An interview with Melinda Lopez on the State of Female Characters in Drama

In the recent aftermath of an election which flooded light on gender equality like never before, questions of fairness dominate our discourse. Whether the discussion lands on wages, medical autonomy, questions of intersectionality, or media representation, there is a resounding sense of frustration in how women are perceived. For many, there is no better example of this inequity than how women are represented in stories (the lack of fully-developed women in film and television and on stage have been studied extensively).

Female character development has historically leaned on tired tropes and stereotypes to keep ladies in the mix, and these troubling trends stubbornly seep into many characters today. It seems the battle is two-fold: get more women and non-binary characters on screens, stages, and pages, and then make sure they’re, you know, real.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Melinda Lopez, local playwright, actor, and educator who currently holds the title of playwright-in-residence at the Huntington Theatre. I met with Melinda at the Boston Playwrights Theatre, as the sets for her play Back the Night were being pulled down after a successful run. This gutsy play, centered around themes of campus violence, was praised not only for its message but also for its intricately crafted and wholly human female characters and relationships. It seemed fitting to sit down with her after closing this complex play surrounding a controversial topic, the perfect jumping off point for a conversation that is anything but straightforward.

Theatre is not a medium that responds to having rules. It is by nature chaotic and anarchic and profoundly pagan.

Allison Raynor: Lately our community, both our theatre community and the country at large, has been talking about female characters more and more. There’s been a push for fresher and more progressive roles for women in pretty much every artistic arena. What do you think is changing for female character development, and out of what problems do you think that change grew?

Melinda Lopez: I don’t think there’s ever been an issue of women writing great roles for women. I think what’s happening now is that audiences are demanding more, and theatres have been really slow to catch up. Producers and artistic directors are finally figuring out that they truly cannot have a season of all male playwrights anymore. You’re creating a huge public relations nightmare for yourself if you do that. So the theatres are catching up, and they’re starting to ask, “Where are all the plays by women?” I hear this question all the time, “Where are all the comedies by women?” and it’s like, start reading the canon! They’re there, and you’ll find them.

Allison: Do you feel drawn to writing certain types of female characters?

Melinda: I’ve always been interested in writing unruly women. I just didn’t realize it was a thing until someone told me “oh, you write unruly women.” I do approach my work like how is this woman going to get into trouble? I have written plays that had men at the center of them—though it doesn’t tend to be where I go first, because I don’t think that way.

Allison: “Unruly women” really brings my mind to the idea of the “strong female character,” which takes a lot of forms: the strong independent woman, the woman who doesn’t need a man, etc. When you think of a strong female character, is that an inherently positive thing?

Melinda: Well women are always strong. That’s just true, right? Stay at home moms—I couldn’t do what they do. The question is how do we represent the world onstage, and if the way we represent the world onstage is that women are waiting, asking, or subservient, talking about boys, talking about men, if that’s how we’re being represented onstage, that’s a bias.

Allison: But sometimes, in an attempt to avoid those tropes, there seems to be a tendency for progressive writers to steer clear of more traditionally feminine characters—but as you said, we want the whole world onstage! How do you navigate those waters?

Melinda: You really have to look inward and say, “Okay, am I okay with writing ‘the girlfriend’?” because not every character is the protagonist. The other thing is, in this climate, someone’s always going to be unhappy, so you’re kind of screwed no matter what you do. Theatre is not a medium that responds to having rules. It is by nature chaotic and anarchic and profoundly pagan. We’re living in a time with regional theatre and Broadway, and it’s become a commodity that’s increasingly policed. And just because sometimes my side is right doesn’t make me comfortable with the policing. I think that will make a lot of people mad. But that’s what I think. I don’t like rules.

Allison: What tends to make people mad is the idea that progress hurts creativity, but I don’t think that’s what you’re saying here. It sounds more like an investigation beyond the obvious, because of course not all women are subservient, and of course we need to break away from these tired tropes…but still, the tropes exist in our society, and we’ll never move past them if we don’t get them onstage and interrogate them.

Melinda: I’m also always the devil’s advocate, and I don’t in any way mean to suggest that all the strides that we’ve made in terms of diversity of actors and characters is a negative thing. But we have to do better. I always want to poke holes in the other guy’s argument—even if it’s my guy’s argument. That’s the nature of theatre—isn’t it?—to generate conflict.

Allison: Do you feel as though the effort to create strong females to combat our historically weak and submissive portrayal cuts anything out of our humanity? What does strength in a character mean to you?

Melinda: Let me tease that apart. If you have a “strong” female character, the first thing I’d think of is that she destroys her family, she ruins her community, accidentally kills her dog—because what are the consequences to being strong? What are the consequences to not needing support? That conversation is interesting to me. There are many ways to be strong—but is that person carrying the play and is that play worthy of her? Does she make hard choices? Those are the questions I would ask. And if she’s strong, that also suggests to me that by the end of the play she’s weak.

Allison: That fallibility is so integral to making real, whole female characters, but it inspires fear in some hearts because if we mess up, we’re just adding to the pile of oppressive female characters. How can we get all that humanity onstage without collateral damage?

Melinda: The best thing that we can all do is make sure that playwrights and producers are surrounded by women and people of color with an activist mentality, or at least an eye to the contrary to say, “Hey, this is a great play, but why does the woman get beaten up at the end? Maybe we can think about a different play, where the woman doesn’t spend half of it in her underwear. Crying. Or waiting for her boyfriend to take her back.” I mean, Linda Loman from Death of a Salesman is a fabulous character. It’s not her play, and that’s fine, but you don’t want to do a whole season of Linda Loman. It’s just not life.

Allison: So it’s not strictly what we write, but with whom we surround our self and our process.

Melinda: Right. Who’s in the room. Who are you listening to. And it goes for all of us—it’s not just artistic directors and producers. Who are you talking to about your plays, who are you inviting to the reading, who are you asking to read your drafts, who are you getting feedback from. Probably the best decision every writer can make is to cultivate a loyal group of friends who are much smarter than you, whose feedback you trust, and who will tell you, “This is bullshit.”

Allison: Sort of a pre-audience, to help keep your decisions and voices in check. Do you ever feel pressure from that inevitable public reception?

Melinda: Working on Back the Night, I felt like I was in some part taking on feminism, as in, “Is it okay to talk about the fractures within the monolith of feminism?” We all think we’re going to have the same opinions, and we don’t. To pretend that we do is a lie. You know, the Greeks went to the theatre to see their heroes fall. And they went to have their playwrights hold the mirror up and say, “Look at what you’re doing.” And a theatre is not full of Donald Trump supporters. You don’t have to say to a theatre audience something like, “Donald Trump is bad.” That’s not interesting. What’s interesting is how did we get into this situation, what did we do? And sometimes that upsets people. You have to be the kind of writer who’s okay with that.

two actresses on stage
Amanda Collins (top) as Cassie and Melissa Jesser (bottom) as Em in Back the Night. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky/Boston Playwright’s Theatre.

Allison: Did you encounter anything specific during Back the Night?

Melinda: Totally. I got feedback like, “Why are the men all good?” Did you expect the men to be bad? One, that’s not true, the men do have flaws in the play, and two, it’s your protagonist who’s supposed to have flaws.

Allison: You can’t have Oedipus without the Hamartia.

Melinda: Right? I mean, he slept with his mother—and that’s awesome, isn’t it? I aspire to that kind of chaos. I had always thought the best journey is going from “no” to “yes.” I love that journey—it’s epic, but it’s also so contained.

Allison: Do you ever feel a contradiction between your personal politics and your storytelling?

Melinda: For a lot of people their politics are their bedrock, and it makes them better writers. For me it doesn’t quite line up that easily. I mean, you have to be engaged and activist, or you’re not human. There are some tremendous challenges in our world right now, but I write one story at a time. It’s a very different process for me, going into the heart and soul of deeply flawed people and trying to tell a small truth onstage. Politics does not always serve that process, for me.

Allison: Let’s end with something a little more hopeful! After all our picking apart of what’s going wrong, what do you want to see from female characters?

Melinda: So I went to see The Albatross, which is a theatrical retelling of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It’s a one-man show, and this actor got to do everything—he got to run around, he did accents, he told jokes, he took a shower onstage. It was this epic adventure story. I remember watching him and being seized with jealousy; both for the performer who got to do all this fun stuff, but also, where are our adventure stories?

Allison: And the characters themselves? What do you want for them?

Melinda: I want them to wear pants. I want them to keep their clothes on. Unless they really have to take their clothes off, and then I’m okay with it. I want them to change. I want them to suffer. I want them to bleed. I want operatic arias of rage. I want them to kill their children. I want them to go far. That’s what I want. It’s easy, right?

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