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Fall Guide: Female Playwrights Look to Big Fall Season

Annie Baker would like some weird.
Aaron Epstein

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

The Jackie Look
Performances begin September 19

Redoubtable performance artist Karen Finley has never embodied restrained elegance (she's too inclined to strip down to her skivvies and smear herself with various sweetmeats). Nor has she displayed much keenness for flipped hair, boxy suits, or pillbox hats. Nevertheless, Finley apparently feels a kinship with former presidential consort Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In her new solo show, she resurrects Jackie and ruminates on "history, style, trauma, femininity, and the demands of being the First Lady." Country Club, 248 West 14th Street, spincyclenyc.com

Lipsynch
Performances begin October 3

If performed without any excisions, Hamlet, the Western theater's chef d'oeuvre, runs four hours long. Canadian auteur Robert Lepage's Lipsynch, making its U.S. debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, runs in excess of eight. So will it be twice as good as Hamlet? The piece encompasses a series of vignettes concerning a baby, a diva, a neurologist, a detective, a jazz singer, and many others—all linked in a meditation on the force and danger of the human voice. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, bam.org

Hansel and Gretel
Performances begin October 15

Possessed of an inveterate sweet tooth (well, 32 of them), I've long wished I could visit and possibly snack upon the gingerbread house of Hansel and Gretel. Apparently, the Scottish children's theater company Catherine Wheels entertains similar fantasies and will bring an interactive version of the fairy tale to the New Victory Theater, where audiences will follow a breadcrumb trail through the auditorium. (And hopefully filch a few gumdrops along the way.) New Victory Theater, 209 West 42nd Street, newvictory.org

The Brother/Sister Plays
Performances begin October 21

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney abounds in brotherly love. Happily, the audiences for his debut show, 2007's The Brothers Size, loved him right back. This family affair should continue when the Public Theater offers McCraney's complete trilogy of sibling dramas: The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. In lyrical, muscular writings, McCraney explores personal genealogy and spiritual ancestry—connecting contemporary African-American experience with Yoruba legend. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, publictheater.org

The Starry Messenger
Performances begin October 24

In Venice, in 1610, Galileo Galilei published The Starry Messenger, which he announced as "revealing great, unusual, and remarkable spectacles." Four hundred years on, playwright-director Kenneth Lonergan, whose play shares its title with Galileo's astronomical text, has somewhat more earthbound concerns. His new drama, staged by the New Group, concerns a star-gazing employee at the Hayden Planetarium (Matthew Broderick) and his relationship with a single mother (Catalina Sandino Moreno). The Acorn at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, thenewgroup.org

Creature
Performances begin October 27

In 1438, an Englishwoman named Margery Kempe published perhaps the world's first autobiography: "a short treatise of a creature set in great pomp and pride of the world, who later was drawn to our Lord." Lusty, excitable, and loudmouthed, this unusual anchoress is the subject of Heidi Schreck's apologetics, co-produced by P73 and New Georges. Schreck's play follows Margery's desperate attempts to devote herself to faith and good works, distressing her husband, neighbors, and co-religionists. Leigh Silverman directs the hectic hagiography. The Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, p73.org

The Lily's Revenge
Performances begin October 29

In Victorian England, floral arrangers believed that each flower possessed a distinct meaning. Depending on the variety, lilies could signify beauty, coquetry, hatred, maiden charms, hatred, and virginity. Expect all of these aspects (OK, maybe not virginity) to coalesce in Taylor Mac's five-hour epic, which includes more than 40 performers and draws upon Noh drama, installation art, vaudeville, and puppetry. Inspired by gay-marriage protests, this extravaganza concerns a lily who longs to become a man. Here, 145 Sixth Avenue, here.org

So Help Me God!
Performances begin November 19

While Our Father does not figure in the cast list, the sufficiently divine Kristen Johnston will star in this Mint Theater Company production of Maurine Dallas Watkins's 1929 play. Best known for the murderous Chicago, Watkins also apparently found the behavior of theater folk quite criminal, and used backstage as a setting for So Help Me God! The farce concerns a conceited leading lady fending off the attentions (and intentions) of an eager understudy. Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street, minttheater.org

 

Brief Encounter
Performances begin December 2

Noël Coward once quipped, "I love criticism just so long as it's unqualified praise." Sir Noël may have even more to love, posthumously. A theatrical adaptation of the David Lean film Brief Encounter, based on Coward's one-act play, won ecstatic reviews during its London run. Now, it will briefly encounter St. Ann's Warehouse. In this Kneehigh Theatre production, directed by Emma Rice, housewife Laura and doctor Alec meet on a train platform and feel intense passion for another. Being British, they aggressively repress it. St. Ann's Warehouse, 38 Water Street, Brooklyn, stannswarehouse.org

Orpheus X
Performances begin December 2

Critics and audiences tend to wax very enthusiastic about Rinde Eckert's music-theater compositions, yet this fervor has rarely led fans to attempt his dismemberment. That is the fate that threatens the hero of Eckert's mythic play, directed by Robert Woodruff for Theatre for a New Audience. Eckert sources Virgil, Ovid, and the lesser-known poet Ibyous to offer his bald-pated take on the legend of Orpheus. He plays a rock star who exiles himself after the death of poet Eurydice. The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, tfana.org


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