There’s been a lot of talk online recently about the need for women playwrights to be better represented, have more opportunities, and be, if you’ll excuse the vagary, more equal. That’s lovely. As a woman playwright, I am all for that kind of talk, and the more there is of it, in any context, the better. What worries me though, is that despite being a woman playwright, despite having made it my business for several years to try and push the cause of women playwrights, I find it hard to take part in these conversations. Because when it comes right down to it, a lot of these conversations are predominantly about how women playwrights in the US can have more opportunities, and be better represented.
I suppose I wouldn’t be in the slightest bit concerned about this, if it were clearly stated that this was a conversation about the professional industry in the US. But if we are claiming to have a conversation about why there are not more successful women playwrights worldwide, and what can be done to change that, then I feel we are having the wrong conversations.
There are many women, around the world, who are working with these issues every day, who are tackling things head on. Who have, for years, been working with issues women face in the theatre – and in the world, because often it’s hard to untangle the two. A lack of women being represented in the theatre is both a manifestation of and a further propagator of a basically sexist society, worldwide.
I don’t know where we start. Do we start with all the women denied education? The women denied a right to write? The women who are culturally or politically deemed inferior, and forbidden to have a voice? How do we support those who dare to speak in these circumstances? Those who risk arrest, who write not for royalties, but for that slim chance that what they write might change the world, even if it’s just one corner of it, in the mind of one audience member?
What of those women playwrights who are free to write, but lack resources? Many of my colleagues write with pen and paper, or falling-apart equipment. Those who write by sunlight, because electricity is so expensive. Those who write on the backs of scrap paper. It doesn’t affect the quality of their writing, but it affects how their writing is perceived. It affects their ability to be taken seriously, to access opportunities, to get their work out there, to get their work known. How do we make sure that scripts which are remarkable and amazing see the light of day, are not stuck in a drawer, are not doomed to live and die on a hard drive?
Speaking of access, when do we talk about this world wide web business – this internet that only the elite few (and yes, I am one) can use, this tool which is at once miraculous and wonderful, and terrifying in the way it further widens the schisms already present? What can we do to broaden the reach, and to bring voices into this conversation – and to take the conversation out – so that we don’t continue to foster the illusion that because we are discussing something online, we are inclusive.
Do we talk about those other issues that make women playwrights’ lives even harder – race, religion, nationality, age, language, sexual orientation? If we want to be inclusive – and I hope we do – how do we acknowledge that these are further barriers faced by so many women playwrights?
And then there’s the question of what women playwrights want. I can’t answer that, because I am only one. I know why I write – because I have to, because I want to make people laugh, to challenge them, to make them question their assumptions, to make them feel. I want my plays to be seen, because as long as they remain on paper, or on my computer, they are not finished products. Where they are seen, how, by who, these are all big questions, to which everyone will have different answers. We must stop assuming that big formal theatre productions in New York are everyone’s dream, without in any way denigrating those whose dream that is. I was taught theatre is at least one person performing for at least one person – there is literally a world of possibilities open for that out there, if we’re prepared to think outside the Box Office.
Can we have a frank discussion about what audiences want? It’s a worldwide reality that there is little or no money to make theatre, and so we must be pragmatic. We must stop talking about developing and educating audiences, and maybe educate ourselves about who are audiences are or could be, who they are, where they are, what they want, or don’t want. We must be open to the possibility that we won’t like the answers. But we cannot afford to ignore our audiences – in my mind, certainly, your audience should always be first and foremost.
Even if we confine ourselves to discussing how we can get more women playwrights produced by professional theatres in the US, when do we step back and acknowledge how deep this system goes – the system of producers and critics and art directors, and relationships, the sexism in the system, and who makes decisions, and why. If we want to push a quota system, how do we support that, how do we ensure that – and again I stop, and I wonder why I am using the word “we”, because I have reached that part of the conversation where I feel I do not belong, and am not invited.
Perhaps you don’t want to have these conversations, because your own needs are more important to you. That’s okay, we’re all human. We might even, if we’re honest, rather baulk at the thought of all those thousands of women playwrights out there, all wanting the same thing we do, and those few shiny opportunities – do our own chances diminish if we try and open the door to others? Isn’t it better to start small, and then, one day, reach out? It’s okay to think that. We all need to pay the rent and put food on the table. It’s natural to put ourselves first…when do we have that conversation, about how often we feel that our closest allies are our biggest enemies?
I don’t have any answers. But I do have a lot more questions. Mostly though, I try to listen.