Commentary: Women in Theater and Issues for the 21st Century

Earlier this fall (September 26), Princeton University hosted the conference Women in Theater: Issues for the 21st Century. Alice Tuan, head of the Writing for Performance program at CalArts, sent us her thoughts on the conference, the state of playwriting and opportunities for women:

The generous Professor Jill Dolan has invited me to speak on the playwrights’ panel at her one-day conference at the Lewis Center of Princeton University, focusing on women in theater and issues of the 21st century. The first person I see as the elevator doors open at the colonial Nassau Inn is my mentor Paula Vogel, holding a thick ethernet cable. “I thought this place was posh and equipped,” I comment…”Yeah, for the 18th century,” she chortles. She skips the ’net and we go for martinis at the Yankee Doodle Tap, where I get to pick the foremost brain of how to make an exciting playwriting program happen.

The conference is a rare opportunity for female theater artists to gather. Most of the panelists have taken the train down from New York, and it is celebratory in mood, coinciding with Emily Mann’s 20th anniversary as artistic director of the McCarter Theater (see above video). The smartest, most engaging discussion was a panel of directors that included Jo Bonney, Garry Hynes, Lisa Peterson, Leigh Silverman, Liesl Tommy and Kate Whoriskey.

Hines, one of two women who have won a Tony (for Beauty Queen of Lenane) was never asked about being a “woman director” until she got to the U.S., and Whoriskey told of her first “break” as a director, working with Robert Brustein at ART on Master Builder. Lisa Peterson stressed the importance of entering the rehearsal room with more questions than answers. Audience questions were mostly from young theater gals who wanted to know how to get “in,” and the directors recounted their experiences as a combination of diligence and moxie, timing and ingenuity, agency being foremost once doubt was allayed.

My own panel of playwrights included Lisa Kron, Lisa Loomer and new sensation Danai Gurira. I think being in China has made me even more direct and unafraid to be the bearer of bad news. With all of the lopsided stats about how 12 percent of Broadway plays are written by women, my first comment was that “Capitalism trumps Democracy.”  If you want to be in commercial theater then you have to write for a market that does not necessarily care about female experience or narrative, and if they do, maybe she is a John Donne scholar dying of cancer or a really bitchin’ singer and dancer with a checkered past or a vacuous present.

In 1913 Rachel Crothers directed her own play, Man’s World, at the Shubert Theater on Broadway–but she couldn’t vote for U.S. president. Emily Mann is one of the rare female artists to write and direct on Broadway–and vote.  (Though helping female artists to reach the main stage–that’s a whole other dynamic still trumped by capitalism).

The last panel had a lot of statistics, save for Paula Vogel talking about the new Civil War happening in our country. The rules have changed and the bottom line is thick. The Internet has shaped the mindscape of a new generation of thinkers. Multi-narrative is the norm, what with clicks, texts, remotes. Theaters seem more interested in ticket buyers than audience, and so stick to a one-slot-per-season rainbow roll call agenda of uni-narrative that is allowing the deadest works to pass as live theater.

Granted, we’re still carrying over culture from the 20th century–the 21st century has yet to land for the theater. Where’s the Beckett, the Pinter, the Mamet? (Though I think Caryl Churchill is definitely a 21st century playwright, as is Gertrude Stein.) Theater is up for grabs–live performance will be vital in “un-canning” those private prosceniums we constantly stare into like a kinetic stage. Cultural producers, get on it!

What do you think of Alice’s take on the state of women and theater? Let us know!

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