Bitch Goddess Playwright Gets Real

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Ilse Bing, Self Portrait-in-Mirrors, 1931. Photo: Museum of Modern Art.

I launched my annual #1playaday reading binge on May 1. On day seven I read Young Jean Lee’s Lear. What’s striking in the first pages of the play is the way Lee situates her play within the context of Shakespeare’s text, deftly compressing the action of the original and framing the audience’s view of Lee’s play moving forward. Her stage directions are evocative and precise. She describes the proscenium, the sound and the action as the curtain rises. She describes the walls of the throne room, the throne, the chairs, the carpets, the back wall, the costumes and the continuing action set to music.

Lee’s authority is unquestionable. 

I want to take a moment and let this sentence sit. I want to repeat it.

Lee’s authority is unquestionable.

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It’s easy to take this kind of authority for granted. On the page, it seems such a given. Yet, it’s no secret that once a playwright’s gender, race, ethnicity and/or class become associated with the words, their authority begins to radically shift. This erosion, having to do with unconscious bias, is subtle and disorienting, sometimes leaving artists to navigate play development and production through a fun house mirror reflection — a space that is slightly suspect, but seldom explicitly so. Women in particular can find themselves in a double bind: If you act in a way that reflects gender norms, then you’re perceived as incompetent; if you go against stereotype, you’re considered unfeminine and difficult to work with.

Here’s Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women’s Writing:

She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed… She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women.) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (“Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that’s all she ever…”) She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte. Her own “masculine side.”) She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard’s help…) She wrote it BUT…

This isn’t the kind of phenomenon you can count, yet it can be measured in response rates and associations to words and images. We respond favorably to words and images we have established associations with and unfavorably when we encounter the opposite. Stories are patterns. Our associations and expectations with respect to content and form are based on stories we’ve seen before.

This was helpful to hunters, who I suspect exercised a more prosaic form of pattern recognition, more akin to fairy tales. Structure and content became formalized in the Aristotelian model that’s now built into the DNA of western European culture. We may have a preference for linearity, for stories with a clear beginning, middle and end. We might find a satisfying predictability in them. That predictability comes through repetition and constant association (witness a child learning to tell joke). It can become a dead end, leading to a stultification of form that harms the field. It also hides enormous rifts in experience.

Our culture has built a mythology around the author of our stories. We accept and celebrate the authority and genius of the male writer. Our associations about content, form and structure all derive from those myths. This often means adapting or adopting the dominant style or form. Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear comes to mind as an example of a play that comically embraces and subverts the narrative norm, and ultimately claims ground for a female-centered dramaturgy. Her work is successfully building new narrative associations, giving audiences a new lens through which to view women’s writing. To quote Gertrude Stein:

How can you tell a boy how can you tell a girl.

What about writers whose style or process doesn’t conform, or veers off into territory for which we have no associations? What if, in spite of inventiveness or quality of work, producers or audiences or critics don’t recognize the playwright’s intention because of unconscious bias? What if the playwright’s authority isn’t recognized or, for some reason, their play is triggering?

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I’m curious about the critical response to Lydia Diamond’s Smart People outlined in Anchuli Felicia King’s recent article on Howlround. Much of the criticism falls in the realm of competence, suggesting that Diamond hasn’t quite mastered the form, that her characters are stock and stereotypical, mouthpieces for her dramaturgy. New York Times critic Charles Isherwood calls out her reference to the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” as offering the audience a fig leaf.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The more you deviate from the norm, the more triggering you are.[/pullquote]Could Diamond be up to more here than apologizing for her dramaturgy? What if her reference is a double entendre — a reference to Guare’s play and the game it spawned, which consequently erases the main character of the play and substitutes a white man? Diamond is criticized for her plot contrivances. Might Guare’s play seem as similarly contrived if it weren’t based on the experience of his “friends”? Does it matter? Where exactly does Guare’s authority come from? What if Diamond were challenging it? What would her reasons be? Where’s the impulse to dig deeper into Diamond’s story? It shouldn’t be surprising that her play might not have gotten a fair reading, as Jesse Green of New York magazine seems to suggest.

I produced my own work within my own company for the first seven years of my career. Our mission was to explore race, class and gender through the work we produced or devised. This was the culture I steeped in as I wrote and developed my work. The company gave me a space where I could write whatever I chose, develop my plays holistically through a writing and devising process, and where my voice as a writer could find the fullest strength of expression.

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As I’ve moved into the more mainstream apparatus of play development, I’ve encountered a constant gendering of my work. I’m not naive enough to believe that it never happened before — I have reviews that plainly illustrate how my gender can affect a critic’s view of my work. I’m surprised at how often and in what ways my authority as a writer is called into question. A fellow artist recently shared her frustration: “There’s always someone who challenges the power in the room [or who defaults to] emotional over-identification,” she said, issues that she attributes to the fact that either “I’m a girl or because I’m not a traditional girl.” Few people act this way on purpose; our presence as female or writers of color trigger associations that are projected onto our work. As my friend confirms, “Women in general trigger people. The more you deviate from the norm, the more triggering you are.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Women in general trigger people.[/pullquote]While those experiences can be paralyzing at times, it’s important to identify and celebrate where and how we are succeeding. Gender parity (Yes, to The List! Yes, to Counting Actors!) is generating action by raising consciousness and visibly changing the makeup of our seasons. The trend toward all female or female-focused seasons* creates a necessary space for new voices to emerge, while increasing our exposure to the variety of form and content coming from writers who are considered to fall outside the traditional norm. (This is a perception, a construct, you realize.) Those associations will make it possible to discover new modes of expression and forms. We haven’t seen it yet because we’re still inside the funhouse. As I launch my column, Shakespeare’s Sister, for The Clyde Fitch Report, I’m excited to find a supportive space to explore topics that can help move the conversation forward.

*Artemisia Theatre, Fresh Ink Theatre, Halcyon Theatre, Magic Theater, Theatre Conspiracy, Playwrights Realm. Please list those I’ve missed in the comments section.

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Elizabeth Spreen

Elizabeth Spreen is a writer and independent theater artist. She enjoys engaging and exchanging ideas with artists, makers and thinkers across disciplines. Her work includes performance, communal gatherings, facilitated investigations, broadsides and experimental texts. She is a playwright-in-residence with Playwrights Foundation’s four-year Resident Playwright Initiative. Her work has been developed or produced by Crowded Fire, Playwrights Foundation, Shotgun Players and Paducah Mining Company. She is based in the San Francisco Bay area.

  • AnonJ611

    You use the phrase “gender parity” and continue to note women-focused seasons as part of this movement. Does this sort of separation not create an even larger gap between the sexes’ perception of eachother? I wonder how a critic viewing a play presented in a normal season would view the same play presented in a women-focused season. I feel like this could be part of the issue, because in many other fields, women are gaining a huge advantage due to the “gender parity” movement, with recent statistics showing something around a 2:1 hiring advantage for women going into scientific fields versus men. I cannot say if these statistics are good or bad for society in general, but how do you feel this sort of forced disparity affects people’s “unconscious bias” as you put it?

    • Elizabeth Spreen

      People have been pretty vocal and direct about their issues w/r/t all female seasons and/or female focused seasons, so I don’t equate what I’m seeing there with “unconscious bias.” There’s a genuine concern and perhaps a sense of being threatened, which is to be expected. That’s what’s happened as women have moved into fields traditionally occupied by men. What I’m saying is that one of the benefits of an all female season or one that is balanced (50/50), gives audiences, producers, critics a chance to see a wider range of narratives and that in turn, creates new associations. We can see plays by women or persons of color narratives that aren’t necessarily framed as “issue” plays. Typically, seasons have been organized so there’s one slot set aside for a play by a woman or a person of color, or sometimes a person of color who’s also a woman. It does a disservice to everyone when one person each season stands in for “all.”

    • Ian Thal

      I wonder how a critic viewing a play presented in a normal season would view the same play presented in a women-focused season.

      A fine question to ask, but from my experience as a critic, I am too focused on the play I am reviewing at that moment to really bother thinking about the season as a whole — as even with theater companies whose work I make a point of reviewing fairly consistently, I’ve likely spent evenings with a half-a-dozen other companies in between — consequently thinking about a company’s programing as a whole is generally something I only do after I’ve filed a review. My intuition is that while some critics may be subconsciously affected in their judgement because of an individual playwright’s gender, for a critic to be prejudiced against a company for having an all-female season would require a willful bias.

  • Thank you for the shout out to Counting Actors!
    http://www.womenartsmediacoalition.org/studies/ is great resource for gender parity studies and counts in many regions and many arts disciplines.