#2femt: Can Women Write Good Plays?

01.21.12 | 14 Comments

CATEGORIES #2femt, advocacy, conversation starter, playwrights, rabble rousing, theatrical ecosystem

I’m 22 years old, a student at NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program. I’m sitting in a coffee shop, surrounded by friends. The topic of conversation is how a teacher admitted that he couldn’t name a female playwright he liked. I don’t know if this story is true. I don’t care since I don’t have a class with him.

But then, the conversation turns toward whether anyone in the group can name good female playwrights. They can’t, which is strange. Because no one can name a good female playwright, the question is inevitably asked: Can women write good plays?

It is 1992, a time before political correctness. I’m the only woman at the table. Apparently they’ve forgotten I’m here. The group is composed of guys my own age. They’re young and they don’t know you shouldn’t say certain things out loud.

They’ve also forgotten their teachers are some of the most notable playwrights in the country: Tina Howe, Lynne Alvarez, Shirley Lauro, Janet Neipris, and others. But they persist in saying how women only write women’s stories and those stories aren’t terribly interesting. I can’t relate to their comments. My friends who are also female playwrights don’t write stories about mothers, boyfriends or babies. My own plays, at this point, deal with graphic violence. I’m often told that I don’t write like a woman.

You could chalk it up to a group of immature guys, except these uncomfortable experiences start to happen regularly. Or maybe I just notice them more. With every incident, I detach from my identity as a woman. I grow a little bit smaller each time. It forces me to take a long, hard look at my career and how I want to operate in the theater world. I decide to stay far away from women’s topics because they’re perceived as weak. I vow not to get close to other female playwrights anymore because I want people to take me seriously. I’m different, I tell myself. Maybe the decision-makers will see it too.

For the next 15 years, these early experiences will play a major role in my playwriting career. They become what Julia Cameron calls my creative monsters. I shadowbox them as I tell people about my writing. I hear them in my ears as I send work out. When I’m quiet for lengthy periods, it is because I don’t have the courage to overcome them. These nagging self-doubts I hear in my head over and over again: Women don’t write good plays. They only write women’s stories and no one wants to see those.


It’s 2003. I’ve just finished reading an article in the New York Times called The Season of the Female Playwright. It talks about the exceptionally low numbers of productions for female playwrights. I’m stunned. But it’s the relief, the idea that The New York Times has acknowledged something I’ve felt for so long. There is a problem. It isn’t my imagination. After a heaving cry, I take my skates and go out into the streets of Brooklyn for a few hours.

As I skate, I start to wonder if other female playwrights have experienced the same things I have. Has anyone ever asked if you slept with your director? Has anyone ever scolded you for being a nice girl who wrote something so unpleasant? Has anyone ever said, “Its such a shame women have it hard,” in a patronizing voice? Or maybe you ran into the other extreme. People raged at you for questioning whether gender bias existed in theater. Maybe you talked about it to your group of male theater friends and the topic has been greeted with silence. Or you’ve been labeled as bitter, bitchy or crazy. They may have even implied that you’re only whining about it because you’re jealous of other people’s successes.

I couldn’t ask these questions back then because I stayed true to my plan. I didn’t know any female playwrights.

It’s 2012 and we’re still dealing with the same issues as in 1992 and 2003. Many of us keep these challenges to ourselves for fear of hurting our careers or dealing with a backlash. We quietly acknowledge the problems in private tweets or offline conversations. Meanwhile, we’re still labeled irrelevant because decision-makers believe we only write women’s stories, whatever that means.

Many theater workers pride themselves on being progressive and socially aware. The field is populated by people who know what it is to be judged by what you are rather than who are. No one wants to admit they’ve been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. To some people, admitting gender bias exists in theater is akin to accusing them of ill-gotten gains. They may see women as privileged. They argue that so many other groups have it harder. It is likely that they don’t have the foggiest idea about the challenges women face in theater.

It is time we take back ownership of our experiences. We don’t need men, newspapers or studies to tell us what we’ve seen, heard and felt. And looking at internalized sexism is almost as scary as confronting it on the outside. Through sharing our experiences and concerns with each other and the rest of the theater community, we can inform and support each other. Our backgrounds are diverse, and each of us has a valuable piece of the puzzle. Together, we can break down isolation and create positive change.

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Laura Axelrod

Laura Axelrod’s plays and monologues have been performed in the U.S. and Europe.

In New York, audiences saw her work at such places as Collective Unconscious, Raw Impressions, Westside Rhyme, The Red Room and Dixon Place.

In California, her work was produced at City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University and Venue 9.

Her play, “Everybody In This House” was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. The script is available through Original Works Publishing.

Laura’s articles have appeared in The Birmingham News and AL.com, Alabama’s largest news-gathering site. Newhouse News Service distributed her book reviews, and the reviews subsequently were published by The Houston Chronicle, Seattle Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Grand Rapids Press and other newspapers across the country.

In 2008, she created “Project 1968,” a blog docu-novel, based on her full-length play, “War is Kind.” Educause Review cited the the project as an example of Web 2.0 Storytelling.

She graduated from New York University, Tisch School of the Arts with an MFA and BFA in Dramatic Writing. Now she and her husband are restoring the 1885 Alabama farmhouse her husband’s great-grandfather built.

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  • I’m with you.  We also need to work on the women on women issue.  On another note, don’t you think the premise that the majority of audiences (and ticket buyers) are female ought to have some leverage towards more women’s plays being produced = potential for more audiences?  It’s apparently that way in contemporary literature now.  More women readers and writers.  But men still get more reviews, more awards, wider recognition.

  • Maggie McAleese

    In the state I live now, there are only a handful of women playwrights that I’m aware of.  In the last two years, I worked on two particular projects where it really hit home… a workshop involving eight playwrights where I was the only woman… and a festival involving six playwrights where I was the only woman.  Honestly, I wondered if I was chosen simply because I was a woman.  I don’t like having those thoughts, but I do.  I’d like to think I’m chosen for the quality of my work, and not a need to fill a gender gap.  I really hate that the question even enters my mind, but it does.

  • Laura Axelrod

    Emily: I think you’re right. There should be at least some consideration for that fact. Sometimes, I think the resistance is based on the biased idea that women are intellectual lightweights. I seem to remember reading an article in the Dramatists Guild Magazine (I think) back in 2005 or 2006 where someone else floated that idea. It was in response to the question of why political dramas like Michael Frayn’s “Democracy” tend to be written by male rather than female playwrights. The only reason I remember this is because I was writing a political drama and paused to consider how my gender would play a role in its reception.

    Maggie: It seems crazy now to think how I didn’t know any female playwrights. I don’t know if there are more women going into playwriting now or maybe we’re just making more noise. I know that feeling of being the only woman and wondering if my inclusion was simply to avoid the accusation of bias. There’s also the dynamic where the group holds one woman up as being superior and pits her against other women. I’ve been on both sides of that ugliness. 

  • This post is likely to conflate the issue of a lack of productions by female playwrights and a lack of productions of female-focused stories or characters. My apologies in advance.

    My theory on the females buy the most theatre tickets thing is that, rightly or wrongly, if theatres believe that female audiences will attend both male-focused and female-focused plays equally, but male audiences will disproportionately attend male-focused plays, then a theatre that is focused on getting butts in the seats would predominately schedule male-focused plays as those would provide the most financial stability from ticket sales.

    As a male playwright, the only thing I can do is not be a playwright, and I’m not willing to pay that price. It may be a moot point, as I am as yet unproduced for full-lengths and therefore pre-emerged. And it would be ineffective unless all other male playwrights were to stop writing plays. Actually, even that would be ineffective as there is no shortage of back-catalogue of male-written, male-focused plays.

    Actually, that’s not quite true. As a member of my playwriting group’s literary committee, I can look for cases where my male bias might judge women-focused stories as less interesting. And, to the extent possible, we do blind submissions, which helps deal with the bias against women playwrights if not necessarily women-focused stories.

    I can also learn to write better women’s roles in my plays, something I am focusing on in my two newest drafts. Thanks to 2amt for the post on the Bechdel test; it gives me something specific to look for. (And I have read Dykes to Watch out for religiously and can’t believe I missed it.)

    As a male audience audience member, I can be more open to attending plays by women playwrights and recommending them to my friends. I can in fact name some good women playwrights whose productions I’ve seen or whose published scripts I’ve read (in no particular order, without having to look them up): Sarah Ruhl, Lauren Yee, Marsha Norman, Annie Baker, Suzanne Lori-Parks, Young Jean Lee, Lauren Gunderson, Anne Washburn.

    Anyway, I’d like to consider myself as on the “yes this is an issue and I’d like to be supportive” side.

    • Laura Axelrod

      Thank you for your comment. I don’t think you have to stop writing plays. Theater needs all perspectives – yours included. With your support, things can change for the better.  (I’m also learning how to write well-rounded characters.)

      • Thanks.

        Also, I’d like to add Eugenie Chan, Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, and Jackie Sibblies Drury.

  • Anonymous

    Happy New Year to all and time to get to work again on the 50/50
    in 2020 Initiative!
    We are gathering to start the year off with an expanded effort to get the word out everywhere and often, about the need for parity for women theatre artists. While many have been great at regularly monitoring articles and events that speak to our purpose, we want to make sure that it happens more systematically—kind of “blanketing” the media with facts and updates.

    This will be the first of what we plan to be regularly scheduled meetings, all with a SPECIFIC PURPOSE so that we can
    capture the energy and talents of all the great ladies who have so far participated in this grassroots effort.

    WHEN:  Monday, January 23, 2012, 5:00pm to 7:00pm
    WHERE:  New Perspectives Theatre Company, 458 West 37th Street (@10th Avenue), ground floor, New York, NY
    RSVP: contact@nptnyc.org


    Looking forward to seeing


    Melody Brooks

    Artistic Director

    New Perspectives Theatre Company

  • Gisela Petrone


  • cgeye

    I’m probably wrong, but maybe the frame we should consider is that, after the shift of resources from for-profit to non-profit theatre, the job configurations shifted to the levels associated with pink collar professions — mostly women, up and down the enhanced clerical/helping profession chain. We rarely see a theatre with an all-male staff, do we?

    With the subscription model, women made fairly costly decisions for their household about which plays would be seen.  That meant incorporating the view of what the males in the household wanted to see, in order to make the subscription at all cost-effective.  I think that meant women of the theatre, albeit quietly, started a tacit affirmative action program for straight males in theatre.

    If Mamet could get male butts in seats, then book Mamet, dammit. If Shakespeare could be staged with vivid violence and muscular declamations, then go for it, by jing. If musical comedies start getting dismissed in a way that reeks of homophobia and misogyny, then make musicals grittier — why not with those Jersey Boys?

    By our ticket purchases, we shaped the style of actors (both male and female), even as we decried not hearing more women’s voices. But if we criticized the imbalance, wouldn’t men walk away? Wouldn’t those who spoke be shut out entirely from the most prominent theatres, to search for their own audience and patrons, who might not join them in creating something more inclusive? Wouldn’t the patronage of men most entrenched in our corporate system matter,  concerning the largest donations?

    Women, as the majority of audiences and the rank-and-file of theatre employees, made this place where we wanted male directors, actors and playwrights to take the lead.  We don’t support companies that spotlight female creatives and works. We plead for men in our amateur productions; we insist on manly tales as part of an universal realism that most of its audience does not share in its daily life. Then, when someone like Ruhl breaks through, we start doubting whether she’s really universal, or merely fashionable, despite the impact her work has with her audiences. And we don’t stand up and vote with our purses, when a female theatre worker faces reprisals, for telling the truth.

    This is something women in theatre, from benefactors to D-girls to marketers, have in their power to change –. yet after decades of trying, and failing, to create alternatives, do we even have the will to create companies and works that would consistently, and nationally, feature women first?

  • As long as we’re talking about diversity, let’s talk about diverse diversity.

    I don’t know what race everyone on here is, but I’m guessing you’re white. As am I.

    Along with increasing diversity of gender, we should increase diversity of race, ethnicity, disability, etc. I don’t see how we can complain about lack of women’s representation in the theater and not notice that there are others who have it far worse.

    • cgeye


      Because it’s now an Internet cliche, at least, that every goddamn time a group of women discuss what needs to change, regarding women, every other human rights concern gets mentioned immediately … and the serious, complicated, necessary discussion of what women need to see change in this culture, dies.

      It’s as if we’re planning a dinner, and suddenly everyone else piles in, demanding to be fed.

      And ain’t it peculiar that there’s never any call for examining the intersectionality of those additional claims for attention — as if women don’t differ in race, ethnicity, disability, etc. — and yet, those concerns have to be addressed before women even get off the ground to *find* common ground.

      The first few times I read comments that said, “What about Group X?”, I felt guilty. But now, I see it as a form of concern trolling, because of that guilt shutting the larger conversation down.  I hope that does not happen here, but if it does, well, I guess we’re used to that, too.

  • It’s like we’re complaining we don’t get a seat at the table for dinner, without thinking about people who can’t even get in the dining room.

    The “the serious, complicated, necessary discussion” of what *everyone* needs to see change in this culture, dies if we see the issue as only about white women.

    There are some things that theaters can do to increase productions of plays written by white women. These same things very easily contribute to increasing diversity of all kinds.

    One thing is to have blind submissions. When orchestras have blind auditions, diversity of all kinds goes up.

    Having blind submissions benefits white women. It also benefits everyone, for the same amount of work for the theaters.

  • Laura Axelrod

    I want to reiterate the following: “Our backgrounds are diverse, and each of us has a valuable piece of the puzzle.” That was an invitation for every woman to discuss her experiences. I don’t think anyone is talking about just one kind of woman. If there is anything I’ve learned living in rural Alabama for five years, class differences can also be devastating. I have seen an astonishing amount of poverty on a daily basis that cuts across racial and ethnic lines. I would never tell someone that they have suffered more or less from the effects of social inequality or prejudice. I also would not assume anyone’s racial background, ethnicity or class because of external appearances. Social justice won’t come until ALL people experience equality. It isn’t an either/or, it’s all about the word AND.

    I would love to hear more about experiences from female playwrights, directors and actors from every background.

  • Laura,

    “Social justice won’t come until ALL people experience equality.”

    Amen to that.