“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” — Confucious is given credit for this. For me, it is always my starting point in writing. Discovering I know nothing or very little about a given topic, or group, or object, or anything, is humbling. I feel compelled to face that ignorance, rectifying it by research and learning about the subject that has suddenly caught my attention. Thus, when faced with beloved aged relatives’ increasing senility, I wound up writing “I’m Herbert,” a short piece that’s received multiple readings/performances, and is set for the Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis in mid July (www.womenstfmemphis.org).
A competition for a local company resulted in the fantasy “Escaping Ayesha,” while a challenge to write a piece with no complete sentences inspired “In the Mall,” and hearing about people who had been made pen pals in elementary school only meeting physically decades later made “Pen Pals” inevitable. At one point, finding myself wondering about Shakespearian characters before and after the plays, I wrote a series of short Shakespearian prequels and sequels. One, “Twentieth Night,” a sequel (set some eight years later) to “Twelfth Night,” received a reading locally at Stonewall, Columbus:
Karla Rothan and Linda Schuler, who starred in Twentieth Night
Another, “Wishing Witches,” brings the characters from the Scottish Play into the present, where one of the sisters demands they replace the cauldron with a slow cooker.
Still another Shakespearean take-oﬀ has Ophelia at the used chariot lot, having persuaded Osric to take her father’s place behind the arras. “Rosaline’s Nurse” has the nurse inform Romeo’s jilted lover, Rosaline, of what has taken place, to her incredulous response.
In “Downstairs at Elsinore,” Ethel, the daughter of the King of the Penzance Pirates arrives, the Pirates having been hired as entertainment for the wedding feast of Claudius and Gertrude. In “What Shall We Do About Daddy?,” Lear’s three daughters work out a plan to deal with his increasing dementia. And in “Viking Hamlet,” Hamlet is in prison; Fortinbras keeps him incommunicado and has put out that he’s dead so as to prevent any eﬀort to put him on the throne. He’s visited by Horatio and learns that he’s to be set free so that he can raid England and Scotland, to try to prevent them from uniting. One small thing: he has to dye his hair red and take on a new persona, as “Erik the Red” so that Fortinbras can deny that Denmark has anything to do with the raids.
Concern about the nuclear arms race early in the present century led to “Last Call,” set in a Canadian bar —the nuclear holocaust having raised radioactive clouds that have already begun wiping out all life —as two guys take in one last drink as they consider impending doom. It was performed as part of the Asphalt Shorts Festival in Kitchener, Ontario, in September, 2006. Great thanks to Paddy Gillard-Bentley, the Artistic Director of Flush Inks Productions, producer of the Festival.
“The Danish” premiered as part of “Family Foibles” at the Heritage Theatre Company in Bend, Oregon, and as part of “Dessert Plays” at the Maple Grove Players in Columbus, both in 2008, and was included in rotating repertory by the Soup’s On Players, Lubbock, Texas, March through September 2011. It treats an elderly man who discovers his accustomed breakfast of 60 years is about to change because his wife has heard that longevity can be increased through diet. And memories of being in a method-acting class while I was in college inspired “At Madame Rastinovina’s” — sitting in class watching fellow first-year folks exploring sense memories and thinking to myself, “We’re all 18. The worst thing that ever happened to me was that Helen Mansfield wouldn’t go to the prom with me. Don’t think that’ll help me much with finding the subtext in Hamlet.”
In the 1990s, I also got involved with Senior Theatre USA, a now defunct but inspirational group dedicated to creating work for older performers that avoided the standard cliches — pieces where older characters were either somebody’s senile grandfather, awfully bitchy mother-in-law, or saccharinely incompetent uncle or aunt. “Not the Delany Sisters” came out of that sensitivity, after working on a local production of “Having Our Say,” a very good play, but one whose sentimentality just got to me. That relationship grew into hosting a festival for senior theatre folks here in Columbus, with writers’ retreats and local performers reading works-in-progress, which proved very popular. “Senior Cruise” was written for that festival; it involves a group of seniors all on the hunt for new relationships on a cruise down the Mississippi. The Eileen Heckart Competition for plays featuring older performers, named for the Columbus native who inspired many with her performances of senior characters (https://library.osu.edu/collections/spec.tri.ehdfsc), also involved readings of the winning plays.
“Limbo, Ohio,” a sequel to that famous play about a dying salesman, places Willy in Limbo; arguing against the premise that suicides can’t make it into paradise.
Limbo, Ohio 2008
All my scripts are available at www.alanwoods.org; I’ve been fortunate, having works performed as either readings or staged productions on every continent with the exception of Antarctica — so if anyone knows any penguin theatre troupes, send info.
That’s pretty much it, except for this final note regarding wonderful experiences I’ve had over the past decades. It has been terrific working with both writers and students. Pairing honor students with playwrights in an intro to theatre class, for example, where the students got to explore all the usual subjects with an actual writer; it was exciting for the students, while the playwrights were ecstatic to have an eager young mind hanging on their every word — and thought! So glad I got into education after my service in the military! I had been working oﬀ-oﬀ Broadway theatre in New York, and could see a future in it, when I was drafted. But since the live theatre wasn’t very interesting by the time of my discharge (things change!), I opted for graduate school (USC) and wound up in Columbus, teaching and running a research collection, and working with theatre legends convincing them to leave their collections — among them, Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee, and Twyla Tharp — but that’s all another story, for another time. I’ll just include this one special moment in connection with the Dramatists’ Guild’s Margo Jones Award when, in 2008, I got to escort Janet Waldo, Lee’s widow, known in her own right as the voice of Judy Jetson and Penelope Pitstop (among many others in her career as a preminent voice artist).
Janet Waldo and Alan Woods at the presentation.
Alan Woods is a playwright, dramaturg, and teacher. He can be contacted through his website: www.alanwoods.org
During the past few days I’ve been catching up with the second season of the Royal Court Theatre’s Playwright’s Podcast. Even though I’m not familiar with (i.e. haven’t read or seen the work of) all the playwrights on the podcast I find it both inspiring and liberating listening to them talk about their work, about theatre and writing, about how they got there.
It‘s similar to the feeling I had when taking part in World Interplay in 2007 and for the first time met people my own age who wrote for theatre. It was a mix of joy and relief. Interestingly both of these experiences are distanced from my day-to-day life, by geography, language and culture.
But perhaps that’s part of that strange feeling of relief, knowing that my baggage (or lack thereof) doesn’t count, people are reacting to me as a person, and to my texts as texts. In a way it’s like being allowed a new beginning. But that wasn’t what I intended to write about.
One of the questions that keeps popping up in this series of the podcast is what the writer’s first and last (i.e. current) script have in common.
Since it isn’t very likely I’ll be invited onto the podcast I’ll just go ahead and ask myself that question, because I think it is really interesting, and it is a different way of thinking about my own writing and the stories I’m drawn to and keep (re)telling.
Giving full time writing a go, until my savings run out, has given me the need to as well as the space to think about my writing and myself as a writer, as a playwright, as a storyteller.
My first play (which isn’t actually the first play I wrote but for different reasons it’s become my “first” play in the story of me as a writer) was a story about suicide.
I wrote it in my teens and it got produced by a local student theatre group when I was 17 years old, it was about half an hour long and had four characters (well, six characters, but two of them were a technical necessity and I didn’t have the tools to solve the problem in any other way than bringing characters onstage).
The play starts with a young girl taking her last breaths and dying and her older sister finding her dead. From there the play follows the two sisters, the younger one stuck in a sort of purgatory, constantly questioned and almost bullied by a man in black (cliché, I know, but I’ve forgiven my 16 year old self for not knowing that at the time), and the older sister who goes through a series of session with her psychologist.
The younger sister is questioned about her suicide while the older sister tries to come to terms with the younger sister’s decision to end her own life. In the end they both move on, in different ways, and one perhaps towards a more calm future than the other.
My most recent play, the play I’m working on at the moment, is a play that’s been with me for years and years. It’s a story about a women in her 30s losing both parents and having to deal with the inheritance left her, her own emotional connection to the place she grew up in and starting her own family.
I can’t really say anything else about it because I don’t really know, and it might all change in the current re-write. But what struck me when I started thinking about what these two plays have in common is that they are about dealing, successfully or unsuccessfully, with trauma, about moving on with your life, or trying to.
What’s even more interesting is that when I think about other plays I’ve written the same theme seems to be present there too. Not in all plays, by no means, but enough of them for me to think that maybe that is one of the stories, or questions, problems, I’ve been coming back to again and again since I first started writing plays over 15 years ago. Writing this I’ve realised that another thing they have in common is issues with time, but that’s for another time.
Now, if somebody had asked me “What do you write about?” or “What are your themes as a writer?” I probably wouldn’t have come up with this answer, I probably wouldn’t have come up with an answer at all to be honest.
It just goes to show that sometimes you need somebody to ask you the right question.
And that it isn’t always the answer that’s the point, sometimes looking for it is more rewarding than finding it, as nothing is ever permanent but keeps shifting as you move through life while the world around you moves too.
Hanna is a playwright, translator and dramaturg living and working in Swedish in Finland. Current projects include a opera libretto based on a childrens' book, a series for radio and a stage play.
I tell this story often and from different perspectives – the story about how theater saved my life in the early 1980s, during my last years in my native Romania, then a brutal dictatorship.
How it lifted me above the oppressive grayness filled with terror and myriads material and spiritual deprivations and it gave me a sense of purpose and even joy. This episode of my life never loses its relevance and over time it has acquired almost a life of its own.
Now I want to give it a different twist and look at it from the perspective of feminist aesthetics and connect it to some aspects of the American theater scene that I believe to be lacking.
Exile Is My Home. A Sci-fi Immigrant Fairy Tale, by Domnica Radulescu. The Theater for the New City, New York, NY. April 28-May 22, 2016. Directed by Andreas Robertz. Original music score by Alexander Tanson. pictured clockwise from left: Nikaury Rodriguez, Mirandy Rodriguez, Noemi De la Puente. Photography – OneHeart Productions
In my second year as a student at the University of Bucharest, I joined a theater called The Attic, because it was housed literally in the attic of the headquarters of the Romanian Communist Youth, and whose artistic director modeled the practice on the work of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and his Poor Theater.
I played several small parts in different plays, some Romanian, others in translation. But the one experience that changed my life in profound ways and has stayed with me throughout both my personal and professional life as teacher and creative artist is a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days whose female protagonist, Winnie, is buried to her waist in a mound of earth during the first Act and up to her neck in the second Act.
This was supposed to be a women’s project that the artistic director had entrusted his assistant director to develop with a group of the women actors in the theater, including myself. However, we were four women actors, and there is only one female protagonist.
That didn’t prevent our female director, to divide Winnie’s character into four different characters, each representing a different facet of the role. We did away with the mound of earth both from practical and artistic reasons. We made the play our own and attempted to suggest Winnie’s entrapment through other stage means, such as stacking chairs around the actors at different times.
Foreign literature in translation trickled into our highly censored state at a pretty good pace, escaping the scrutiny of the party and secret police particularly if it was in the genre of the absurd, or the surreal which Beckett’s play certainly is.
However, no other details of production from Western Europe reached us, so we had no idea of Beckett’s fierce strictness in terms of respecting his text to its last diacritic and stage direction. We wouldn’t have cared anyways. Living under so many rules, of which most were more absurd than the theater of the absurd itself, we delighted in breaking them any chance we had.
We practiced long hours into the night with irrepressible passion and engaged in what today would be called devised feminist theater, as actors and director, we all collaborated in bringing the final show to its premiere. To me the opening night and the shows we had afterwards were incandescent, freeing, transformative and they touched me for life.
Working with a group of women actors and a woman director in complete artistic collaboration, searching through our own personal experiences as women and bringing them to our different sides of the role, devising innovative stage actions allowed me to grow both as a woman and as an artist.
Now fast forward some three and a half decades later, to the person I am now: a university professor of Comparative Literature, theater director, playwright and novelist in the United States where I arrived as a political refugee in 1983. Theater has remained a constant and a life savior throughout all my years in this country.
I do not live in New York, considered the Mecca of American Theater, I no longer live in Chicago from where I moved 25 years ago to the small town in Virginia for a university job that I still hold to this day, but I have traveled copiously throughout the United States and different parts of the world.
Wherever I go I always look for theaters, shows, performances. I always carry Winnie with me in my carry on suitcase and I often use that experience as a measure of comparison to the other theatrical experiences I have, be it in New York, Paris, Chicago, Minneapolis, Belgrade, in my native Bucharest where I have been returning on a regular basis, or in smaller cities in the US or abroad.
I usually ask myself the same questions whenever I see a new show: is it theatrically innovative in ways which bring out to its fullest the potential of the actors’ bodies on stage, is the space used creatively, are there interesting, complex, multilayered female roles in it, are women’s bodies, voices, stories center stage?
I have of course assimilated much feminist and performance theory, since the Winnie in the Attic days when we couldn’t have cared less whether our show was feminist or not, as feminism was not even part of our daily vocabulary.
And much as Rita Anderson has beautifully articulated it in the previous blog article, “Fighting for a Female Sentence,” I too am always struggling to find, promote and/or create myself theater that not only brings center stage women’s experiences and voices in intersectional ways, but that equally embodies these voices in new aesthetics, a feminist aesthetics.
How a story is told is at least as important as what the story is about. Feminist theater aesthetics, with non-linear narratives and plots, with discourses emerging from woman “writing woman” and woman “writing her self,” and her body which “must be heard,”as Helene Cixous beautifully puts it in her “Laugh of the Medusa,” theatrical forms and languages quivering with feminist humor that subverts and bursts the self important bubbles of sexism and “upstage Big Daddy” of canonical discourses as Gay Gibson Cima has shown, languages which in the apt words of Judy Little “carnivalize the sentence,” and that choose “the margin as a space of radical openness” in the inspired words of bell hooks – all this is largely absent from main stream American Theater or an oddity at best.
The revered New York theater scene of the Broadway and off Broadway shows and musicals, or the main stream theaters of say Chicago, Washington DC, the likes of Steppenwolf or Arena Stage Theater still largely indulge in traditional theatrical forms, linear plots, stages filled to excess with a ballast of realistic sets and objects.
Exile Is My Home. A Sci-fi Immigrant Fairy Tale, by Domnica Radulescu. Pictured clockwise from left: Vivienne Jurado, A. B. Lugo, Nikaury Rodriguez, David van Leesten, Mirandy Rodriguez, Noemi de la Puente, Mario Golden. Photography – OneHeart Productions
There are a handful of New York theater spaces that have satisfied my appetite for such feminist innovative aesthetics and that are also affordable for most regular people, including the many striving artists of the city: Ellen Stuart’s brilliant creation of the La MaMa theater, the New York Theater Workshop, the Women’s Theater Project, or the Theater for the New City where I had the honor of having my own play Exile Is My Home. A Sci-fi Immigrant Fairy Tale produced under the startlingly creative and feminist direction of Andreas Robertz.
But these spaces and theater practices are still considered by the masses of theater goers as the “weird” shows, the “political” in the bad sense of the word shows in opposition to the “entertaining” ones. Their actors and directors are barely or not paid at all.
We All Have the Same Story, by Franca Rame, directed by Domnica Radulescu. National Theater of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, January 2009. Diana Rosca
To each Lynn Nottage, Paula Vogel or Susan Lori Parks that makes it to the top or in the center stages of American Theater, and very deservedly so, there are however scores of women theater artists whose works never get past a first round of readers who might consider their plays not “well-constructed” enough, or ‘strident” or “confusing,” and such readers, sadly often include women too.
It is not the playwrights and the theater artists that drive the market, it is the market that too often drives the art. And it is the same market that thus drives the public tastes and the theater education. Too often students’ only idea of theater when they first arrive into one of my theater or women and gender studies classes is either a Shakespeare play or a Broadway musical.
They are startled to discover lesser known, American or International theater works or forms of theater making: women’s monologues by Franca Rame, plays and performances by Deb Margolin, plays of Sarah Kane, the feminist DAH theater in Belgrade that emerged as a response to the genocidal war of the nineties, or one of my own plays.
At first they may be reluctant, shocked or even uneasy to enter into such disruptive, or zany universes which they sometimes call “all over the place” or “confusing.” With discussions and collaborative, devising work and techniques, they invariably end up inhabiting these universes with the joy of discovery.
The Presence of Absence; DAH Theater, Belgrade, directed by Dijana Milojevic; devised by DAH Theater Ensemble photos by Dijana Milojevic, October-December 2013.From left to right, clockwise: Maja Vukovic, Sanja Krsmanović Tasić, Nemanja Ajdačić (man with violin, also composer of violin music). An example of DAH Theater’s ability to create visually startling moments and even beauty while bearing witness to the grief caused by the disappearance of people and the need of survivors to tell their stories.
In the darkest years of Communist Romania, we created our Winnie show with only a few of the chairs that were our only movable set pieces in the theater, with sheets, props and costumes we found among our own meager possessions.
Yet, the entire experience felt rich, enriching, incandescent and glorious. Andreas Robertz, directed my play in the smallest basement theater space of the iconic Theater for the New City, on “a shoe string,” as the saying goes, with minimal set, but with extraordinary actors and inventiveness, bringing out the best of the feminist theater languages of my play.
He made sure the cast embodied the very diversity of my characters and created a universe in which the margins became “spaces of radical openness,” as my two protagonists, a lesbian couple, traversed the galaxies and dystopian landscapes, some very similar to our own earthly spaces, in desperate search for a home.
When the play opened, three years ago almost to the day, I was the same age as the Winnie I had played as a young woman. I would have never imagined then that our production would remain a model of theatrical inventiveness, and feminist art, or that one day my own play would be produced in a very similar manner in no other than New York City, but that such experimentation is to this day more of a rarity than a common occurrence in the theater world.
Were we ahead of our time out of desperation, or is the American art world slow if not stagnant in terms of allowing ex-centric forms and voices to have a full seat at the table?
I honestly do not know how to answer these questions in ways that would not lead me to either hopelessness or anger. But I do know that if I keep listening to Winnie’s urges I can at least get solace and by achieving even temporary solace, I can keep going, fighting, singing in my own voice.
"No, something must move, in the world, I can’t any more. A zephyr. A breath. I hear cries. Sing. Sing your old song, Winnie. Ah well, what matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day, after all, another happy day.” (Samuel Beckett, Happy Days!)
Domnica Radulescu is an American writer of Romanian origin, living in the United States where she arrived in 1983 as a political refugee. She has chosen English as the language of her written expression in all her nonfiction, fiction and dramatic works.
She lives, functions and writes in the hyphenated spaces between cultures, languages and artistic universes. She is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, Train to Trieste (Knopf 2008 &2009), Black Sea Twilight (Transworld 2011 & 2012) and Country of Red Azaleas (Hachette 2016) and of award winning plays, of which Exile Is My Home was produced off off Broadway, at the Theater for the New City in New York, in 2016 and received the Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble Cast Award from the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors.
Her first novel Train to Trieste was translated into thirteen languages and received the Best Fiction Award from the Library of Virginia in 2009. She is twice a Fulbright scholar and winner of the 2011 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State of Virginia.
She is Distinguished Service Professor of Comparative Literature at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
The Henley Rose Playwright Competition for Women was founded by Yellow Rose Productions, with permission of Beth Henley, to encourage and recognize the new works of female playwrights. The Henley Rose Playwright Competition seeks to honor both the writings of Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley and those of future winners of the Henley Rose Award.
Submissions are received July 1st of every year and capped at 200. It is a submission with a fee, but it is waived for Dramatists Guild members. You can find more information on the competition here: http://yellowroseproductions.org/henleyrose/
Ellen Wittlinger was a finalist in the 2018 competition with her play THE SUMMER DRESS.
How did you hear about the Henley Rose Playwright competition?
I first heard about it through the Minnesota Playwright’s Center where I’m a member.
Is it something you would submit to again?
What types of plays or work do you write?
I started out as a poet, I segued to fiction, started writing plays in my late 20s. But soon I had two young children and it didn’t seem possible to do the kind of unpaid travel all across the country that was the prerequisite for getting a career going in playwriting….But I'm older now and can afford to "retire" from writing for children, so about 4 years ago I went back to writing plays. That was always my first love and still is.
At this point I'm trying lots of things, some traditional 2 act comedies, full-length dramatic pieces, a hybrid of those two, some one-acts, and some 10-minute plays. These have primarily been more traditional kinds of plays, but I'm hoping to try writing something more experimental now as well.
Are there any other conferences or competitions that you have been a winner or finalist for that you have enjoyed or been a part of?
I've only been sending things out for about a year and I'm just figuring out what to send where. I was a semi-finalist with a 10-minute play at The Actor's Studio of Newburyport in Massachusetts last year. In my earlier playwriting days I was also a finalist for Ensemble Studio Theatre's one-act competition.
I just found out another of my full-length plays, LEFTOVERS, is a finalist for the New Works Festival at the Garry Marshall Theatre in LA. I'd love to be able to go to that!
Melissa Bell’s play LADY CAPULET was a Henley Rose finalist in 2017.
How did you hear about the Henley Rose competition? What led you to submit?
I saw the Henley Rose competition on a listing of submission opportunities. I had spent the year writing, workshopping and revising LADY CAPULET and felt that it was in a good place, so I began submitting it for various opportunities. With the Henley Rose Competition for Women I felt I had a level playing field. There is an incredible bias in the theatre world for plays written by men with men as the central character and women in supporting and subjugated roles. I often don’t submit to competitions with fees, but the fee was waived for members of the Dramatist Guild, which I am. As emerging playwrights, we need to submit to competitions, not just to win, but to have our work read by the judges, who then become familiar with us and our work.
As a finalist, you had to beat out 200 submissions. What do you think is captivating about your script that got you to the finalist level?
For a play to work, the stakes must be high. The characters need to have skin in the game. No one in LADY CAPULET is passive, everyone is active; each character wants or needs something from another, especially the lead character, Rose. The play begins with a sexual betrayal, and Rose is driven by a tremendous secret as we follow her journey from budding country girl to powerful Lady of Verona. Rose is more like Richard III than Juliet in her actions to get what she needs.
Moreover, the premise of the play, “what caused the feud” of Shakespeare’s most well-known play, peaks people’s interest. They know there is a feud in Romeo and Juliet, but no one knows what caused it--he doesn’t say. Once Rose makes up her mind to be a player rather than to be played, the audience knows they’re in for a rollercoaster ride.
Would you encourage other playwrights to submit to this competition?
There are few opportunities for women playwrights that provide a forum for our unique voices to be heard. The Henley Rose competition is one. I would encourage women to submit a play that has had some early developmental work, such as a reading, dramaturgical feedback and several rounds of revisions. Submit something that is well-cooked. With only 200 submissions, you have a pretty good shot.
What types of plays do you write?
I create new works for the stage grounded in plot-driven storytelling, featuring a strong yet flawed woman as the central character. These women are active participants in their world who want something more than their current social or gender experience allows them. I am interested in re-imagining and responding to classic themes and texts. I don’t write straight adaptations; I use a source text as a jumping off point and respond to it, pushing it forward rather than looking backwards.
I am increasingly aware that as playwrights we need to differentiate our work in theatre from that of film and television, and that is through “theatricality.” To that end, I belong to a physical-theatre group, Farm Arts Collective, which devises short performance pieces on conservation and social issues, touring at festivals and conventions in the Catskill region. This type of work goes against my inclination to write scenes with “three people in a room.” Writing a scene for a group of people walking on stilts teaches a lot about theatricality.
How do you feel the Henley Rose competition help your play in its development to this point?
When I saw that LADY CAPULET was a finalist, besides being thrilled, I felt incredibly validated as a writer. The Henley Rose Competition's only agenda is to support women playwrights.
The competition is about the work and whether the play is good on its own terms. I knew that people enjoyed LADY CAPULET, but I didn’t know if it was a good play. Being a finalist means I have one unbiased confirmation that LADY CAPULET is stage worthy and worth an audience’s time to watch. Luckily, Emily Gallagher, Artistic Director at Barefoot Shakespeare, agrees. It will be presented free and open to the public at Summit Rock (W 83rd St & CPW) in NYC’s Central Park by Barefoot Shakespeare, August 22nd to September 1st 2019, and is available to download on the New Play Exchange. Additionally, I was an honored Finalist for Women in the Arts & Media Coalition’s 2019 Collaboration Award for COURAGE, produced by NACL Theatre.
Recently, I ran a theatre salon in Cincinnati where one of the participants—an academic and an aspiring playwright—told me a disturbing experience she had had in a writing class. “One of the gentlemen, mind you, wrote about women who had been left behind by their fishermen husbands and brothers. The instructor told him (and the class), ‘You’ve missed the boat. The story’s out there,’” pointing, I assume, to where the men-of-action lived offstage.
This story now comes to mind when I hear women who select plays for theater seasons and competitions criticize female playwrights for “not writing like their male counterparts” or for “failing” to create female characters that are “active,” only “reactionary.” It’s not that these female artistic directors are trying to pick all male writers—but they are trying to pick a “solid” season that comes together in a thematic or unified way. This approach will, yes, identify and reward women writers who are good mimics, amongst other things, writers who have perfected the male sound, the male play, the male sentence.
Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash
In the first part of this discussion on why achieving gender parity in theatre continues to be so problematic, I argued that women have been conditioned to adopt male patterns of thinking, reading (i.e. the world as well as texts), and writing. Assuming a male writer’s primary crisis is a tendency to emulate his favorites and that women writers search for such heroes in her own likeness but don’t find them and so suffer an “anxiety of authorship,” with so little women’s writing preserved or cherished as literary legacies who could her heroes be and where might they be found?
If a woman traditionally “surrenders” her natural forms to comply with institutional male models (and by this, I mean the metaphors, language, and structure women might have used instinctively to shape her stories), then how does “she” recover that, after assimilation? Can she? Having learned how to codify: to decode her female nature and encode male logic, language, and strategies, can she return to an informed innocence—in order to re-shape her experience? [As girls, we had to code through the universal “he” to share in much of the written word.]
Photo by Bohdan Maylove on Unsplash
“Herstory,” then, is really about trying to un-imagine the damage of that impact and, as stories are made of smaller units called “sentences,” this re-imagining must include a valuing of a female sentence. Not only must the culture deem “her” stories important, but also it has to recognize her way of telling a story--the words she chooses and how rhythmically or circuitously she strings them together to form meaning. What if her style isn’t linear?
What, then, might her sentence look like—had it lived freely to spawn female libraries and literary canons to influence us? This is what I’m asking. This is the sentence I am after, hers. What is her sentence and how is it different from the standard stock and trade? Will you recognize it, if and when you hear it? Is it a welcome addition to what should be a growing lexicon, syntax, and pallet of voices, voices and words, words and ways of speaking and storytelling? Or will the Otherness irritate because it goes against all that training, consciously or unwillingly, you’ve internalized?
Photo by Daniel Adesina on Unsplash
If we’ve debunked the myth that female playwrights are rare and if women comprise 52% of the world’s population, then why aren’t women’s plays, naturally, selected at least half of the time, even now? Are her stories consistently subpar—or could it be her sentence or storytelling blueprint that is different? Will her content and the structure she comes up with to carry her message alienate you, if she deviates from the “norm”? They may—but couldn’t you learn to “hear” it her way, adjusting to her storytelling methods? Her style may not be simple or clearly straightforward but comprised of sentences that curl into a story that circles. Curling sentences and circling stories that repeat to redefine and reinforce through repetition.
We love to discuss diversity (over uniformity) and a multiverse (instead of a universe) but, seriously, what if her sentence isn’t his economy of words? Or if her style “fails” to replicate his focus on action—making her stance a “reactive” posture, which thereby “reduces her characters to inert followers”? And if her concerns for community aren’t things the standard models value?
Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash
Who hasn’t memorized--into the fiber of our consciousness--what that aesthetic is in literature? Perhaps not the novices, emerging playwrights who aren’t yet expert impersonators. This notion is confirmed when “Bitter Gertrude,” whose posts I enjoy, blogs that 75% of the playwrights her theatre produces are men and how hard it is to find new, female playwrights who don’t make the same “beginner’s mistake. Their characters suffer a lethal passivity and don’t have active desires. This is only a problem [with] emerging female playwrights. [V]eteran, more established women writers write active main characters, just like their male counterparts.” There is no incentive then for women to try and think outside this box so how will “she” find more organic ways to produce meaning? Will we ever achieve accepted and esteemed “alternative discourses”?
Virginia Woolf wrote, “However much we may go to the work of male artists for pleasure, it is difficult to go to them for finding a voice,” and I’m not sure how much has truly changed on this front in the century since. I’ll need to write my dissertation, however, to develop this argument into its truest potential, but I will finish here with these thoughts. My frame of reference changed 20 years ago when I read Luce Irigaray (“This Sex Which is Not One”), Ann Rosalind Jones (“Writing the Body”), Helene Cixous (“Why so few texts? Because so few women have as yet won back their body”) and others. Ideas about “renversement” as a process and as a worthwhile, final product. That it’s important to keep blowing up an idea with questions, not always aiming to answer them—and I don’t mean that dismissively or to suggest that art can just be a hot mess with no craft involved.
My argument for learning to identify what a woman’s sentence might look like isn’t one in support of an anything-goes approach devoid of merit, artistic method, or a stylized talent. It is about multiplicity, building up, including. How? I don’t have those answers. Why? Because we can’t just release young women back into the wild and tell them that, after years of acculturated evisceration, “It’s okay to throw like a girl now. Take it back. Reclaim those words and what they mean.” We have to show her the ways she can #FightLikeAGirl and #WriteLikeAGirl. But first? First, we must help her find her sentence. Why? Because to cure rot you must diagnose it from its point of origin. Culturally, we can slap down new linoleum but the floorboards will groan until we rip them up and replace them—maybe even go so far as to reconfigure the floor plan. In a less-linear fashion.
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Rita Anderson is an award-winning playwright and poet. She has an MFA Creative Writing and an MA Playwriting. Contact Rita through her website: http://www.rita-anderson.com/index.html
Read more about Rita in her member profile.
When Dr. Jenni Munday of the International Centre of Women Playwrights, asked me to share thoughts on my newest work for the stage, Playing Fate, I smiled and thought this really is fate. For I was just thinking about how fortunate I was to meet my director and witness the miraculous transformation of this ever-growing dramatic work. We only met a few months ago, but since collaborating with Cailin Heffernan, my writing has hit a whole new level. We started first working on the Eve of Beltane with my writing partner and master composer, Joe Izen. A process which we all felt was frankly easy and wonderful. So you can imagine it was amazing to me that my writing life was yet to get even better. This incredible experience, being able to lock into a relationship beyond the page, yet before the stage, has been truly enchanting. Why? Because it has made me actually look forward to revising! A daunting task most writers, including myself, dread. Why? Because, as we all know, it is hard work!
Allow me to access metaphor for a minute in order to better explain myself… Imagine you were hosting a dinner party with some of the world’s most distinguished guests. That is, when one writes for the theatre audience, especially in New York City, one never knows who is sitting out there…. Right? Anyhow, you first plan your menu, you gather the ingredients, then you start protocols and then cook. But how would this procedure change if you had a chef in the kitchen. Just imagine… Someone there to check the temperatures, to clean the utensils as you go, and to taste your dishes as they come into form. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Well, that is exactly what happened with this particular play. It started as a one-act called Fate, and during rehearsals, it suddenly spiraled into a full-length. Much like the occasion where you have asked a few friends over and suddenly you have a big event. Exactly. It’s a whole different animal. I was still dealing with the one-act, a perhaps trite love story to illustrate the hand of fate in our lives… But my director, Cailin, ever so gently kept suggesting that this was no longer the case. That the characters, that were now emerging, were not willing to hang locked against the stage walls for me to make a point for a generalization on the theme. These characters were willing, ready and able come center and show that they had living words to share, and they weren’t happy being silenced.
Just as I opened up the process of working on the play with my director, I now feel it is appropriate to let her share in this article about our work. So I will move from singular voice to dialogue. Please meet, my amazing director, Cailin Heffernan.
CK: Cailin, tell us how you got involved in the theatre?
CH: I came from a dance family, so I started dancing when I was three - that was just that. After I segued from Ballet to Theatre, I spent about fifteen years as a performer. I couldn’t imagine a life not in the arts and as my mentor, Vivian Matalon, liked to say - “If you’d pay to do it, then you should be in the theatre.” When acting was no longer making me content, I decided to become a director and for the first time in my life, felt completely at home in my skin. I went back for training from The New American Theatre School, HB Studios and Actors Studio. I was fortunate to be mentored by the aforementioned Vivian Matalon, Stephen Porter, Salem Ludwig, Bob Kalfin and Danya Krupska (Thurston). I had the pleasure of observing Sir Peter Hall as well.
CK: When you start to collaborate with a playwright as director, how is it different from say, working on your own dramatic writing?
CH: Well, it is great because it actually makes me do the work. And the collaboration makes you pick and choose battles. It can’t go all your own way as you are both compromising to create a shared vision. I have to be clearer and more concise in shared writing time. And, I have to really listen to what my collaborator is saying and translate it as best I can to marry my ideas. I guess you could say we create a new baby together.
CK: Now, for something specific about our collaboration… When you read the original text for Playing Fate, what made you see the depth of the work that caused its transformation revision?
CH: Must be noted, you give me too, too much credit. You’re an intrepid writer with an open hand, open heart and open mind. When I read your work, I like to first glean what is at the core of the piece. I tend to ask a plethora of “why” questions. Once I’ve picked out what is new (a character, a thought, a situation, a restatement…) and what is appealing; then I set forth to divine what is impeding that play - always with the writer’s intention clearly in mind. The characters themselves showed me the way in Playing Fate through their universal need to atone for their transgressions and forgive each other. In this instance, what was once a love story had evolved past that and become something else entirely. Playing Fate in its extended form harkened back to a family story of reconciliation akin to something from the American Classical Canon, for instance an Arthur Miller play. The characters of the father and two brothers shouted to me that this was their story and they would not be ignored. Since you agreed, the arc of this New York family came to life.
Thank you Cailin for sharing your insights. I hope it will inspire other playwrights who find themselves in similar circumstances. This business of making theatre, of creating something worth savoring, is vital today more than ever. I sense that audiences are hungry for something, not only to sate them for the time being but something that will give lasting nourishment, like the classics we all feed on. And we need plays that our collaborators- directors, actors, designers, can really sink their teeth into simply to sustain our sense of art on earth - Bon Appetit!
Playwright, Librettist, Artist and Educator, Coni Ciongoli Koepfinger is a playwright - in - residence at both Manhattan Repertory Theatre and Cosmic Orchid Theatre Company.
Cailin is a member of SDC, Dramatists Guild, AEA and SAG-AFTRA. She is an Associate Artistic Director with Boomerang Theatre Company.
Dialogue is what separates a screenplay from a play. I learned that lesson the difficult way when I took my first screenplay class in Los Angeles. There were two playwrights in the class, me and a lovely woman named Natalie, and the rest were screenplay writers. The teacher picked on the playwrights. “NO MONOLOGUES IN SCREENPLAYS!” he would yell at us when we submitted our scripts. “THERE IS WAY TOO MUCH DIALOGUE HERE LADIES! MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS SHUT UP AND USE THE CAMERA!!”
That was two years ago. Last April I had the opportunity to co-write a short screenplay with Melissa Skirboll who is also a playwright, screenplay writer and film director. We were adapting a short story of mine that was published in a literary magazine. At first, I wanted it to read as a play with dialogue and stage directions. Melissa and my film editor Evan Metzold showed me that many of my words could be visual images caught by the camera. Still, as a playwright, I was resistant. Okay, I was jealous of the camera. I wanted my words to rule the film, not a lens.
Well after at least twenty drafts, I learned I had to give up ownership. Yes, the story and the dialogue were important, but so were the images. We have one beautiful shot of the Manhattan skyline and a silent interaction between two characters and a rabbit at the end. The playwright in me would have shouted: speak at the end of the film! but the silence is so lovely and fills in so many gaps. Our film was a semi-finalist in a very competitive international film festival. And I’m proud to say that we were an all-female team from director, cinematographer, producer, assistant director and writers.
I asked fellow screenplay writers what they thought was a major difference between plays and screenplays. One mentioned that FENCES which works so beautifully in theater was just too talky on film and lost some of its dynamic power. With film it’s more what you see than what you say. Naomi McDougall Jones, one of my favorite female screenwriters, described the difference so poetically: “One of the things I love about screenwriting is the level of nuance and subtly you have available. I always think about the fact that an image of a teacup breaking, if lit right, with the right music underneath could be the moment of greatest drama, the turning point of your movie. “
I am currently preparing my play THE BATTLES OF RICHMOND HILL for a production at HERE Center for the Arts this April. And I have to admit I feel much more comfortable writing the script and working the director and actors. I don’t have to worry about sound or color or what cameras to use or which angle. I also don’t have to feed the crew which to me was one of the most intimidating parts of filmmaking. Try finding a restaurant opened at 11:30 in downtown Manhattan for a crew with so many food preferences. You don’t have to feed your crew in theater, and you can have regular hours. We shot MY DINNER WITH SCHWARTZEY from 3AM to 4PM for two day because the bar which was our setting had to get back to work by 4:30 pm. At least with theater there are regular hours.
I love a stage and how you can fill it with movement and words. Every single line of dialogue counts. In a film, if one line of dialogue isn’t perfect, the camera can cover it. A good editor can even make a bad performance good. You can’t hide in theater.
And then there’s the audience. I always say that an actor in a film doesn’t care if you’re laughing or crying. To me, to be applauding along with Mark Rylance dancing on stage is one of my greatest theatrical experiences.
But… I keep returning to but. Theater is ephemeral. Film is final. My play will last for twelve performances and unless someone publishes it the work will vanish. My words for MY DINNER WILL SCHWARTZEY will not disappear and we hope to continue to submit it to festivals for at least another year.
Will I write another screenplay? Maybe. I’m still nervous that my words will always be secondary to the cinematographer. The film editor. There are films I see at film festivals that are almost wordless. They can be powerful and provocative but the playwright in me desperately misses people speaking. Will I write another play? Absolutely yes.
I am a playwright who lives in New York City. My play, I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT, was chosen as one of the best plays produced in an off off Broadway theater. My play, SAFE, was produced at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Other plays have been produced in New York, Chicago and Seattle. I am a member of The Dramatists Guild and The League of Professional Theater Women.
Like many of you, I’ve struggled for much of my life to find “a room of my own.” Growing up in a shoe box size Manhattan tenement apartment, my first writing sanctuary was the shared family bathroom. With a clamorous household crammed with sisters, my grandmother and a working mother, it was impossible to have more than five undisturbed minutes before the desperate hordes advanced on the porcelain bowl’s pearly gates.
Lacking the advantage of my own room, I anointed treasured New York hideouts as ‘June’s Dens’. My favorite refuge was the Cloisters – a medieval castle perched at the tip of Manhattan on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. On Sunday mornings, as Gregorian chants wafted through the castle’s cavernous chambers, I sat between sun-warmed marble columns pouring the secrets of my soul onto a child’s lined schoolbook.
My pattern was set – if not in stone, at least on dog-eared paper – that to write, I needed to leave home to find myself and explore creative visions.
It wasn’t until college, when I first encountered Virginia Woolf’s status quo busting A Room of Her Own, that a thunderclap of recognition struck; I was not alone needing to be alone to write!
"In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble….”
The idea of class and privilege as it relates to a writer’s process (and available opportunities) was something I was just beginning to understand. Raised by a single mother in a class typically referred to as working poor, I felt a failure (and lacking in discipline) because of my inability to write at home.
Historically, women have been denied access to space other than their tightly contained domestic spheres. Breaking out of her home’s confining walls, Virginia Woolf wrote in a converted toolshed. What refuge have you found to compensate for the dearth of creative space in your home? Perhaps, like me, you have sought the quiet of a library, the peace of a house of worship, or the rickety back table of a deserted coffee shop to hear your Muse.
A discovery I made in the late ‘80s opened an exciting new avenue in my quest for creative space. One harried, grey day in New York as I rushed from Teaching Job #2 to Teaching Job #3 - with an hour-long trek on the subway between the two – I opened a journal to pass the time.
An article about a new residency program in North Carolina hiring artists from around the country caught my eye; right then and there I decided to apply, and was accepted a few months later. Journeying to the American South and serving as a North Carolina Visiting Artist (for three years) was an extraordinary, life-changing experience!
Over the past three decades, I’ve explored different types of residencies in a plethora of places; many short-term (a few weeks), some, a couple of months, and a few, spanning years. Although I am fortunate now to own my own home with an attic-shaped office and an antique oak desk which I adore, writing habits are hard to break; I continue to seek out residencies to start or finish a new work.
There has been an explosion of artist residency programs around the world the last twenty years. Are you inspired by nature? Select national parks offer residencies! Would you enjoy writing in a deceased famous person’s house? Heritage sites (literary etc.) have programs.
Do you crave working in a collaborative environment? Yep, those residencies exist too. As I write this blog post, I am happily ensconced in a mountain cabin in Georgia at one of my favorite residency sites (Hambidge Arts Center).
Why do I love artist residencies (let me count the ways)! The best programs offer unique environments to explore and be inspired (whether on top of a mountain or in a vibrant urban setting); a place of one’s own to think and write; and – the super-fun part – the opportunity to meet incredible artists from around the globe.
“If we live another century or so….and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the freedom to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality...then the opportunity will come….”
Well, it’s been close to a century since Woolf’s revolutionary essay was published, and the challenges facing women writers unfortunately persist. If your writing journey is similar to mine, and you long for a room apart from your ‘real’ life to connect with your Muse, beg, borrow, or steal a room of your own, because the plays and stories you have to author are important! (FYI, a terrific resource for residency opportunities is the Alliance of Resident Communities.) Happy residency hunting!
ABOUT JUNE GURALNICK
For three decades, June has created works (plays, performance projects, multi-media installations) melding fact with fiction and portraying individuals caught – sometimes comically, sometimes tragically - in the intersection of politics and personal dreams. Her work has been performed at venues including the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement Theatre (NY), Spirit Square (NC), Equity Library Theatre (NY), Bethany Arts Center (CA), Burning Coal Theatre (NC), Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre (NC), AS220 (RI), North Carolina Museum of Art – and beamed to the Space Station!
Plays include MEMORIES OF CHILDHOOD, CONTAINMENTS: THE HOME PROJECT Part II, IN GOLD WE TRUST (with Guy Nickson), ART TALES OF THADDEUS, WOMEN OF THE LIGHT (with Cynthia Mitchell), SPACE INTERLUDE, FINDING CLARA, ACROSS THE HOLY TELL, ON THE DREAMHOUSE SEA, and most recently, BIRDS OF A FEATHER: A COMEDY ABOUT DE-EXTINCTION. Selections from her plays have been published by North Carolina Literary Review, Playwrights’ Center (Monologues-Heinemann Press), Blackbird Press, Smith & Kraus and Left Curve; ON THE DREAMHOUSE SEA was published in 2017 and monologues from BIRDS will be published in Applause Books’ upcoming Best Women’s Monologues.
Awards and residencies include the Silver Medal-Pinter Drama Review Prize, North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellowship, Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre New Plays winner, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Writing Fellowship, Hambidge Center for the Arts Writer-in-Residence, Writer-in-Residence at Wildacres Retreat, Artist-in-Residence at the Rensing Center, United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County Regional Artist Grant, Piedmont Regional Artist Grant, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference Tennessee Williams Scholar. In 2019, June has been awarded a writing residency at Hambidge Arts Center for rewrites on her work-in-progress (LITTLE ) as well as Runner-Up for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Tyrone Guthrie Writer-In-Residence Fellowship (Ireland).
Notes from the 1984 Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators reveal that little has changed for women in British state theatre seeking equality of opportunity.
Questions asked then were:
Why is there no parity for women on the English subsidized stage? Why is the male-only narrative considered the human one? Why are women shoehorned into a category called ‘diversity’? Why are women forced to compete for subsidy with other groups and therefore perceived as a minority? Why are women the majority on the fringe where their work is unsupported by any infrastructure. Why is women’s work unfunded or underfunded compared to men who run national theatres? Why are women under-represented in the English theatre canon? Why are women ghettoized because they have a vagina and not a penis?
In 2019, I invited Chris Campbell, former Literary Manager of the National Theatre, to talk to my Theatre MA students at City University. How did you get the job? I enquired. He told the group of students and me I was an actor at the NT and keen to play all the roles that Simon Russell Beale was given. I was not a very good actor and I was not given these parts. One day the Artistic Director, Nicholas Hytner, invited me in to his office and asked me if I wanted to join the Literary Department. That’s how I became Literary Manager. The job was not advertised which goes against the spirit of the law. Jobs for the boys is not supposed to happen in the state theatre. But the funding body, the Arts Council, does not check this and so it happens and nothing is said. The role of the Literary Manager is crucial. He, and it is always he at the National Theatre, is the gatekeeper. A writer must be approved by him to get her work read. When Hytner was National Theatre Artistic Director, and rewarded for it with a knighthood, he never directed a play by a woman. Therefore, the Literary Manager knew in advance that he must favour male writers. When Hytner was asked why so few women were produced under his watch, his response was in twenty years women will have equality.
Had he said this about a black person he would have been sacked. Hytner has now left the National Theatre but is still considered one of the ‘great and the good’.
In 2014, Sam Potter asked if the National Theatre had a problem with women when blogging in The Stage. Of 206 productions in the 12 years of Hytner’s directorship only 15% were written by women. Peter Hall, another knight of the British establishment, programmed four women playwrights in 15 years.
This is how it is run in Britain.
In 2018, I wrote in The Guardian about this human rights injustice.
After pulling together a petition of a hundred women protesting about lack of parity, I went to see the Director of the Arts Council with a core group of professional theatre practitioners, among us was Equity’s President Maureen Beattie. We discussed this with Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of the unelected quango, the Arts Council. The Arts Council is the distributor of state money. Its funds come from the taxpayer, over half of which are women. Those women rarely see the complexity of their lives onstage. At the Arts Council meeting my colleagues and I revealed that this lack of parity was a human rights issue and one which we have been exposing as a problem in theatre for over thirty years. Sir Nicholas declared that he was shocked by our revelations. I asked about the monitoring of jobs for the boys in the Literary Departments. Arts Council officers said that there was none.
The patriarchal order is the default position. Questioning it has resulted in intimidation. When I wrote in 1984 in the London magazine City Limits, that the national theatres were marginalizing women’s work, I received a personal letter from the Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Sir Trevor Nunn was so outraged at being held responsible for lack of parity that he wrote this ‘somehow I doubt that you will be experiencing much of what we do at first hand.’
What is the answer? Perhaps The Guerrilla Girls have got it right with their demonstrations outside which shame art galleries that show male-only work.
If the majority of theatre audiences - women - went on strike, this would provoke panic among the ruling self-proclaimed elite. I suggest that we should refuse to visit theatres that do not practise parity. If the Arts Council is afraid to take on the clients it funds and refuses to withdraw funding from theatres that refuse our equal right to work as playwrights, performers, directors and practitioners, we must take action ourselves. A theatrical demonstration outside theatres would provoke unwelcome publicity and highlight this sexual apartheid to a wider audience.
Julia Pascal’s new play Blueprint Medea opens at the Finborough Theatre 22 May 2019.
Julia Pascal is a playwright and scholar in the UK focusing on politics and war. Plays explore multi-ethnicity, the transmission of trauma, mothers and daughters/fathers and sons. Family conflict through a political prism.
You can check out her member profile in the member directory as well as:
In 2018 Pernille Dahl Johnsen was granted a 2-year Work Grant from the Norwegian Government Grants for Artists. We decided to ask her additional questions about this prestigious award as part of our ongoing series of highlighting our members’ awards, grants and recognition.
#jessiesalsbury #icwp #PernilleDahlJohnsen
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