour
Sara Felder
Eugenie Chan
Michelle Carter
Carey Perloff
Leigh Fondakowski
Lauren Yee
Wendy MacLeod
Nina Wise
Regina Taylor
Karen Zacarias
Heather MacDonald
Tanya Barfield
Lisa Kron
Katori Hall
Mia Chung
Anna Deveare Smith
Mary Zimmerman
Lynn Nottage
Anna Ziegler
Lydia Diamond
Dorothy Fortenberry
Aditi Kapil
Rhada Blank
Kirsten Greenidge

And women leading ensembles like Anne Bogart, Lana-Shawn-Madge-Sarah of the Rude Mechs, Rachel Chavkin, Rebecca Noon, Stacy Klein, Mildred Ruiz.

And the #newplay women writers on Twitter who are actively shaping the conversation going forward, like Laura Axelrod, Callie Kimball, Marisela Trevino Orta, Monica Byrne, are all hiding in plain sight.

But this is just my list. Who did I leave out? Please fill in the blanks.

Who is on YOUR list?

Oh, and d'oh, how could I have left off the hey-world-you're-never-gonna-be-completely-ready-for-me, insanely original voice that is Seattle playwright Kellen Conway Blanchard?! She rocks the world. Officially.

A few others I love...Kira Obolensky, Lauren Weedman, and Lauren Gunderson.

Meghan, thank you for the terrific work that you and Live Girls! do here in Seattle. Obviously, your mission is one without a sunset (at least until we get to 75% of plays produced in America in any given year being written by women, OK, maybe then).

Thank you so much for this article. I know I'm male , but I'm committed to more female playwrights being heard as well. Let me throw out a few for the list: Aishah Rahman, Alice Tuan, Ruth Margraff, Carson Kreitzer, Julie Marie Myatt and Janet Allard.

I LOVED that you recognized how old these questions are getting and took a more active approach to tackling these issues with a suggestion to simply read and be aware of more plays by female playwrights, and if it's in our power, to make sure more of them are performed! It inspired me to change up my syllabus next semester to include more female playwrights. I too love Naomi Iizuka and Fornes. Some of my fave female playwrights not on your list: Ntozake Shange, Velina Hasu Houston, Paula Cizmar, and Cherrie Moraga.

Female playwrights not mentioned here whose work I love: Kristen Kosmas, Heidi Schreck, Anne Washburn.

And this is a fantastic piece, Meghan. I'm so glad you're here doing what you do.

Wow, my three weren't even on your long list: Lisa Loomer, Paula Vogal and Marina Carr. And as a female director, who has her own production company, lets also talk about the serious lack of women in artistic leadership positions. We've actually gone backwards in this regard over the last 10 years.

As a long time affiliated artist and board member at New Georges, I recognize so much in this post. And heaven forbid you want to be accepted and engaged on the quality of your work, your artistic sensibilities etc, rather than the gender ghetto so many people want to consign you to. It's really hard to have this conversation in a nuanced way. I would add to the list of women playwrights I love: Susan Bernfield, Emily DeVoti, Connie Congdon, Paula Vogel, Honor Molloy, Kia and Kara Lee Corthron, Karen Hartman...too many to name - I'm sure I'm forgetting others I also love.

Excellent article! It's crazy what assumptions people make.

There's a related question, too:

Quick! Name three playwrights of color you like:***

Thanks for the article, and for the work you do! I'll add Annie Baker to the list -- I just saw her play "Body Awareness" at the Wilma in Philadelphia a few months ago, and it was so funny and true. And how about Bekah Brunstetter? Her play "Be a Good Little Widow," produced last year at Ars Nova in NYC, was fantastic.

~Ellen

A very good piece. I and my friend founded a theatre company, Company of Strangers; our biggest current issue is lack of funds, but once that's settled there are numerous plays by woman (including Sheela Kangal, a recent Iowa MFA grad) we plan to produce.

I'm shooting for gender parity in who directs episodes of my webseries--worked with one great female director so far, and am looking forward to hiring another one.

Other awesome female playwrights: Moira Buffini, Jennifer Fawcett, Jen Silverman.

Thank you for writing this fantastic piece, and for using humor to explain why these are problematic questions. Additional women playwrights I love--Timberlake Wertenbaker and Wendy Wasserstein.