This summer, I decided to explore gender parity in the theatre by reading one play written by a contemporary female playwright each week and blogging about my observations. I wanted to create parity in my personal library by increasing the number of plays on my bookshelves that were written by women.
The plays I read (in alphabetical order) were:
- 26 Miles by Quiara Alegría Hudes
- A Lifetime Burning by Cusi Cram
- Belleville by Amy Herzog
- Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker
- Creature by Heidi Schreck
- Las Meninas by Lynn Nottage
- Nest by Bathsheba Doran
- Oohrah! by Bekah Brunstetter
- Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl
- Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason
- The Call by Tanya Barfield
- The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
- Tomorrowland by Neena Beber
I chose these plays by researching recent recipients of major awards for female writers (the Lilly Awards, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Kilroys List, etc.) and by browsing the shelves of the Drama Bookshop in New York City. Partway through, I noticed that, as a young, emerging writer myself, I happened to be choosing early career plays, and I made a conscious decision to continue to do that. Therefore, most of these plays were among the first that each playwright wrote, or they were among the first to receive a mainstream production.
It was refreshing to encounter women not just as the love interest, but as sisters, mothers, and daughters with complex, messy, and compelling familial struggles.
Many of these plays explore familial relationships. A Lifetime Burning, Oohrah, and The World of Extreme Happiness all depict sibling dynamics. Creature, Nest, and The Call center on women who are about to become, or who just became, mothers. 26 Miles and Las Meninas both feature young women who, due to circumstances beyond their control, never really got to know their mothers. It was refreshing to encounter women not just as the love interest, but as sisters, mothers, and daughters with complex, messy, and compelling familial struggles. It is worth noting the importance of family in so many of these plays. Traditionally, women have always had more influence in the private, domestic sphere than the public one. Perhaps that is why so many of these plays seemed to focus on more private, domestic stories. Is society motivating women to write about those themes or is it reflecting the fact that women are already doing so? It made me wonder what propels writers, especially female writers, to tell the stories they choose to tell.
One of the most fascinating things I noticed this summer was the prevalence of female protagonists in these plays written by women. Out of thirteen total plays, eleven had female protagonists, and the other two had ensemble casts without a clear protagonist. In comparison, let’s examine some well regarded plays from the 2014-2015 season: all four of the 2015 Tony nominees in the Best Play category were written by men (though the original source material for one play was written by a woman) and they all featured male protagonists (Curious Incident, Disgraced, Hand to God, Wolf Hall) as did the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Between Riverside and Crazy).
Patricia Noonan, co-founder of The Make It Fair Project wrote in an email statement that “we all—regardless of gender (and race, sexual orientation, age, etc)—need our experiences mirrored on stage. We need female voices to help challenge our assumptions and stretch our imaginations. We need well-written female protagonists to broaden our empathy. We don't need them more than we need male voices or male protagonists...but we do need them just as much.”
As a female writer, the plays I connected to most were 26 Miles, A Lifetime Burning, and Sex with Strangers, all of which had female writers as their protagonists. In 26 Miles, the main character is a teenage girl who creates and writes her own magazine. I found myself enjoying the teenage girl’s creative and quirky observations about the world around her as she embarks on a road trip with her estranged mother.
In A Lifetime Burning, protagonist Emma writes an ethically questionable memoir. It’s a testament to Cusi Cram’s skill in crafting her hilarious and endearing main character that I was both critical of Emma’s current project and rooting for her ultimate success as a writer and as a person.
In Sex With Strangers, a disillusioned novelist’s career gets a second wind through an unexpected romance with a hotshot young blogger turned author turned screenwriter.
Out of all the characters I encountered this summer, I personally felt the most connected to Sex With Stranger’s Olivia. I, too, am a vociferous reader and I appreciated Olivia’s thoughts on her favorite books. I even got a book recommendation from the play. I am currently reading one of Olivia’s favorite novels, Marguite Duras’ The Lover! I also love Olivia’s independence, strength, and resilience; how even when she is incredibly bitter and frustrated with her career, she never stops writing or believing in her own ability as a writer. I would like to think that this trend of women writing about women writers will continue to grow and that characters such as Olivia will continue to inspire young writers.
Victoria Meyers, co-founder of The Interval: The Smart Girl’s Guide To Theatricality, notes that “narratives play such a huge part in shaping our identities in terms of who we want to be and how we want to be it.” Meyers was referring to Jeanine Tesori’s famous Tony acceptance speech from this past June when Tesori stated that girls have to “see it to be it.” “ It's not just about knowing you can do something,” continued Meyers, “but beginning to understand how it's done and what it can look and sound like.” Hopefully, young girls encountering these plays are getting a double dose of “see it to be it,” and they, too, will realize that they are the protagonists in their own narratives, and with stories to tell and plays to write.