The State of Women in Theater
Perhaps playwright Eve Ensler should consider informing the rapt audiences at her The Vagina Monologues — which raises awareness of violence against women — of the battering her female theatrical peers are taking. For despite Ensler’s phenomenal success, a new study by the New York State Council for the Arts shows that women playwrights and directors continue to be grossly underrepresented in main-stage theater operations across the country.
According to the report, the percentage of women writers and directors working Off-Broadway and in regional productions slipped to 17 percent and 16 percent respectively this season, after stagnating at approximately 20 percent throughout the ’90s. In 1999, the last year for which the report gives Broadway figures, women wrote only 8 percent of all Broadway plays and 1 percent of the musicals, despite evidence that women submit equal numbers of plays as men.
“The NYSCA report is even more horrifying than I expected,” says Linda Winer, Newsday‘s chief theater critic, a rare front-line female critic for a major daily. Winer was occupying an aisle seat in the late ’70s when a new vanguard of women playwrights and directors emerged: “I was dumbfounded and thrilled at the realization that there were women making theater out of issues and concerns that could be mine.”
Decades later, however, the NYSCA report indicates that a male bias continues to dominate the field. Playwright Theresa Rebeck blames a “hostile press” and says she was taken aback when one critic recently called her a “man-hater” while reviewing a play she says had nothing to do with gender issues: “I could write Hamlet and they’d find a hidden feminist agenda.” Playwrights Neena Beber and Tina Howe described pressure from artistic directors to write from a male point of view. Other participants expressed frustrations over assumptions that women are incapable of writing in a universal voice. In fact, Time Out reviewer Sam Whitehead admitted he expected Margaret Edson‘s Wit, a show about a woman dying from ovarian cancer, to be “a whining victim play.” To his surprise, “it was really about the human predicament.” Primary Stages artistic director Casey Childs said he passed on Wit and Paula Vogel‘s How I Learned to Drive, a play about sexual abuse, because he thought his audience would find the plays “depressing” and would not identify with the female protagonists.
“I’m glad he outed himself. That was brave of him,” says Vogel, whose play, like Edson’s, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Vogel says she wasn’t surprised by the report. “Many people had the impression that women had progressed further. I am an example of the woman who gets singled out, so they can say they are producing women.” — Ann Farmer
Hasid on the Aisle
For the first time in the history of the Folksbiene, the militantly secularist Yiddish theater, dozens of Hasidim joined 150 apikoyresim (heretics) to watch a reading of A Jewish King Lear by Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin.
At the opening night of the Spring Staged Reading Series March 11, director Mark Altman told the Voice that he has appealed to the Hasidim by “putting the ‘yid’ back in Yiddish theater,” meaning that he has chosen for the first time in nearly 10 years to present classic Yiddish plays. Altman’s friend Isaac Shonfeld, a worldly ultra-Orthodox Borough Park business owner, helps Altman distribute promotional literature throughout the Hasidic community.
Altman, himself a former yeshiva bocher, believes that the Folksbiene should reach out heavily to the Hasidic community, the largest group that uses Yiddish in daily life in 2002. This is quite a change of direction for the Folksbiene. Artistic directors Eleanor Reissa and Zalmen Mlotek had desperately tried to fill seats over the last four years by translating American plays into Yiddish, going so far as to perform a play half in English. But despite the heavily touted secular Yiddish renaissance, year after year the audience has stubbornly thinned. Worse, a series of shake-ups has drained the theater, compounded by Reissa’s sudden resignation announcement last week. Reissa says she’s stepping down to resident director in order to branch out into more English theater. “The theater deserves a full-time devotion, and I need to pursue my own creative visions,” she says. “But the new Hasidic faces at the Folksbiene are very exciting to see.”
While secular Yiddishists are nearly extinct, Altman contends that open-minded Hasidim will become the main potential Yiddish audience. And since most of the Yiddish playwrights (including Gordin, who grew up Lubavitch) were Jews struggling to reconcile ultra-religious upbringings with the challenges of modernity, many authentic Yiddish plays resonate with this group. Shonfeld adds that despite religious precepts, there is a large segment of this insular community that is eager for new ideas. “Yiddish theater is a good introduction to the modern world, and it creates a space in which Hasidim can bond with other Jews over shared humor and struggles.”
In A Jewish King Lear, Gordin plays on similar cultural tensions, depicting three daughters and their feuding husbands — a Hasid, an Orthodox businessman, and an apikoyres — as they visciously compete for their father’s love. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, Gordin’s play indulges in a zisse meisele ending, where the children live to realize that they love each other despite religious differences. The father, played by veteran Yiddish actor David Rogow, closes the play with an enlightened spiel: “I forgive you children. You should all live well, and only unity and peace should be by you. Let us all say Amen.” — Rebecca Segall