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The Trouble with Lists

Not since the appearance of the McCarthy Lists in Hollywood has a list caused such a stir in the entertainment world. I am speaking, of course, of The Kilroys' list of plays by female and trans* playwrights. For the one or two of you who may have been hiding under a rock and missed the news, The Kilroys are a group of women playwrights based in LA who, last year, fed up with hearing from producing organizations (formerly known as theatres) that there were no good plays out there by women, decided to do something about it. They rounded up a group of nominators (primarily people at institutions who read plays) and asked them to choose the most excellent (their word) plays by women they had read that year and that had not been produced yet (or only once—the criteria seems to have been finding its feet as the project went along) and then, using the state of the art technology available to them, tallied the results and produced The List of most nominated excellent plays.

The Kilroys list, now in its second year, has catapulted the careers of writers on its list, and has been seen by many as a cause for celebration—even a cause celebre. It is lauded as a boon for gender equality in our profession and is without question bringing women’s work unrivaled attention. It is a godsend for the playwrights on the list. The questions that remain to be asked (because no one is asking them) are what happens to the writers who are not on the list, and if there might be any reason to reconsider the nature of the list. Because a list is a list is a list. And a list by its nature is not neutral or democratic and includes and excludes. And a list should be handled with care.

Let us stop for a moment and contemplate the meaning of a list. The origin of the word, according to my research, is the Middle English lysten, which in turn derives from Old English lystan, to lust or desire, denoting inclination and craving. This might explain our seemingly ingrained passion and need for lists. Because doesn’t everyone love a list? Lists bring efficiency to tasks. They bring order to chaos. Perhaps the Cambridge online dictionary sums a list up best: “a record of short pieces of information, such as people's names, usually written or printed with a single thing on each line and often ordered in a way that makes a particular thing easy to find.” Easy to find—remember that phrase! And further, a list contains in its perfect confines “the total number to be considered or included” (italics are mine). As a verb, it “enlists and recruits,” as well as enumerates. And perhaps my new favorite strange and eye-opening definition of a list—as transitive verb: “to cut away a narrow strip from the edge.”

If you sense some hesitation on my part when it comes to lists and thus some reluctance on my part to celebrate the Kilroys’ achievement, you would be right. I have trouble with lists, while recognizing their seductiveness and the seemingly inescapable power they exert over us as a culture.

A woman making a list
Shall we make a list? Photo by Alibaba.com. 

If you sense some hesitation on my part when it comes to lists and thus some reluctance on my part to celebrate the Kilroys’ achievement, you would be right. I have trouble with lists, while recognizing their seductiveness and the seemingly inescapable power they exert over us as a culture. And please don’t get me wrong. I truly believe the intentions of the Kilroys are well-meaning and very smart. I am sure that even they are shocked by the resonance of their project. But sometimes the most noble intentions can have unintended consequences. The birth of Frankenstein comes to mind.

And before I go on, a disclaimer. I am not on The List (I was nominated last year), but I was on another list put out a couple months ago, and though I experienced a twinge of discomfort, I admit I was happier to be on the list than off. And I know that my fellow women playwrights who are on the Kilroys List (and have, indeed, written excellent plays) and those who love them are celebrating, and I wonder if I would be writing this if I were on it. I hope so, but maybe not. And I don’t like to rain on anyone’s parade. But in any case, if you are a woman playwright and are not on the list, and you are not so successful that your new plays are produced at once and everywhere practically sight-unseen, then you might have to kiss the idea of anyone reading your play or doing your play this year goodbye. And you have two choices going forward, as I see it. Either to just give up on the whole enterprise or start now devising a way to get your play on the list next year—by any means necessary, by hook or by crook (bribery or blackmail will do in a pinch). I jest, but in all seriousness, just think where this is heading, and wasn’t the field competitive enough?

But despite its shortcomings, the exposure and attention and hype surrounding The Kilroys List is a wonderful step forward for all women playwrights, you may argue, producing a kind of spreading or trickle-down effect. I wish I could believe this, and hope I am proved wrong, but I fear not, and here is why.

I can only assume—and believe I have read in one of the countless articles and posts about The List—that its creators have a very specific goal in mind, predicated on the existence of a very specific group. The List is, for the most part, comprised of this select group of writers—a group that has already been funneled through a system. And the goal is to increase women’s presence in that system. Does it go without saying that the institution of theatre is increasingly a self-contained system? Perhaps a definition of a system is in order, fittingly, from BusinessDictonary.com:

An organized, purposeful structure that consists of interrelated and interdependent elements (components, entities, factors, members, parts, etc.). These elements continually influence one another (directly or indirectly) to maintain their activity and the existence of the system, in order to achieve the goal of the system.

In short, the Kilroy-listed writers were part of the system before the list existed and the list proves the point. How can I make this claim? Elementary, my dear Watsons. Because their plays are being read by the people on the nominating lists! The nominators, for their part, are largely the same folks who read (and don’t read) plays at institutions across the country. The plays they are nominating are plays that have landed on their desks to be read, anyway. This is work that has already been seriously filtered by agents’ submission and other limiting criteria like a given writer’s inclusion in a top MFA program and/or other exclusive playwright’s membership organizations.

Which brings me to sour grapes. In our culture anyone who criticizes a selective institution is accused of sour grapes. This is one very big reason why so few in our culture express hesitation or critique. And that is why systems that may be discriminatory and elite (determined by an ever-narrowing entry path) are allowed to continue and are even celebrated. And I am afraid the Kilroys List is already being appropriated by the system, used as another apparatus within it, and in fact, makes the running of the system easier (remember the ease of the list!) and smoother for all those involved. There will be no motivation or pressure to look beyond it. The work of finding women’s plays has been, well, systematized.

The women behind the list are media savvy and fed up with a theatre landscape that denies their work the same value as men’s. They have wonderfully sat up and dared producers to continue to claim there aren’t women’s plays out there to produce by putting a list of those plays in their faces. They have shamed them and inspired them (if reluctantly). Statistics seem to suggest that their project is a success and an unusually high number of the plays from the list are being produced. No doubt this has everything to do with the ability of the Kilroys to have roped the attention of the media. Otherwise, cynically, it is safe to say, the same old/same old lack of gender parity would be coming to a theatre near you.

But despite and because of its success, an unavoidable paradox, the Kilroys List will make it even harder for many women’s voices to be heard. Much “excellent” work out there that has been ignored will continue to be ignored, including work by women outside the system or existing work which has been systematically dismissed. Many will argue that the Kilroys can’t address all the failures and prejudices that have ever existed and continue to exist with their project, nor can they right the wrong of a history of women’s work being silenced. And they will argue that you have to start somewhere. How strongly I agree! And despite everything, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because I believe that the Kilroys are listening.

In an attempt to respond to criticism leveled at them last year and to reduce the exclusivity of their project, the Kilroys nobly expanded the list of nominators exponentially for this year’s list. However, they also doubled the number of nominations necessary to get on the list, in a sense defeating their purpose. So the question is where will this all lead or end? Ever more nominators with an ever-larger number of nominations required for inclusion and an even larger list of plays? And at what point will the sheer volume of the list result in a backlash? Is it truly realistic to assume that readers will make it through the first and second lists before the third list rolls around? Knowing what we all know about the crisis of reading in our culture, let alone in our theatre literary offices, I doubt it, don’t you?

What can we do to further the project for all women playwrights, then? My hope is that others will have some thoughts and ideas and will share them here or elsewhere. I have a couple of radical proposals regarding the Kilroys List to start things off. Firstly, if we have to have a list (and you know how much I like them by now), then let it be truly representative of women writer’s everywhere, derived outside of a system that has kept women’s work (but not only women’s work) offstage, so many voices excluded, for so many years. This requires first and foremost a change in nominators. Nominators should have no affiliation with an administration or organization that promotes or produces plays. The plays should not only be unproduced but have no upcoming productions planned. As for the writers, let them be chosen from among those who are not represented by agents and/or selective organizations. What on earth would that list of excellent plays look like? I, for one, would be curious to find out.

My other proposal is heartfelt. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan (yes, it’s come to this), Kilroys, tear down that list! It has served its purpose. Let anyone dare to say that there are no good plays out there by women anymore! We have the Kilroys to thank for this. Let their action have been just that, like The Guerrilla Girls, a wildly successful provocation, that now changes form. And let’s see what new forms their/our actions take.

a crumpled piece of paper
A crumpled piece of paper. Photo courtesy of Lydia Stryk.




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