Fall Guide: Female Playwrights Look to Big Fall Season

Aphra Behn, the Restoration dramatist, appears frequently on syllabi, but rarely onstage. The first professional female playwright, she led Virginia Woolf to declaim, "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn."

Whether or not her grave is garlanded, Behn's legacy has flourished: Today, female playwrights swell the ranks of professional organizations, rival men in graduate programs, and win Pulitzers. And yet a study released earlier this year by Princeton undergraduate Emily Glassberg Sands, entitled "Opening the Curtain of Playwright Gender," concluded that plays by and about women receive fewer productions than they statistically warrant.

So it's encouraging that New Yorks' fall season teems with female-penned plays—among them Or, Liz Duffy Adams's comic tribute to Behn. The Voice spoke to several female playwrights with fall premieres to ask if they've experienced gender bias in their professional lives. Generally, the writers do believe such prejudice exists, though they say it can be difficult to detect. Rebecca Gilman—whose adaptation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter debuts at New York Theatre Workshop on November 13—says, "Unless you find secret e-mails or documentation, nobody's going to come up to you and say, 'I'm not doing your play because you're a lady, and I don't like ladies!' " "It's so confusing," agrees Annie Baker, whose Circle Mirror Transformation begins performances September 24 at Playwrights Horizons. "I had terrible day jobs for so many years. The amount of gender discrimination I experienced as a receptionist so outweighs any I might be experiencing now."

Yet Baker recalls a recent talkback where a man in the audience praised an all-male scene and "asked me if I'd had a male consultant to help me write it." In a similar vein, Lucy Thurber—whose Killers and Other Family starts at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on September 17—says people have often paid her a strange compliment: " 'Wow, you don't write like a girl'—I'm never exactly sure what that means." Gilman recalls early reviews that said, "This is a good play, but it's essentially a woman's play." Sarah Ruhl, whose In the Next Room, or the vibrator play starts October 22 at Lincoln Center, recounts an instance in which "a male artistic director thought [Ruhl's play] Eurydice didn't have a plot, and I thought, 'Oh that's strange, because it's such a Greek plot.' "

Adams has noticed a more systemic problem: "I've had the experience repeatedly of having a female literary manager promote my work to the male artistic director and him not be interested." Julie Crosby, the artistic director of the Women's Project, which begins performances of Or, on October 29, says she sometimes hears male artistic directors complain that they don't receive producible scripts from women. "That's absolutely absurd," says Crosby. "Let's obliterate that excuse. I am happy to send any artistic director in the U.S. 10 plays by women, one of which I guarantee they'll fall in love with."

This season, Andrew Leynse, artistic director of Primary Stages, fell in love with three of them, forming an all-female season. "It doesn't matter to me if a play is written by a man or a woman," he says. Leynse may be without prejudice, but statistics and anecdotal evidence prove that New York theater still perpetuates it. Charlayne Woodard, whose The Nightwatcher will debut at Primary Stages on September 22, says, "There is bias. There will always be bias—that's the challenge of what I do."

Though the playwrights agree that discrimination exists, they remain unsure if the theater actually requires more plays by and about women. Melissa James Gibson, whose This bows at Playwrights Horizons on November 6, somewhat thinks we do, arguing that theater, like the Supreme Court, needs more diversity: "On the one hand, I'm like, 'Bring on the wise Latina!' But on the other, it's not that I think a male playwright can't adequately imagine a woman's experience." Baker muses, "My biggest complaint is less that we need more plays about female experience and more that we need more weird plays." Adams concurs, "If someone said to me, 'Let's go see a play about the female experience,' I would say, 'No, thanks. Let's go get a drink.' " w

FALL THEATER PICKS

Let Me Down Easy
Performances begin September 15

Anna Deavere Smith has quite a nice body, and in her documentary performances, she has morphed it into the Reverend Al Sharpton, Thomas Jefferson, Jessye Norman, and dozens of other characters. In her latest work, Deavere Smith concentrates on the body itself and the contemporary health care system— spectators (even uninsured ones) can watch as she enacts patients and clinicians. It ought to be infinitely more civilized, if not more dramatic, than the average town hall health care meeting. Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street, 2st.com

After Miss Julie
Performances begin September 18

Sienna Miller has starred in several films, but her fame stems instead from unsuitable romances and splashy Vogue covers. Perhaps Ms. Miller can return the attention to her acting talents when she appears in Patrick Marber's adaptation of August Strindberg's 1888 naturalist drama, which relocates the action to 1945 England. Miller plays the wayward daughter of a Labour peer who conceives a brief passion for the family chauffeur. Director Mark Brokaw drives the action. American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, roundabouttheatre.org

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