When Susannah Martin, a San Francisco-based theater director, saw her work onstage many years ago, she knew something was wrong. It was a production of Edward Albee’s “Finding the Sun.” The play takes place on a beach.
“It was only after the fact that I was like, ‘Oh, what did we do?’… We had our guys in swim trunks and shirts that were open but they never really took off. And we had our women in bikinis. Not all of the women, but the two younger women. And it was like, ‘Oh, what did we just do?’ We just really revealed these women’s bodies but not the men’s as much. Now, in hindsight, I’m like, that’s not okay with me.”
The costumes men and women wear onstage can illustrate their characters. These same costumes, or lack thereof, can also speak volumes about gender inequality in theater. How women are portrayed onstage often comes down to who has the power to make final decisions in a production.
Playwright Elizabeth Spreen once worked as a costume designer. “I’ve had conversations where I was asked to consider how a woman’s sexuality (whether she was a virgin or not) could be emphasized by her costume. This never happened when I was asked to design for a male. There are plays that focus on women’s sexuality from a male point of view and it becomes important to help the audience read whether she’s virtuous or a whore by the way she’s dressed.”
Another play Spreen recently saw had a female protagonist, an historical figure. “The second half of the show consisted of her walking around in essentially a bra and a skirt that revealed her legs and listening to her story told by men, filtered and interpreted by men. While this may be historically accurate, I wonder if a woman had written the play would she have found a way for the woman to continue to tell her story, to share her experience of having her story co-opted by men. Would there have been some thought given to what the experience was for the actress to be half dressed for the better part of an act while the male cast members were dressed in wool suits.”
Given how difficult it seems for female playwrights to get their work produced, the predominant male perspective is often a given. Indeed, it takes awareness and a decision to make conscious choices.
Martin directed Sam Shepard’s “Lie of the Mind” earlier this year. In a scene from the play, one of the characters has to partially disrobe. The director explains, “She’s the only one taking her clothes off. And so that was hard for me. I just thought that, Oh God, I don’t want to exploit this young woman. I don’t want her to feel like any way that we’re using her body as an object. And so I had a lot of conversations with her about how we can change this. You can be in a sports bra that’s less revealing.”
They eventually decided on having the actress wear a regular bra. Martin notes that Shepard was using the moment to make the audience and the characters in his play uncomfortable. If he were simply being exploitative, she wouldn’t have staged the play.
If more women had the opportunity to create theater, would our stage images of female characters be different? Undoubtedly.
Do male playwrights and directors handle nudity onstage differently?
Listen to an excerpt of the interview.
Martin was in the audience at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Vibrator Play,” by Sarah Ruhl a few years ago. “The end of the play was a very intimate moment between husband and wife where he was the one who became naked. It felt very much like the point given that Sarah Ruhl had written it and what she was talking about in terms of female sexuality. “