Steal This Stage

The State of Women in Theater, 1999

Off-Off venues are harder to track, but one trend is clear: the smaller the budgets go, the greater the likelihood that theaters are producing plays by women, hiring female directors, or are even run by a woman. And in performance art— a form arguably invented by feminists— women may be a majority. Nevertheless, as soon as real cash gets involved in, for instance, Uptown transfers or HBO specials, the pesky pattern returns. It's not that Danny Hoch and Eric Bogosian and John Leguizamo, say, don't deserve wider audiences and real paychecks. But so do this year's Obie winners Lisa Kron, Peggy Shaw, and Carmelita Tropicana. (Need one point out that they are doubly distanced from the cash flow by virtue of being lesbians?) That these are the women whose writing rocked the Obie committee this year (a committee of four women and three men), while the playwrights we acknowledged are all men, reflects exactly the findings of Bennett and Braxton's study.

As for more conventional plays— the sort that elicit yawns from Obie judges and accolades from Uptown critics— there's still a principled plea to be made for women, isn't there? Don't women have as much right to be boring and mediocre as men? It's obvious enough that the numerous dramas by men playing on Broadway right now (not counting those by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and Arthur Miller) are hardly superior specimens of theatrical literature. The Weir? Closer? Amy's View? Can anyone really argue that there's only one woman— Yasmina Reza, the author of Art— who writes as well? Strangely enough, in ages past, it was easier for women to get produced in commercial theaters. Grab any best-plays-of-the-year volume off the shelf from the '20s, '30s, '40s, or '50s, and you'll find a far healthier showing of women than you will today— Rachel Crothers, Susan Glaspell, Sophie Treadwell, Hallie Flanagan, Lillian Hellman, Clare Boothe, Alice Childress, Mary Chase, Lorraine Hansberry. What happened?

The '50s, for one thing, which pushed women out of the paid labor force and into the suburban kitchen. And the '60s and '70s for another, which offered women countercultural and feminist possibilities that deliberately defied the decorum of the Great White Way.

Performer Deb Margolin in Oh Wholly Night: an argument for collective ambition
Dixie Sheridan
Performer Deb Margolin in Oh Wholly Night: an argument for collective ambition

By the time the Women's Project and Productions was established in 1978 to try to restore the balance, there were divergent ideas about what women might demand from the theater: were they, as in the corporate realm, pressing for parity within a given structure, or were they, rather, gunning for new paradigms? Did they want to move women up the ladder into those top directing posts, or did they want to develop a whole new collaborative way of working? Could mothers insist on day care during rehearsals, or could they imagine that fathers would share equally in child-rearing duties? Was the point to shatter the glass ceiling or to change the world?

In those heady days a generation ago, the answer, of course, was all of the above. What's different now is that all those more radical propositions seem to have dropped out of the discourse. To be sure, there are women who are living them every day, but typically without health insurance or pension plans, and, tragically, without a movement that supports— and agitates for— such a vision.

At that October roundtable discussion hosted by NYSCA, Deb Margolin remembers, "I ended up with a certain despair. We had had a provocative, intellectual, convivial conversation about the existence of the problems, but when time was running out and we asked what we are going to do about it, one woman said that we must not be afraid of our ambition. Absolutely, we should work toward full personal achievement. But the trouble with ambition is that it is singular and noncommunal. The only way women are going to have power is if we flex it collectively."

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