This afternoon, the Public Theater will hold a town hall meeting about sexual harassment and misconduct in the arts and entertainment industries. Invitations were issued to members of the New York artistic community. “We invite you to listen, share stories, and offer suggestions as we collectively chart our path forward,” organizers wrote. The event is very much in line with Public founder Joe Papp’s vision for the institution, which was always intended to be a leader in promoting diversity and inclusivity in theater and, by extension, the culture at large.
It also reflects some of the most pressing topics to surface on stages in 2017, a year during which a host of theatrical works confronted sexism and gendered violence in workplaces and schools; in iconic works of art and literature; and in our history and fantasy lives. Though artists would undoubtedly be exploring these topics no matter the occupant of the Oval Office, it’s also probably no coincidence that they appeared so frequently — and with such urgency — during our first year under the administration of a self-proclaimed sexual assaulter. This has been a time of reckoning for American gender politics, and artists were ready, looking to history, myth, and imagination to offer critique, context, and sometimes even a balm for what feels like an especially painful moment.
When #metoo swept Facebook and Twitter this fall in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, the social media outcry wasn’t just a sign of the times: It was also a highly overdue acknowledgement of long histories of sexual violence — histories that many playwrights had already been thinking about. Michael Yates Crowley’s disturbing, satirical The Rape of the Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias, which opened the Obie-winning Playwrights Realm’s 2017–18 season, related the tale of a high school student who is raped by a classmate and thereafter caught in a legal and educational system unable to comprehend the complexity of her experience. She finally finds solace in a surprising source: Jacques-Louis David’s legendary 1799 painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women, which depicts the fates of a group of virgins who were kidnapped into marriage by Roman soldiers. Sexual violence, Crowley observed, has been embedded in our cultural history for eons, cloaked in myth and consecrated in art. (The Playwrights Realm, founded in 2007, has recently emerged as a leader in producing intelligent explorations of the young female experience: The group’s 2016 hit The Wolves, about an all-female soccer team, returned this fall for a run at Lincoln Center.)
While Crowley was connecting the dots between contemporary rape culture and the violence of ancient Rome, Big Dance Theater’s Annie-B Parson was finding disconcerting relevance in the diaries of famed seventeenth-century confessionalist Samuel Pepys. He’s a figure renowned for his charmingly frank descriptions of daily life — and less well-known for his serial, often forceful, pursuit of extramarital affairs. 17c, which was directed by Parson and Paul Lazar and played at BAM in November, was a dance-theater mash-up linking early-modern celebrity culture with the present-day social media scene. But its surprisingly affecting emotional core was the story of Pepys’s wife, who witnessed the man’s infidelities and violence, and whose own writing on the subject was burned by a vengeful Pepys.
Even in works that veered into the surreal and the fantastical, playwrights reminded us that realms of imagination are subject to gender bias and violence too. MacArthur-winning playwright Annie Baker’s unsettling The Antipodes, which opened at the Signature Center in April, was set in an unidentified writers’ room, a place of cultish devotion to unspoken rules, where team members offered up intimate memories for the group to alchemize into blockbuster material. Baker’s dialogue skewered the sexism pervading such workplaces: The male writers are applauded for graphic recollections of sexual conquest, while the lone female writer’s memory of a healthy relationship falls flat. The boss obsesses aloud about the last woman writer he employed — a trouble-stirrer who couldn’t get along in the male-dominated room. “She made it clear that if I fired her she’d start trouble,” he recalls. “She was always offended but she was also always flirting with everyone.” (Eventually she stopped showing up to work; Baker’s male characters can’t imagine why.) As events both inside and outside the room turn darkly supernatural — think hurricane meets séance meets a debilitating collective case of writers’ block — Baker’s tale implies that perhaps we need to change our relationship to storytelling itself: whose stories we tell, and how.
Also permeating with alluring unease was Julia Jarcho’s The Terrifying. Fusing horror story and Freudian-tinged folktale, The Terrifying, which premiered at Abrons Arts Center in March, investigated the aesthetics of fear through the tale of a small village whose young people are being stalked by a mysterious creature. The monster, which rumbled alarmingly from all corners of the auditorium (Ben Williams’s sound design was superb), metaphorically suggested a host of predators, allowing the play to reflect on, among other things, the experience of being a young woman in a world that wants to eat you alive (in this case, literally).
Artists also revived older works whose themes speak poignantly to right now. At the Public, Elevator Repair Service staged Measure for Measure, which features one of Shakespeare’s most uncomfortable romantic endings: The female protagonist, who plans to be a nun, is drafted into marriage in the final scene with nary a line of dialogue in which to respond. The Signature revived several Suzan-Lori Parks plays — Venus, Fucking A, and In the Blood, originally staged between 1996 and 2003 — which tackle subjects from sexual exploitation to reproductive rights. (Fucking A riffs on The Scarlet Letter; its Hester figure is an abortionist.) And burlesque performance artist Adrienne Truscott continued performing her celebrated Asking for It, a regularly updated stand-up act about rape culture, most recently performed at NYU’s Skirball Center in November.
Visions of possibility also glimmered among the much-needed critique. If you began the year at January’s annual theater festivals, you might have caught the Brooklyn-based company Half Straddle’s Ghost Rings at Abrons Arts Center (written by Tina Satter, and originally performed in 2016). Part pop concert, part queer female fantasia, and part ode to sisterhood, Ghost Rings was a subtly delightful beginning to the year — a world you might want to spend more time in. It featured, among other things, a delightful romance between performers Erin Markey and Kristen Sieh, each accompanied onstage by a “spirit animal”: a puppet seal and a Bubble Wrap deer, respectively. Similarly heartening was the Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair, which played the Performing Garage in February. The piece was a meticulous and often hilarious re-enactment of the film Town Bloody Hall, which documented an infamous 1971 debate about feminism featuring Norman Mailer facing off against feminist leaders from Diana Trilling to Jill Johnston. Giving voice to Johnston’s wild, radical lesbian worldview, the piece was a wake-up call, reminding us what our least hidebound, most imaginative thinkers envisioned decades ago, and insisting that we settle for nothing less ambitious today.