Women in Chicago Theater, Through a Playwright’s Eyes

Susan Lieberman
Susan Lieberman

The revival of The Marbury Project came on the heels of this TimeOut Chicago article showing that three prominent theatres — Court Theatre, Northlight Theatre, and Writers Theatre — all have seasons without any plays by women.

With that in mind, I reached out to the Women’s Theatre Alliance of Chicago to get an insider’s view of how women do their work in the Windy City. Playwright Susan Lieberman was among the first to respond. Her answers to my questions show the breadth of her experience, the depth of her knowledge, and her commitment to getting plays by women on stage.

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A resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists (which co-produces Chicago Playwrights, the video interview series created by Sean Douglass and Bec Willett for the Clyde Fitch Report), Lieberman is widely produced in the Chicago area. She has received a Jeff Award for Arrangements for Two Violas and a Jeff nomination for Prairie Lights as well as two regional Emmy nominations. Her plays have been produced at Chicago Dramatists, Stage Left, Visions & Voices Theatre Co., Theatre Building Chicago, Clockwise Theatre, 20% Theatre Co., Skokie Theatre, Bloomington Playwrights Project, Pandora Productions, Gallery Players, Jewish Theatre Grand Rapids and the Jerusalem English Speaking Theatre. (Her full bio can be read here and here.)

How did you get involved with Chicago theatre?
I’m a native Chicagoan and a Baby Boomer, which means I remember when Chicago theatre was just beginning to take shape in the ’70s. Body Politic, Organic, Victory Gardens, Wisdom Bridge, Northlight (called Evanston Theatre Company back then). But perversely, that’s also when I fell in love with British theatre. During and after college, I did long stretches in London, working at Open Space Theatre and the Round House. When I exhausted all of my visa extensions, I moved to New York City for five years. Though I had a wonderful job — an editor for Theatre Crafts magazine — I never felt comfortable or happy there. Every time I went home to Chicago, I saw something wonderful onstage. After three Steppenwolf shows transferred to New York City (Balm in Gilead, Orphans and True West), I realized I was missing all the excitement. So I moved back in 1985 and walked over to Chicago Dramatists to see if I might find a place for myself. The rest is mostly happy history.

Talk a little bit about your script consultant and board member work.
I just ended four years as Raven Theatre‘s literary manager. Since its inception 30-plus years ago, Raven has specialized in American classics with occasional workshops to develop new scripts. Recently, its artistic director, Mike Menendian, began expanding Raven’s mission to include world premieres. He asked me to formalize its ad hoc workshops into an official play development program called [Working Title]. To give some shape to the process, we chose themes such as “The American family” and “The American workplace” and even the very specific “Chicago immigrant experience.” The plays that we selected received 12 rehearsals and three public performances.

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I am currently script adviser for Continuum Theater which brings new Jewish plays to the Chicago area. Last year, Continuum did staged readings of eight very different scripts at various locations. We cast a wide net, working with the Jewish Play Project and other avenues to find contemporary plays with Jewish themes. It got a little wild and crazy but was ultimately a very rich experience.

As a longtime resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists, I am in the second year of my term as a playwright rep to the board. Playwright reps don’t have the same financial obligations as board members — how many playwrights can analyze a spreadsheet or have wealthy corporate colleagues? — but we are expected to contribute time and energy and ideas. We also act as liaisons between the board and the playwrights. It’s been a challenging time to serve. Our beloved artistic director, Russ Tutterow, developed cancer last year and passed away this spring. As the first person to welcome me to Chicago theatre in 1985, Russ was very much my friend and mentor. He turned Chicago into a town that could develop its own playwrights — the theme of his memorial service at the Goodman Theatre in July, where his “family” of literally hundreds of friends paid tribute to him.

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What are some things that you notice about the way gender impacts how plays are chosen and developed?
My experiences with Raven and Continuum have been unusually balanced in terms of gender. I found that both Raven’s male artistic director and Continuum Theater’s executive director, Devorah Richards, had the same goal: to find good new plays. Roughly half the scripts Raven selected for workshops were written by women and included significant female roles. Continuum ended up with five plays by women and three by men. Neither director had an agenda to support women writers; they just picked plays that they found compelling. On the other hand, Russ at Chicago Dramatists made a point decades ago to reach out to female playwrights and our ranks are now fairly evenly split.

A lot of theatres who don’t have that goal struggle to find a balance of genders represented among playwrights. What do you think made Raven and Continuum different?
Over the years, Raven has focused on American classics and, like it or not, that means more plays by men than women. But Mike Menendian and his co-artistic director, JoAnn Montemurro, frequently choose works by Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Horton Foote — iconic male playwrights but also deeply personal writers. This makes Mike and JoAnn very open to intimate dramas; and many of the plays submitted to [Working Title] by women really spoke to them. I hasten to add that we received a wonderful variety of scripts from female playwrights, and “intimate” only applies to some of the submissions.

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Continuum’s final script choices reflect its effort to reach different segments of Chicago’s Jewish community. We looked for plays that would appeal to younger singles, seniors, suburban families, LBGT, etc. That we ended up with five plays by women and three by men is somewhat random. But recognizing the diversity of Chicago’s Jewish population was a defined mission.

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But are Raven, Continuum and Chicago Dramatists’ choices generally true of Chicago’s hundreds of theatres? Not really. Women theatre artists are strongly — but not equally — represented onstage in this town. The “dudes” tend to dominate the process — the producers, the directors, the playwrights and the actors. Existing structures with entrenched habits are hard to change.

What are some ways that gender bias creeps into the process of production?
Very complex issue. Men dominating the production process in theatre is probably similar to men dominating decision-making roles in business. Cycles of men hiring men like themselves and providing role models for the next generation of men are hard to break. On the other hand, simply having a female leader does not necessarily lead to widespread gender parity. For an artistic director, this means selecting plays by women and hiring women directors — plus marketing all productions vigorously so that ticket sales demonstrate that people will pay to see a good show no matter who wrote it.

In your work as a board member, in what ways do you advocate for female playwrights?
When it became clear that Russ was terminally ill, my first task was to advocate for a new artistic director who had a solid history of collaborating with women theatre artists. Fortunately, we were blessed that Meghan Beals, who had previously been Chicago Dramatists’ associate artistic director, was willing and able to take the top job. She supports all writers, giving women playwrights the same sense of security that we had with Russ: our voices will be heard. Adding to this is managing director Cindy Lantz — an experienced administrator with a practical approach to male-dominated institutions and businesses.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ingrained gender disparities within and beyond board meetings. In discussing our annual fundraising gala, it took an outspoken new female board member to challenge the guys around the conference table: “Do not leave the ‘party-planning’ to the women.” Well, I’d never really noticed that previous benefit committees have been mostly women. Urging men to take ownership has been a good first step. Also, a female attorney now heads the governance committee and is invigorating board procedures.

Elaine May met Mike Nichols at the University of Chicago, before they started what became Second City.
Elaine May met Mike Nichols at the University of Chicago, before they started what became Second City.

What, in your experience, have been the chief obstacles to more women playwrights reaching prominence in Chicago’s playwriting community?
Let’s start with three leading organizations that define Chicago theatre: Second City, Goodman and Steppenwolf. Despite Elaine May co-creating Chicago improv — and Gilda Radner and Tina Fey cutting their teeth here — Second City skews masculine. Goodman, our regional flagship, has only had male leaders staging (mostly male) classics and (more than 50 percent male) contemporary works. Steppenwolf became famous for a visceral and physical acting style (read: male) and made national stars of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. Their ensemble peer, Joan Allen, has had a substantial national career — and many female playwrights do get produced — but opportunities for men have been much richer. Fortunately, women seem to have a growing presence at Steppenwolf, especially after 20 years of Martha Lavey’s artistic leadership. Her successor is Anna Shapiro, another forceful leader. We can only hope that this will bring increased stage time for women playwrights at Steppenwolf.

Why do you think Chicago is a great place to do the work of gender parity for women playwrights?
Our playing field is manageable. Theatre artists can find an empty space, hang a few lights and open a show. All over town. That doesn’t mean it’s easy; many more start-up companies fail than thrive. But without the male-dominated business world of commercial theatre in New York and the film and TV industry in Los Angeles, the “third coast” of Chicago tends to be more accessible. For those of us who don’t eat nails for breakfast, it’s a more comfortable place to work on gender parity.

At The Marbury Project, we believe that supporting the leadership of women in the arts is as important as putting more plays by women on stage. How would you suggest the average person–audience members, writers, actors, directors, etc.–go about doing that?
Ticket sales are power. At Chicago’s Equity theatres, the average ticket buyer is a female over the age of 45. Many of the non-Equity theatres have a similar box-office demographic. Several years ago in a Vanity Fair interview, Meryl Streep pointed out that Mamma Mia!, It’s Complicated and Julie and Julia — all films with mature women as central characters — were commercial successes. The “average person” can do no better service to women playwrights than to buy tickets to their shows. Regardless of gender, “sold out” will always be a producer’s two favorite words.

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Which three theatres are doing amazing things for female playwrights?
Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 16th Street Theatre and Babes with Blades.

Do you have advice for female playwrights who want to come to Chicago?
Because lucrative film and TV gigs for writers are almost entirely in Los Angeles or New York City, playwrights should assume they’ll need to get a day-job in Chicago. They should also bring a warm coat.