The Meek Won't Inherit the Stage

When I worked at the conservative New York Sun, I tended to keep mum about politics. A lot of the liberal staffers did the same. But after the paper folded last fall, just as the presidential election went into overdrive, I began to feel slightly dishonest in not revealing my political stance to one of the paper's hard-line Republican contributors, an ardent Palin supporter with whom I'd developed a friendly rapport.

Finally, I took a deep breath and told him -- upon which he informed me that I'd given him plenty of clues. "How about your love of theater?" he asked, kindly not mentioning the time I'd spoken enthusiastically to him of Dario Fo, any right-winger's artistic bĂȘte noire.

That's the prevailing assumption about the theater: that it's liberal to the core. And maybe, in theory, it is. Practice, as Emily Glassberg Sands' thesis on female playwrights reminds us, is a different matter.

There is a crazy-making dissonance to encountering a hostile environment in what we're assured is a sympathetic milieu, at least politically. In Hollywood, another famously liberal industry, women face a similar set of obstacles, as an anonymous "emerging producer" wrote last week in The Wrap:

I never thought of myself as a feminist until I came to work in Hollywood. I'm part of a generation and class of women who were reared on the rhetoric that we could grow up to do anything. At no point did gender figure in as a limitation, and the idea that it would for anyone who might judge my capabilities seemed completely ludicrous.

It was confusing when I heard or read about women's complaints of gender discrimination -- didn't we figure all this stuff out in the '70s?

Well, no, she's discovered -- and she thinks it's time that women take some action: "We've become so complacent that a touch of extremism is warranted. You could never lose weight if you refused entertain the idea that cheeseburgers are fattening. Instead of waiting for someone to blaze a new trail, it's time that we make a more conscious change in our appetite."

No diet works, however, without a change in behavior to accompany the change in appetite. In order for female playwrights to increase their prominence in the theater, one thing they're going to have to do is make more noise: write more plays, get them out there, and better their odds simply by having a greater presence.

Sands' research relies on doollee.com for numbers on scripts by male and female playwrights; as she admits, this is a less than ideal source, given that much of the information is self-reported. But what if male playwrights -- already more numerous than their female counterparts -- are more likely to do that self-reporting? Women need to be assertive about making sure that their work is noted, too, in high-profile places. 

Ours isn't a culture that encourages loudness in women; for a literal example, see the current controversy over female tennis players who have the audacity to grunt on the court. Meekness is, in fact, encouraged in us at every turn. But if a woman's object is to make her voice heard, as it is with playwrights, then being quiet is not a strategy that will ever lead to the desired reward.

In my experience as an editor, I've observed the same thing in writers that artistic directors and literary managers say they see: far more submissions by men than by women. In order to find female writers, I had to be active, not passive. I couldn't rely on women to call themselves to my attention; I could, however, rely on men to be rather fearless, and less perfectionistic than women, about putting their work out there.

Sands' research suggests that producers hold women's plays to a higher standard than they do men's, but I suspect women also hold their writing to a higher standard before they're confident enough to let a script leave their hands. That's understandable, but it's probably not helpful. Women need to be stronger, more confident champions of their own work -- and artistic directors and literary managers need to actively seek them out.

If producers would, in the process, stop assuming that audiences won't show up to see plays by and about women, that would be another step in the right direction.
June 25, 2009 1:35 PM | | Comments (2)

2 Comments

This is not only a problem for playwrights.

it is a huge, huge problem that the critical machinery is dominated by men. Mostly, well-meaning white men. Mostly, well-meaning gay white men.

Take, for example, a play I really liked, "The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero." I was the only female critic who reviewed it. The only one. I cannot be certain that I loved it because like the protagonist I'm a size zero and like the protagonist I was anorexic in high school. If another woman had reviewed it, it might be clear whether it was a matter of taste or knowledge.

I can say with some certainty though that not one of the other critics had that perspective.

A male critic told me, as I recall, that since he'd been a teenager more recently he understood the play as well as I. I had actually been a teenage GIRL, like the protagonist.

To leave critics out of this equation is to discount the reality of the industry. It is not just about Ads, literary managers (I've also been one of those), playwrights and audiences. It is also how things are reported and received and understood that affects their careers, which in turns affects producers, investors, artistic directors and so on.

There is something wonderfully impersonal about playwriting that invites the author to be invisible, and aspire to disappear into the work. Something comes to my attention, characters take shape and talk to each other, growing in importance till they fill my dreams and pop into my mind while I'm putting away the laundry. I begin to see the journey and an end looms and...
Then after that there is the process of hearing actors read it and the response of trusted friends and random idiots that wakes the critic in me to cut and elaborate and re-shape until I can hope that others will feel the truth of it. But it is still only a hope. What seems earth-shaking to me may seem trivial to someone whose life has not touched on that experience. And even the greatest of plays falls short of perfection, either in the text or the performance-- and the performance is in the hands of collaborators. Knowing all this, how can I run around shouting "Me, me, me! Produce me instead of Stoppard or Churchill!" What I want is simply to be read or heard and considered. Let the play's world speak for itself: even if it is only compelling to a minority of the people who are the audience for what is now a minority art form, surely there are enough people who would find it valuable to fill some theatres, somewhere. There are thousands of small theatres in this huge country. Why must they all do plays that are pre-approved by NYC's gatekeepers?
After 30 years of mailing out scripts I began to put them on my web page, and now student directors are doing them-- mostly the short and simple ones. But I can't see and learn from those productions.

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This page contains a single entry by Critical Difference published on June 25, 2009 1:35 PM.

Women, Don't Beware Women was the previous entry in this blog.

Share the Guilt is the next entry in this blog.

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