24 December, 2008

"On Women in Playwriting"

by Mia McCollough

On September 7th, 2008, an article appeared in the New York Times, written by Charles Isherwood, declaring this season on Broadway to be a “Male, Male, Male, Male World.” He proclaimed that this season the “wives and mothers” were taking a backseat to the men. After seething for several minutes, I got on-line and wrote him a letter asking him when exactly was the season where we wives and mothers and daughters have not taken a backseat to the men. I don’t know Charles Isherwood. I don’t honestly believe he meant to insult every woman working in American theatre with his article, and yet, he did. And though he may remember me not-so-fondly if he one day reviews one of my plays, I felt it necessary to tell him to knock it off.

This is part of the problem with sexism in theatre. Most people who work in theatre consider themselves very open-minded and forward thinking. I don’t believe the establishment is riddled with sexist men making decisions that are meant to keep me down, hold me back and prevent my stories from being told. I believe the problem is more systemic than that, because women artistic directors are just as guilty of not promoting women playwrights and directors as their male counterparts.

First, I believe that we are programmed to expect and accept the male narrative far more than the female narrative. Most of Western Literature has been written by men and from a male perspective. What a story is and how it is told - was designed by men. Women tell stories differently and we perceive the world differently. We often veer away from the hero whom all the other characters orbit around. We tend to be more inclusive and have our stories balanced amongst several characters. Maybe it’s the nurturer in us, giving all our characters a chance to be heard.

Of course these are generalizations. Many men write plays in what I would refer to as the female narrative and vice versa, but in general the rule holds.

I believe that when a storytelling method bucks against our expectations - which are built on hundreds of years worth of literature - the story itself is too easily dismissed by artistic directors and critics (though not usually by audiences). This is not merely an issue of men foisting their expectations on plays written by women. I do this to myself, with my own work, over and over. I will write something that takes a serious detour from the “well-made play,” and then hold it up to the standard of the male narrative and wonder why this round peg I’ve created doesn’t fit in the square hole. I constantly need to remind myself that there is no formula for telling a story; that I must not limit myself to all that I was taught, to all that has come before me.

The second big problem we women face is that we are, still, programmed to be polite. We apologize for things, and censor ourselves far more than men do; and unfortunately this transfers to our art, and it shouldn’t. Art is not and should never be about politeness. Raw or refined, it should be a true expression of feeling. This will lead to another problem, I expect. When women stop being polite and really delve into the experience of being a woman, a whole lot of unpleasantness tends to rise to the surface. Throughout history we have suffered far more than our male counterparts. When we peel away our politeness, a whole lot of suppressed ugliness is bound to reveal itself. I don’t know whether or not this raw honesty and ugliness will be embraced by the artistic establishment. I do know it makes for some great theatre. Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” is a perfect example.

I believe we can deprogram ourselves from this oppressive politeness. We can approach our work unfettered by someone else’s expectations. The next hurdle is to be more assertive. I was told that, at Chicago Dramatists, nearly half the Network Playwrights are women, and yet only a quarter of the scripts submitted by Network Playwrights are by those women. This is a serious problem and I’m certain it is not an isolated occurrence. If we want to be produced in equal numbers, we must submit in equal numbers. We must not sit around asking for permission to submit; waiting for someone to ask us for our play. We must put it out there, produce it ourselves, if no one else will have it. And then we must reach out to the women around us and invite them to see. Women are ticket-buying the members of most households. We need only entice them, and they will come.

via Chicago Theater Blog


Lindsay Price said...

Round pegs and square holes. If only AD's and others could see it like that as opposed to this way of writing is right, and this is wrong.

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