Women Writing Plays

Women Writing Plays is the introduction to the book, Women Writing Plays, a collection of essays celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

n my lifetime, in America, women writing for the theater has gone from unheard of to nearly commonplace. Unfortunately, the production of plays by women has not made the same leap. In its Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement?- a research initiative conducted in 2002 – the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) found “Consistently low main stage participation of women playwrights and directors, particularly among theatres with higher budgets.” That year, even in theatres with the self-proclaimed mission of producing new American plays, “the number of plays by women produced on the main stage was extremely low; in some cases, none. More scarce still were female playwrights of color. Female directors were also absent on the main stages of many theatres.”

The full report can be found on info@nytheatre.com and it is recommended reading for everyone who has come to the end of this book. But statistics are not my strong suit, nor my subject here. I am charged with describing how women writing plays has changed in the twenty-some years I have been doing it.  So here we go.

When I was a teenager, Actors Theatre of Louisville opened its doors for the first time.  The little stage was located up a set of rickety stairs in an old downtown building, the house lights were bare bulbs covered in peach baskets. Walking up those stairs was my introduction to the theater. The first plays I saw there —  indeed the first hundred plays I saw, probably —  were all written by men: George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Miller, Sophocles and Eugene O’Neill, Shakespeare and Shakespeare. The central characters of those plays were mainly male, and the events were male as well — big and tragic. I knew of American women who wrote novels, short stories and poetry, and I knew of English women who wrote novels, short stories, poems, AND plays. But I knew of no American women who wrote plays except Jean Kerr and Lillian Hellman, neither of whom I wanted to become.  Still, I wanted to write for the theater.

Wendy Wasserstein recalls that when she was a drama student at Yale, the only woman dramatist ever mentioned there was Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, a tenth-century canoness whose plays were never produced. In her introduction to Yvonne Shafer’s anthology, American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950, Wendy remembers wishing for a book like this when she was a student. She says she would have turned nightly to the examples of  Rose Franken, Dorothy Parker and Claire Boothe Luce for comfort and guidance. “I didn’t want to be a tenth-century canoness,” says Wendy. “I wanted to be a working woman playwright.”

Many American women playwrights still feel the same way: they want to be working women playwrights, with the emphasis on WORKING, where “working” means PRODUCED. To my mind, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize has done more than any other single force or festival, to make working a possibility for women playwrights by bringing attention to their plays. It has collected and publicized its nominated plays for more than twenty-five years, but it has given much more than the award. It has established a network of women, a network of readers, a network of writers, who know each other through the work of the Prize. It has made our lives visible to each other, has allowed us to act as mentors, role models and colleagues, and in the process become teachers, students and friends. It has created a community, and in so doing, has given us all a place to live and work in the world as women writers.

This is not the way things were in the beginning.

When my work was first being done, new plays were a new idea. The old idea was that handful of men would dominate a decade of theatrical writing and then pass their status on to the new members of the club. With few exceptions, these men all lived in New York, and their contacts with their producers were social as well as professional. When Richard Rodgers had a new idea for a musical, he placed a call to his producer, and his producer called the theater owners and booked the theater. Clearly this is a gross over-simplification of the process, but it was a club, and to break in you had to be brought in by someone who was already a member. Edward Albee brought in Sam Shepard, Oscar Hammerstein II brought in Stephen Sondheim. All was calm and orderly. Golden eras came and went.

Then in the late sixties and early seventies, things began to change. Not-for-profit regional theaters sprung up, founded by men and women who did not want their theaters to serve simply as venues for touring Broadway productions. They had gone to school with playwrights; some of them were playwrights themselves. These founders wanted to program their theaters in a new way. They wanted to present NEW PLAYS by unknown authors because they liked the plays, the authors, the process, and the hoopla.  Plus, plays like Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope, which premiered in 1967 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., had shown that both fame and fortune could be made with a new play.

Several of these founders were women, and many of the new plays were by women, women being a hot new thing in the American theater. Where I was, in Louisville, we had plays by Beth Henley, Wendy Kesselman, Mary Gallagher, Enid Rudd, Heather McDonald, Shirley Lauro, and many other women, all produced during the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Elsewhere in the country, other theaters were discovering their women playwrights, and a big Women Playwrights article appeared in the magazine section of the New York Times, written by Mel Gussow, always a champion of women writers, and featuring yours truly on the cover. Things for women writers seemed to be looking up. Productions were everywhere, actors loved us, patrons loved us, and critics loved us. Women felt a part of the theater in a very real way. Major regional theaters performed our work. Even Broadway made some of us welcome. But then, as the ‘70’s ended, it seemed that the hunt for the new playwright took a strange turn.

Instead of the ‘80’s being a time when regional theaters developed deeper relationships with the writers they had discovered — men and women — the theaters seemed to jettison their new writers in favor of even newer writers. Experienced playwrights found it harder and harder to find productions. Theaters devised stranger and stranger schemes to find plays and playwrights, commissioning two-minute plays, ten-minute plays, plays on the beach, plays in a bottle, you name it. But these plays were not likely to endure, because they did not come from a writer’s heart, but rather from a marketing person’s idea of what would attract the national press. These plays were exercises at best.

Playwrights, sensing that a new competitive era had begun, started frantically sending plays around, and plays arrived in stacks on the doorsteps of theaters. Artistic directors felt the need to direct in other theaters and thus remain viable as national players, and began spending more and more time away from their theaters, and reading fewer and fewer plays.  The ultimate result was that local audiences lost their rooting interest in their new playwrights, or couldn’t tell them apart, or couldn’t tell the difference between the real writers and the wannabes. The theatergoer, who had felt challenged and inspired by a new generation of writers, now gave up and began to look for the regional version of the hot ticket. Playwrights lost their champions, and audiences lost their ability to judge for themselves. Suddenly, it seemed, there were too many new plays and too many new writers.

During this era, women directors were coming up, and a number of women assumed artistic control of major theaters. But this did not mean that more plays by women were chosen for production. Some theaters, sensing that wonderful writers were languishing, or fearing that they themselves had no real idea which plays to choose from among the hundreds of manuscripts piled in their offices, began to do readings. And thus began the really dangerous time for playwrights, in which we find ourselves today: The Era of Readings. And since any time that is dangerous for playwrights is more dangerous for women playwrights (see the NYSCA report), The Era of Readings meant real trouble. Readings were not, and are not, the answer.

Women playwrights have little trouble today finding readings, even staged readings. But these are only minimally helpful at best and actually can be misleading, or worse. Real damage can accrue to plays as the result of the so-called development process. For instance, in addition to readings, women are regularly offered commissions for plays with the idea that the money is useful and “being at work” feels good to us. But however useful the commission money is, a commission for a play that fits a particular theater’s thematic or grant-receiving needs may distract a playwright and interrupt a legitimate process already underway on a play of her own. Only a very open kind of commission is really helpful to a writer of substance. Imagine this ideal: “When you have a play you want to write, and need some time, let us know, and we’ll give you the money to take six months off from work, so you can write your first draft. Then we’ll produce it.” Because finally, the only thing that is really good for writers is production. A commission that does not guarantee the writer a chance to see the play on the stage does not help.

With Christopher During, I have been teaching at Juilliard since 1994. And although I have no statistical proof of this, it feels to me that women writers suffer more from readings than men. The damage a play can incur as a result of even a well-intentioned reading is substantial. Maybe this is because women listen better than men, or because women writers feel more obligated to pay for their plane tickets with rewrites. I don’t know. I do know that audience members, dramaturgs, literary managers, and artistic directors sometimes make comments and suggest rewrites out of genuine interest in the plays. But sometimes even well-intentioned people make comments out of a simple desire to participate or to reassure the playwright that she has not come all this way for nothing. Sometimes theaters convey the impression that, if the playwright makes the changes suggested in the talk-back, the play will be selected for production, or for a staged reading, or for further advancement up the list toward consideration for a future season. And so the writer returns home, does the work, but quite often finds she has simply arrived at the bottom of the next list. How to get produced has become the problem, for both men and women. But as I said before, any problem is worse for women writers (see NYSCA).

So how can women writers get produced now, and thus learn the rest of the craft, the things you cannot learn simply by writing? This is my new subject here. Enough history.  Here is what has changed and what to do about it.

We may not like the truth, but here it is. Theaters choose plays for a variety of reasons, the main one being that they think they can sell tickets to it. Only rarely is a play produced because of an obligation to the writer. Plays are more likely to be scheduled if the director is  known to the particular theater, if there is an actor whose presence will sell tickets, or if the resident company’s actors can be cast in the show. Raising the odds of getting a production is one of the best things a writer can do for herself.

Gone are the days when all you needed was an agent. The first thing a woman writer needs to do now is make a list of the eight theatres most likely to produce her work, based on history, subject matter and available slots for new plays — and make friends with them. A writer with an ethnic or political identity needs to seek out the theaters that have arisen in order to present that voice to the world. In other words, writers must look for the theaters that are looking for them. Don’t send your work to the same ten theaters everybody else sends to.  And don’t worry about getting an agent. If you get yourself some good productions, the agents will find you.

Subject matter is another issue that women writers must think about now. Mel Gussow joked with me early on that my work was successful because all the women in my plays had guns. And while this was a joke, it was also right. I wasn’t doing it on purpose, but the only plays of mine the critics have consistently liked are plays where the women have guns. Plays about internal change, a topic that women often choose to write about, are generally perceived by the male critics as “soft,” lacking what male artistic directors would call “an event.”

We do not yet have a theater where the problems of a female central character are seen as universal. A woman character has a better chance of being admired if she is required to “fight,” in the play, thus exhibiting more universal (“male”) behavior. A woman character accepting a loss, going through a life passage, responding to or easing the pain of another, risks being described by critics as passive. In other words, women characters face the same difficulties real women have in a world where being beautiful, weak and tragic make the headlines. (We’re working on that, right?)  Unfortunately, some of the greatest qualities often seen in real women –  endurance, intelligence, compassion, tolerance, and strength are very hard to dramatize. Plays that men write about us are usually about things that can be seen: abuse and victimization. Our task now is not to write about ourselves the way men write about us. It is to convey our inner lives in ways that are exciting to watch. We must find and tell stories that SHOW who we are.

Another huge new problem for women writing plays is television’s influence on the minds of writers, and on theaters and audiences. Writers who have grown up watching more television shows than plays often write plays that more closely resemble good television instead of good theatre. They write plays that have a small domestic framework and feature characters who enter, sit, talk, and leave. These dramas involve furniture and other trappings of domestic life and only rarely take advantage of the scenic and narrative conventions that make a play truly theatrical. Given the current glut of entertainment options available to theater audiences, writers whose work can only be done in the theater stand a better chance of finding a production for it there.

But the primary way in which television has changed the world for women writers is the new desire of television producers and networks to hire us. When Getting Out had its initial production in 1977, I received an immediate offer for a production on the main stage of the Mark Taper Forum, and that production opened three months later (I promise this is true). I also received an offer for a feature film based on a Gay Talese book. Today, a well-received play in a regional theater is likely to generate offers to fly the author to Hollywood to meet with producers and story editors for television movies and series. There may be offers for publication and other regional productions, but the more likely scenario is that theatrical producers will fly in from all over, then wait to see who makes the first move. These days, most regional theaters like to wait until New York has had its chance to vet the play before they make their intentions known. That way, the New York press will work for them and help them sell tickets. Writers are also commonly advised now to hold back the regional rights for their plays until there has been a Broadway or Off Broadway outing, or a production at one of New York’s major not-for-profit theaters. All too often the result of this delay is that the play loses its momentum, and all too soon the attention of the theatrical producers, both regional and Broadway, has gone elsewhere. The play goes on top of the  writer’s stack of plays to be sent around for readings.

In the meantime, television offers will come in and they will be attractive, because of the money these jobs pay and because access to an audience is guaranteed. Once people work for television, it is hard to come back to theater. Some writers regularly write for both, but not without consequence, and I would include myself in this category. We find that more and more of our time is taken up by phone calls to producers, and the more we work, the more we become dependent on television money to pay the rent. The theater never will pay the rent; we know that now. But we had hoped that it would.

The real problem posed by television is one of our own making: the more time we spend there, the less leisure time we have, and leisure is where real work comes from. We become more likely to accept commissions and adaptations, and soon we find that it’s been a long time since we even had an idea for a new play, much less wrote one.

When I began writing for the theater, the challenge was to get plays written and get them on. This is still the challenge for beginners. The opportunities exist, though they may be harder to find than they once were. Still, theaters are looking for new writers more than for new plays by writers they already know.

The challenge for established writers, and it is tougher than ever, is to find ways to support ourselves and still contribute to the vibrant art form that we love. To do this, we need to travel more, read more, rest more, and spend more time with our families and friends.  For it is only in leisure that real stories come to us.  It is only when we are rested that we become aware of the stories we must tell.

The theatre will always be in some kind of crisis.  As writers we must remain calm and still.  We must be aware of the life around us and make ourselves available to record it.  We must ask for favors when we need them and help each other without being asked.  We must encourage young writers and pass along what we have learned.  And we must remember that we are not here forever.  We must get our work done and enjoy each other.  And we must rid ourselves of anything that stands in the way of that simple plan.  Get our work done and enjoy each other.  Amen.