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Known Quantity Doesn’t Always Translate Into Quality by Hope McIntyre

23 Oct 2013 5:27 AM | Anonymous
Do we only want what we know? Is that why women continue to be under-represented on stage? 

Last season in Canada only 23% of plays were by female authors alone, another 16% were by a mixed collaboration but a full 61% were by male writers (data compiled by the Playwrights Guild of Canada). 

Why don’t the women in the audience demand change? I’ve thought a lot about the reason. In fact I’m asked that question every year when we do the media rounds to promote the festival I produce dedicated to women playwrights, FemFest. 

I think for many entrenched in the business and the subscriber audiences there is a craving for what is comfortable, what is known… Heck, I admit I hate change myself and get prickly when my routine is thrown off. 

I used to crave a good fairy tale as a young girl. But, when it comes to theatre I have long left a desire for the same old behind and crave something that will challenge me. I go to theatre and hope for a show that will have enough impact that it reminds me why I have chosen to dedicate my life to theatre as an art form.

Unfortunately, the shows I am excited by are often the ones I’m watching with small audiences. Several people I know say they don’t want to be challenged and they only want to go to a show they know will be good. I hear the same kind of feedback from many of my first year performance students who balk when they have to read Top Girls. 

The non-linear structure, the overlapping dialogue, the thematic rather than plot based writing leaves many confounded. I often hear “It was painful to read” or “how could an audience understand anything if they are all talking at once” and “why are those women there in the first scene and then never show up again”…etc. 

They want a beginning, middle and end. They want a male character who they have become accustomed to relating to in most stories. When this particular play was performed in Winnipeg a few years back, I heard the same type of response from many women in the audience who longed for a traditional play.

I think that is one part of the larger question of why women continue to lag behind when it comes to plays on stage. Of course there is history and battling centuries of classic work all written by men. There is our modesty as women (beautifully acknowledged in Mary Jane Walsh’s post on this blog) that holds us back from networking and promoting. 

I think though the tendency to want what is already known and understood is a factor. Whether it is a tendency to steer away from non-linear work or just avoid work by an unknown quantity. Many female playwrights write linear plays with a traditional structure and do so very well yet they also are not being produced as often as men – they are themselves an unknown.

Personally, as a playwright, I am constantly battling with the supposed rules and my creative impulse. A couple years ago I was working on a non-linear play. It needed work. I was struggling to achieve what I knew I wanted to with the piece and as we approached production both the dramaturg and director said the play had to be rewritten in a linear fashion or it wouldn’t work. 

I reworked it accordingly. It never felt right and I think the crux of what I was trying to communicate was lost. Working with a European dramaturg several years prior he said in Canada we are all about neat plots. They feel too neat and contrived. To a certain extent he was right, but what he missed was the fact that this is also what most of the mainstream audience wants. 

I would love to tell a story in a different way but I don’t have the craft to do it well and I fear in a system set up on tradition I may never have the opportunity to learn this craft. 

Plus I worry if I veer off from what is standard, not only will the work not be produced but it will be dismissed as women’s writing. A term unfortunately used to negate exciting new forms. 

I am proud to be a woman and a playwright, but I know many others reject being classified as a woman playwright. It is true that male playwrights do not have their gender stated in the same way, again this points to the norm and we as the exception.

This year in my home city of Winnipeg seven local women playwrights are seeing their work premiered. It is amazing but unique. I really hope it is a sign of a greater trend and represents on-going change. I am trying to avoid the voice telling me it is an anomaly.

© Hope McIntyre 2013. This article may be reproduced only with full attribution to the copyright holder.


  • 23 Oct 2013 12:52 PM | Christine Emmert
    Just as there are comfort foods, there are those who seek comfort (read also 'comfortable') theater. I agree it is discouraging. I applaud all who take on this challenge (such as yourself) to shake audiences out of their comfort zones and make them go home with questions, emotional disturbances and the like. Keep 'Hope' and her hope in your heart!
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  • 23 Oct 2013 1:58 PM | farzana moon
    Dear Hope,
    Just got back from DC, no conference call with the President? Personally,non-linear approach is affective with drama with multiple paths/flashback/foreshadowing, etc. Talmud/Jewish books of laws and commentaries were written in non-linear style, could be great for adaptations. I chose two apocryphal stories from Catholic Canon, and wrote plays. One is the story of Judith--the very first feminist in history, the title of the play is, A Murderess Divine. The second one is the story of Tobit called, A Devil's Bride. Hoping that they would be performed during my lifetime, then I would be able to promote/share non-linear style with women playwrights.
    Good Luck!
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  • 23 Oct 2013 3:51 PM | Raf
    Such unbalanced percentages justify positive discrimination - and one suggestion is to hold festivals of new women's plays. (Yes, there will be flak - ignore it.)
    There is an understanding that new play festivals of any sort might be challenging and experimental, so this will attract an audience who crave brave theatre, as well as give a platform for your work. If you can make it a regular event, you can build up a support system of dramaturgs and workshops to share thoughts on craft issues etc. - and build up a supportive audience.
    Good luck.
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  • 23 Oct 2013 4:39 PM | Elana Gartner
    In the work we did for the 50/50 Applause Awards, Canada stood out as more supportive of women in their numbers than other countries. Not a surprise, though, that Canadian women (as all women likely would) still find this number troubling as it is hardly 50/50.

    To your point about non-linear scripts, one of my favorite scripts (and one of the more controversial in its original time) is "Merrily We Roll Along" which tells its story backwards. One of the songs has the lyric "How did we get to be here?/What was the moment?". And that is why I love that play. The very idea that there are so many moments that lead to one...and what are they?
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    • 29 Oct 2013 11:01 AM | Sophia Romma
      In New York, there still exists a garden of the avant-garde for the so-called wayward playwrights, a home that I have found for those "Ed Woods" of the theatrical world, which is what I have been labeled since my early beginnings at La MaMa E.T.C. Having said that, Ellen Stewart, the founder of that exotic playground for non-conventional, non-linear theatre, was my mentor and a great visionary. As a woman, I was certain that I would forever suffer the pariah blues from being an absurdist political playwright with a poetic flare for verse. I had found my place in the theatre of the underground, which had granted me a life in the theatre, which I have thus, so cherished. I have had three productions of my very original, non-conventional plays. One needs not be a Harold Pinter or an Ionesco to write for abstract theatre; one can be a non-traditional women playwright and invent your own laws, and abide by those laws. I have done so and so can every women! Thanks to La MaMa and my Mama, Ellen Stewart! I have faith in women, and in their unique, distinct voices as playwrights.
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