I didn’t used to think of myself as a feminist playwright. A feminist, yes. I have never thought of it as the “other ‘F’ word” or shied away from the label.
But a “feminist playwright”? No. That title belongs to eminent writers like Caryl Churchill or Penelope Skinner, who I admire from afar. That’s not me. I’m just a writer who happens to also care about gender equality.
But lately, the distinction has been hazy. You see, there’s a problem in theater today. It’s not a problem that’s specific to Broadway or American theater or even limited to this century: For too long, men have had the lion’s share when it comes to theatrical storytelling. Unless we have more diversity in who tells the stories, we will only see the same points of view over and over again.
The modern theater community inherited this situation; it didn’t invent it. Nor is there a human resources department to solve the problem for us. It certainly can’t be fixed by one feminist playwright.
But I can try.
Since I’m not a director, producer or literary manager, I have limited access to the means of production. But I can write more roles for women. I can write characters beyond the girlfriend of the hero or the evil stepmother of the ingenue. I can create protagonists that don’t trip on their own feet and land in the laps of love interests, protagonists that aren’t just beautiful and strong and likable but also ugly and unfeminine and complicated.
In hindsight, there has always been a feminist bent to my work. One of my first plays, which I wrote when I was 16, was an oddball comedy about a disabled 20-something determined to escape her small Midwestern hometown and resorts to money laundering to get needed cash. By the end of the play — spoiler alert — she breaks free of the fairy-tale ending that her family wanted for her: to marry a nice guy who would support her.
It’s not that she doesn’t love the nice guy; in the play, he’s the one who helps her land the gig in the first place. But she needs to stand on her own two feet before she can walk off into the sunset with anyone.
I’m very much an emerging playwright, but it’s safe to say that this theme recurs in my work. But now it’s a more conscious choice. I am working to shift the balance, even if it’s one part, one actress, one director at a time.
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure to work with other people who feel as I do. If you read The New York Times back in May, you learned about Broadway’s best kept secret: The Ziegfeld Club, an organization devoted to supporting women in theater.
As the Club’s executive director, Laurie Sanderson, described in her post on the Clyde Fitch Report in June, The Ziegfeld Club was founded in 1936 to assist former Ziegfeld Follies girls who had fallen on hard times. Now the Club is fulfilling and expanding its mission by creating an $10,000 award for an emerging female composer — the announcement will come this November.
At first, The Ziegfeld Club and I might seem like an odd couple. Though I’d love to write a musical, I’ve yet to do so. The only way to get me to sing is to rent a private room at a Korean karaoke club. As for the Ziegfeld Girls, they seem far too glamorous for the likes of me.
But maybe not.
When I first met Laurie, she showed me photos from the various Follies. “You would be a pony,” she told me, affectionately. I smiled in polite confusion. She clarified that “ponies” were the smaller dancers who did Ned Wayburn’s complicated choreography while taller showgirls wore elaborate costumes that didn’t allow for much movement. I told her that I was too short, at five-foot-three, to be a “pony.” But Laurie insisted, “Ann Pennington was four-eleven-and-a-half!”
I still can’t dance but it’s nice to know that Florenz Ziegfeld wouldn’t have excluded me on the basis of my height.
My job with the Ziegfeld Club is less solitary than my work as a playwright. Instead of focusing on one line at a time in my plays, I work with women who want to see other women doing the storytelling. It’s — dare I say it? — a sisterhood.
In an industry without a HR department, perhaps a sisterhood is exactly what we need: a collective devoted to seeing other women succeed and flourish.