Many know the Guerrilla Girls because of their work in the visual arts. They have a contingent dedicated to theater, too, led in part by Aphra Behn — in reality, playwright Donna Kaz. Her memoir, Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour is about her journey with, and among, the gorilla-masked gender-parity advocates. Kaz and I spoke recently about the book (available now), her work for the theater, and gender-parity advocacy. The selected quotes in this article are from Kaz’s book, with her permission.
When you fight against something and see very little change it is easy to question whether you are doing any good. As Aphra Behn I sweat and grunt and put in hours of time to provoke the start of a dialogue about sexism in theatre within the theatre community. I hear very little discussion and see almost no change. Of course, change happens slowly, but with my own career to pursue, I question why I am wasting energy fighting something no one else in theatre seems to care about. The silence and same old, same old begins to take a toll on me. Suddenly, feminism is the “f” word, the entire movement is questioned, the past achievements regarded as no longer valid to women today.
Women face many emotions when they advocate, and in my interview with her, Kaz elaborated on this: “When you’re young and optimistic, you have this energy and you’re going to address this challenge of fixing gender parity and make people aware. It’s very exciting. But when change doesn’t happen you get pissed off. Then you’re fueled by anger, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it keeps you going because you just get madder and madder and madder and then you keep trying.”
Celebrating the small wins is critical to sustaining the energy for advocating. For Kaz, one of the most important successes of the Guerrilla Girls’ work is the emergence of other activist groups. “Groups spring up like Marbury, LA Female Playwrights Initiative, 50/50 in 2020, the League [of Professional Theatre Women], with the same sort of mission and you feel ‘great, join the cause,'” she said. “So little by little, change happens, because everyone is working on it.”
When the lights dim that evening I sneak into the packed house and weep, laugh, and applaud with the rest of the crowd for We Are Theatre. We are theatre. It is time for the stories of women to be produced on stages across the world. Only when women’s narratives are equally heard, can solutions rise to some of the injustices that plague us all. Without the voice and the vision of women and artists of color the theatre is a play without a second act.
“We’re really selling our audiences short if we, or artistic directors, spoon-feed [audiences] what we think they’re going to like and not ever challenge them,” Kaz adds. “Of course, if you’ve never heard a female narrative on stage, it’s going to be a little shocking at first. But since most of the people in the seats are female, it just makes sense.” She noted how there’s only one female-penned show planned for Broadway this season: Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play The Little Foxes. Only five female directors are working on Broadway this year, too. “A wonderful thing to experience on Broadway last year were these all female creative teams and now there aren’t any.”
We are too late. Women playwrights have moved on without anyone noticing. They are writing novels, poems, and essays instead of plays. They are focusing their creativity elsewhere. The theatre won’t die (right away at least) without women playwrights. Plays by men have sustained it and can continue to do so. A world without Shakespeare or Mamet would be unimaginable to some. But what about a world without Suzan-Lori Parks, Lisa Kron, Sarah Ruhl, Katori Hall, Jeanine Tesori, Quiara Hudes, Annie Baker, Amy Herzog and all the other women playwrights?
You have to go out and have a margarita now and then.
Q. How does the theatre change. A. Very slowly. And only when every playwright, actor, director, choreographer, producer, designer, theatre owner, artistic director, and audience member stands up and dictates a new vision of an inclusive theatre by refusing to continue the status quo.
I asked Kaz for three pieces of advice for the next generation of female artists. “I would say ‘eat healthy’ and ‘get strong’ because you’re going to have to kick in some doors. Two, be wary of the smokescreen of ‘everything is all right now’. We’ve been listening to that since the Virgina Slims commercial. We have come a long way and we’re about to go even further. We can’t relax and coast. Third, just be aware of what’s going on around you. Question it. We need equal pay and equal opportunity and we need to have all of our stories told. It’s an exciting time and young women are doing a lot.”
Un/Masked can be purchased at all the normal places, especially an independent bookstore near you. It also comes with your very own gorilla mask to cut out and wear next time you march for gender parity in the arts.