Kilroys in the Classroom
Activism, Databases, and the Life of the Artist
In a recent course on Contemporary Women Playwrights at Ramapo College, a small liberal arts school in New Jersey, I asked each of my undergraduates to track down and interview one of the authors on the 2015 Kilroys list. Since 2013, Kilroys has published an annual list of plays by female and trans* playwrights, offering “a tool for producers committed to ending the systematic underrepresentation” of those authors in the American theatre. Optimistic estimates are that only 24 percent of plays produced in the country are written by women, an inequity that Kilroys works to remedy. I imagined the assignment, and the course in general, as a pedagogical extension of this necessary aspiration. The resultant interviews shed light on the work and position of some of today’s most talented female playwrights. They also demonstrate the potential that websites and databases such as The Kilroys have in the classroom, especially in terms of social engagement, critical thinking, and the development of practical skills.
As a course, Contemporary Women Playwrights considered the history of women in the theatre over the last century. We read plays spanning from Angelina Weld Grimke’s Rachel (1916) to Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed (2009), just recently on Broadway. Within this context, the interview assignment offered students a glimpse of the actual work and life of female playwrights through a journalistic lens. This is critical, as those of us who teach theatre in the classroom often struggle to ensure that the realities of theatrical production are not overshadowed by academic analysis of dramatic texts. The assignment also necessitated students to prepare for their meetings by researching their subjects, writing appropriate questions, and developing the interpersonal skills required to undertake the interviews. We approached these challenges by discussing interview techniques in class and brainstorming questions in groups. In the hope of creating coherence between the interviews, the class created four “control” questions that all playwrights would be asked. These were: 1) Who has influenced you? 2) What made you want to be a playwright? 3) Do you associate your works with a specific message or issue? 4) Why do you think there is such a disparity in the production of plays by female writers compared to male writers? It was this fourth question that I had posed on the first day of the semester and that defined much of our investigation as a class. In addition, each student wrote six of their own questions specific to their playwright, which I reviewed prior to the interviews.
Below are excerpts from eight of the interviews, edited for the sake of space. These exchanges are a mix of “control” questions and the questions that are specific to a particular playwright.
Why do think there is such a disparity in the production of plays by female writers compared to male playwrights? Because we’re used to our dramas revolving around male storylines and climaxes.—Calamity West
Playwright: Calamity West (Give It All Back)
Interviewer: Emily Dzuback (Junior, Art History)
Emily Dzuback: Why do think there is such a disparity in the production of plays by female writers compared to male playwrights?
Calamity West: Because we’re used to our dramas revolving around male storylines and climaxes. We don’t know any other way to accept the way stories are told. The misogyny is ingrained in all of us. That’s why we gotta keep writing, and owning and sharing our stories.
Emily: In regards to your process, do you feel that readings are helpful? Do you let anyone read your play while you are working on it, or do you only let people read the finished script?
Calamity: Girl. If I could have a reading a day when I’m working on a play, I’d do it. I need workshop time like I need water and sunshine. If I just wanted to hide away and write, I would have been a novelist. Playwriting is a collaborative effort—don’t ever forget that. Playwrights make the blueprint—everyone else constructs the work.
Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino (Ugly Lies the Bone)
Interviewer: Steven Scelzo (Junior, Music Production)
Steven Scelzo: Do you associate your works with a specific message or issue? Is there an underlying theme that you talk about a lot?
Lindsey Ferrentino: I feel like my plays are generally about some sort of political subject that I’m trying to figure out, but always from the character and personal point of view. Lately, I’ve been writing more roles for women. That’s something that I’m consciously doing. I used to write a lot of roles for men and now I’m trying to write more roles for female protagonists. Generally though, people have noted that my plays usually contain a need to find home and define what home is. I’m also told there’s some sort of story of unrequited love that keeps popping up.
Playwright: Rachel Bonds (The Wolfe Twins)
Interviewer: Meagan Collins (Freshman, Political Science)
Meagan Collins: How did you achieve your success and how did you become so popular?
Rachel Bonds: You make me sound so successful and I do not feel that way at all. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I have had so far. When you are an artist you always feel like “what can I do better? What things can I make better? What is the next thing down the line? How can I improve?” I would say I work really hard, which I think a lot of my contemporaries do. I find that it is a big deal to find a community of other writers in the city and producing organizations which can be a type of home base. For me it has been Ars Nova. I also think it is important to ask for help. I have found that people five or so years down the line who have had more experience are very eager and willing to help. So, I think it is really important to find the community of people doing what you are doing and receiving help from those who are more experienced. The last thing is to work really hard to establish self-discipline in writing. I force myself to leave the house and write, which has done worlds of good for my productivity. Finally, it’s important to be a nice person, to have good relationships with the people you work with, and to be kind to them. That does not mean you should not be aggressive or ambitious. I think you can be a kind, awesome person and still be aggressive.
Playwright: Jaclyn Backhaus (Men on Boats)
Interviewer: Meghan Forsyth (Junior, Communication Arts)
Meghan Forsyth: On the website for your writers’ group Fresh Ground Pepper (FGP) it says that you want to help "remove logistical roadblocks from the creative process.” In your career, what have those roadblocks looked like, and how did you find a way around them?
Jaclyn Backhaus: For me, I would say a lot of the logistical roadblocks that I’ve come up against are the ability to find resources that can help and that offer the time and money necessary for whatever piece I’m working on. A lot of the work that I make or have been a part of has been intensely collaborative, or there’s been a self-producing mindset about it, and that has helped me, especially in my early career, to just get out there. And if I didn’t have that set of skills to find cheap space and amass a creative team and market the random shit I was doing, [laughs] then I would have really felt discouraged even if I was making a lot of work. My writing wouldn’t have gotten out there and I wouldn’t have any sort of traction to be seen by the bigger people who I wanted to get to know. So, what FGP does is we do all of the work for the artists so they have the evening that they need, and that allows them to get focused on whatever work they’re actually making. They don’t have to freak out about getting beer and wine sponsorship for the space that they booked. They can actually focus on making the most artistically hopeful thing that they can. And yeah, I think that for me, big roadblocks were also deadlines, such as not having deadlines imposed from classes I would be taking in college or from outside sources. So another large part of FGP is that it made me say, “now I have a set deadline that a hundred other people are holding me to, so I better keep to it!” Eventually I’ve been able to be more regulatory over my own process.
My concerns are about how Africans are portrayed in mainstream American theatre. The story line has been the same, and not that the stories are not important, but they have mainly focused on struggle and strife and that felt problematic to me.—Jocelyn Bioh
Playwright: Jocelyn Bioh (Nollywood Dreams)
Interviewer: Joi’ McWilliams (Junior, Theatre)
Joi’ McWilliams: Do you imagine a particular audience for your play Nollywood Dreams?
Jocelyn Bioh: Yes. My concerns are about how Africans are portrayed in mainstream American theatre. The story line has been the same, and not that the stories are not important, but they have mainly focused on struggle and strife and that felt problematic to me. Both my parents are from Ghana and a lot of my friends are also first-generation African children, so we know the experience and what it’s like being African. Audience-wise I think I’m just trying to expand the knowledge of the people who attend theater. For the most part theater is very exclusive, especially in New York, and I know tickets are very expensive; the people who can afford them are upper middle class.I expect that the majority of people who end up seeing my play are going to be upper-middle-class white people. So my hope is at first just to educate them on Africa, the continent, and add to the conversation of how Africans are portrayed on stage.
Joi’: Have you ever had someone criticize your writing and is there anything you’ve learned about yourself when it comes to critics?
Jocelyn: I get criticized a lot being a playwright, but I answer to critics with education because I know that ignorance is going to be a huge factor in the conversations around my work. Sometimes it is frustrating for sure, but as an artist at any time or at any given moment you face criticism; it just comes with the territory.
Playwright: Sam Chanse (Fruiting Bodies)
Interviewer: May Panaguiton (Junior, Communication Arts)
May Panaguiton: Are there certain things, topics, or themes that you find yourself avoiding writing about? In other words, do you feel that there is a moral or ethical line that cannot be crossed even in playwriting?
Sam Chanse: I usually wind up writing about the thing I've been avoiding writing about. So I guess I don't think there's a moral or ethical line; rather I think it's critical to be thinking about issues that are potentially problematic. I'm thinking about questions of cultural appropriation, for instance, the ongoing question of who has the right to tell what stories; what voices are being heard and what voices aren't being heard; what stories are being told and by whom. I don't think there's a definitive answer—the challenge is that these questions are ambiguous—but I do think it's important we are aware, and willing to ask these questions.
Playwright: Lauren Yee (King of the Yees and The Tiger Among Us)
Interviewer: Janice Shin (Senior, Visual Arts)
Janice Shin: With the issues regarding race, ethnicity, and diversity that are in the news today, do you feel any restrictions as an Asian American when it comes to your writing?
Lauren Yee: I think in regards to my writing and me being Asian American, I write things that are probably closer to my individual experience about half the time. That being said, I can’t control how people view me. It’s the very specific tight corner that you get pinned into when you’re an artist of color. For instance, I have a play called The Hatmaker’s Wife, which doesn’t have any specifically Asian-American characters, or actually any characters of color specified in the text. Questions that people have had are: “Why are you writing about white people?” and “Don’t you only want to tell stories that are about your family?” Which I find surprising and a little annoying because they’re just people with stories. As long as you are respecting your characters and the culture, you should be able to write about a lot of different types of things. And I’m like, “Otherwise writing would be so boring and so restrictive.” I think that it would probably be harder for somebody like me to write a play that people would consider “the great American play.” I think if it had Asian American characters in it, they’d be like, “Well, that’s too specific to be a ‘great American play.’” And if it didn’t have Asian American characters, they’d say, “Well, somehow this seems less exciting and a little suspicious.” I think there are certain annoying, unsaid restrictions. But, at the same time, being Asian American is who I am, I’ve been it my whole life, and I can’t separate myself from that, both in terms of what I write and in terms of how people view me. It gives me a unique perspective on what it means to be American because I understand what it’s like to be the “other.” I understand what its like to look outside.
Playwright: Leah Nanako Winkler (Kentucky)
Interviewer: Lydia Oquendo (Junior, Theater)
Lydia Oquendo: Do you associate your work with any particular message?
Leah Nanako Winkler: I don’t write a lot of straightforward kitchen table dramas. My newest play is actually a satire of a kitchen table drama called Two Mile Hollow and it's a parody of the white-people-by-water genre (where white people complain about their problems by a body of water) but in my play they are all played by actors of color (an idea that Julia Cho of Artists At Play came up with when we did a reading). I like to elevate the people who aren’t normally the heroes in plays. In that play the personal assistant is the hero. In my play Kentucky the main character is a biracial woman who grew up poor and is a borderline alcoholic who tries to stop her sister's wedding. I'm interested in our mixed-raced, mixed-class society and universalizing underrepresented perspectives or subverting what is considered the norm to get to the truths behind it.
Lydia: I think that this question is important to ask: how do you feel about being labeled a “female playwright” versus a “playwright”?
Leah: I don’t like it. I understand why some would find the label empowering but I hope to live in a world where I can just be a playwright. Male playwrights don't call themselves #MALEPLAYWRIGHTS. I know there is a huge gender parity issue, but for me personally I’ve experienced a lack of representation in regards to race and class in theatre rather than gender. At the same time, it’s definitely not a problem, the female playwright label.