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.