Igniting Interest in Historic Plays by Women

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Actress Tamara Tunie participated in “Scenes from Historic Women Playwrights: Read by Luminaries of the Stage” at Georgetown University in 2012. It was the inaugural event for History Matters/Back to the Future.
Actress Tamara Tunie participated in “Scenes from Historic Women Playwrights: Read by Luminaries of the Stage” at Georgetown University in 2012. It was the inaugural event for History Matters/Back to the Future.
Actress Tamara Tunie participated in “Scenes from Historic Women Playwrights: Read by Luminaries of the Stage” at Georgetown University in 2012. It was the inaugural event for History Matters/Back to the Future.

How many women playwrights from long ago do you know?

Did your favorite women playwrights from the late 19th and early 20th century make the List?

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History Matters/Back to the Future seeks to put plays by women back into circulation through study and production. Founded by a coalition of theater professionals, the group plans to accomplish their mission by encouraging educators to dedicate one class period per semester to a historic play by a woman playwright. They also have founded the Judith Barlow Prize to honor a student playwright who writes a one-act play inspired by the work of an historic woman playwright.

The “One Play at a Time” initiative features a list of plays from 1845 to 1959. Notable playwrights include Anna Cora Mowatt, Rachel Crothers, Alice Childress, Sophie Treadwell, Zoe Akins, Gertrude Stein and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Educators receive a sample lesson plan and support materials. Thus far, nearly 30 professors from the U.S. and Europe have agreed to participate.

“The idea of ‘History Matters’ is these remarkable works of art have fallen out of the canon,” explains actress Kathleen Chalfant in a video, “And so people have gotten out of the habit of thinking that women write for the theater and have always written for the theater.”

In the SummerHouse by Jane Bowles was produced on Broadway in 1953. Tennessee Williams said, “It is not only the most original play I have ever read, I think it is also the oddest and funniest and one of the most touching. It is one of those rare plays which are not tested by the theater but by which the theater is tested.” — from History Matters/Back to the Future

The group also encourages contemporary women playwrights to respond to these plays as well. Indeed, many women in theater may be astonished at how little they know about their foremothers.

Co-founder, librettist and playwright Joan Vail Thorne says that it took Judith E. Barlow to bring attention to these historic plays. Barlow, Professor Emeritus of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Albany, SUNY taught these plays and included them in her anthologies. Her books include “Plays by American Women 1900-1930,” and “Plays by American Women 1930-1960” and “Women Writers of the Provincetown Players,” which is an anthology of short plays by women from 1915 to 1922.

The Judith Barlow Prize honors student playwrights who write a one-act play inspired by work from a playwright on their list. The winner will receive a $2,500 cash prize and the runner-up will be awarded $1,000. The winner’s professor will also receive $500 for introducing the student to the play that inspired the entry.

In order to be eligible, students must either be currently enrolled in a History Matters/Back to the Future class or have completed it within the last 12 months. Applications are available through their website. The deadline is Nov. 30, 2014.

Anyone who wants to encourage theater companies or colleges to teach and produce the work of these historic women playwrights can also visit the website for ideas. There is also a summary, cast breakdown, length and availability notes for plays on their site.