Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
April 4, 2017 by Aileen Jacobson
The theater was packed—there had been long lines outside as invited guests and hopeful members of the public jostled to enter and find seats. Inside, the stage of the August Wilson Theater, which opened in 1925 with a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra,” was filled with theater luminaries. It was December 6, 2016, and the 1,200 or so people in attendance were gathered to pay tribute to Edward Albee, who had died two months earlier at the age of 88.
It was a lovely event, filled with anecdotes from colleagues and excerpts from Albee’s plays delivered by well-known actors, and I was happy that a friend had invited me along. It slowly dawned on me, however, that among the dozens of speakers who rotated on and off the stage, there was only one female playwright. That was Emily Mann—and she was introduced not as a playwright but as a director, which was indeed her role in Albee’s life. Everything said on the stage was appropriate for the occasion, including the comments by Terrence McNally, John Guare, Arthur Kopit and Will Eno, all fellow playwrights who, like Albee, have had shows produced on Broadway, the pinnacle of American commercial theater.
But wait, I thought to myself, where are the women?
That’s not a new thought for anyone who has reviewed plays and written about theater for more than 40 years, as I have (mainly for Newsday and the New York Times). And, of course, it does not apply exclusively to playwrights. Only two female Broadway playwrights readily sprang to my mind as contemporaries of Albee’s–Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin the Sun”) and Jay Presson Allen (“The Prime of Miss Jane Brodie,” “Tru”), both deceased. Wendy Wasserstein (“The Heidi Chronicles,” “The Sisters Rosensweig”) came to mind, too, as a recent playwright of prominence, but she was two decades younger and died, tragically at age 55, in 2006. There are plenty of other female playwrights— including Gina Gionfriddo, twice a Pulitzer finalist, and Annie Baker, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer for Drama for “The Flick”—but most still labor in the less remunerative fields of Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway and regional theaters, if they are getting produced at all.
Much was made of the Broadway debuts this season of two female writers, Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel. Their works, “Sweat” and “Indecent” respectively, are among 10 new plays this Broadway season. (That a 20-percent presence is considered noteworthy is dispiriting, however.) Both women had already won Pulitzer Prizes for previous plays that never made it to the Great White Way. Incidentally, Lillian Hellman, a rare successful female playwright of the past, is also represented this season on Broadway, with a revival of “The Little Foxes” that just started performances.
I decided to consult with Emily Mann, who had spoken eloquently about Albee, to find out if she, too, had been struck by her status as the only female playwright on stage, and to explore the past, present and future of women in theater.
“I’m so used to it, so used to it. It’s still the way it is,” she said by phone last week from Princeton, N.J., where she has spent 26 seasons as the acclaimed McCarter Theater Center’s artistic director and resident playwright. Her own Broadway plays include “Execution of Justice” in 1986 and “Having Our Say” in 1995. “The numbers are better than when I started,” she said. “In the ’20s and ’30s, there was Rachel Crothers,” a prolific writer who had at least two dozen plays on Broadway. And Agatha Christie, whose “The Mousetrap” opened in London in 1952 and is still running, was no slouch as a playwright either. But they were exceptions.
“When I started out, there was me, Wendy Wasserstein and Marsha Norman, who won the Pulitzer,” for “’night Mother” in 1983. “It was exciting in the 1980s,” she continued. “We broke through the single digit on Broadway. But then it leveled out.” The numbers for directors, she added, are similarly low.
She is guardedly optimistic, however. “I think we are seeing a generation that might make the next leap.” She cited “Eclipsed,” a play by Danai Gurira (aged 39) about five women in war-torn Liberia that made the leap to Broadway last year, after several regional and Off-Broadway productions including at the McCarter (and after Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o joined the cast). Off-Broadway is progressing a little better, she said, as some producers and boards of directors are making more efforts to include women.
There is a Jewish angle to this issue in that creators of theater have often been Jewish, along with much of the audience, said Mann, who is Jewish. “It’s part of the American Jewish and European Jewish gestalt, part of Jewish culture. There is also the social justice side,” which has spurred many Jewish writers. She pointed to Paula Vogel, who wrote “Indecent,” which is about a controversial Yiddish play that featured a lesbian theme, and Rebecca Teichman, the play’s director and co-creator. Both are Jewish.
The scarcity of productions of plays by women is partly the result of misogyny, she said, though also of an “unconscious disinterest, or a fear that it won’t make them money, or a lack of excitement.” She loved “Eclipsed” the moment she read it, she said, but “it didn’t resonate for a lot of people who read it, for reasons of race or gender. It didn’t hit them. Producers who lay down money take a huge risk. They have to love it. And most of the critics are male,” so producers have to take that into account, too. “It’s a complex ecosystem.” It helps that women, like herself and Diane Paulus at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge (and the director of “Waitress”) and a few sympathetic men are now running theaters, with the power to choose or commission plays.
I looked at upcoming plays and musicals for the still-unsettled 2017-18 season and found that about a third of all shows have some kind of female writing involvement—including a “based on a story by J.K. Rowling” credit for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2” and, for the musical “Frozen,” based on the Disney film, a book by Jennifer Lee and music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (and her husband, Robert Lopez). Also coming up is a possible revival of “The Secret Garden,” the 1991 musical with music by Lucy Simon and book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, based on the story by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (“Waitress” and “Fun Home” are two other all-female collaborations.) Tina Fey is working on a Broadway-bound musical based on her film, “Mean Girls,” which is set to premiere in October at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. with a book by Fey, music by her husband Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin.
“I hoped we would be further along that we are,” said Mann. “But it’s getting better.”