What Can A Regular Guy Do For Women In Theatre?
Apologies from a Reformed Feminist Playwright
For more about Stan Peal, please visit his main page on ArtSavant.
One of my first plays, a collaboration with a college chum about dorm life, felt at its completion like a rousing success, a seriocomic, nihilistic snapshot of life in the dorms as the "Me" 80's changed into the "Donít Bother Me" 90's. Five completely screwed-up male characters and two dreamy female characters gave the action its shape and I was proud of the feminist undercurrent. Feminist, I thought, because the men were all screwed up and the women were perfect. One of each type: the pretty sex kitten who sleeps with the nerd and the nurturing caretaker who stands by the central lout. It took me a few years and a few miles on my emotional maturity odometer to realize that not only was the play not feminist, it was extremely anti-feminist. I had managed to create five gloriously imperfect and fascinating male characters that the audience could identify with, and two completely unrealistic females that are the very two archetypes that women have been subjected to for centuries. The wet dreams of every dysfunctional male who projects his wishes onto the stage, the Madonna and the Magdalene; the saint and the whore; the mother and the slut; however you like to say it. I was deeply ashamed and vowed to change.|
At first I wanted to change how I wrote about women because I wanted to be a better playwright. I wanted the female characters to be just as full and flawed as the male characters, which is difficult because part of the way I create a character is to fall in love with it. The men became the bad boys I couldnít seem to be in real life, and the women became the chicks I couldnít seem to score in real life. And I didnít know the first thing about what a womanís story might entail. I come from a male-centered universe, small-town, blue-collar America. Men and women seemed to live their lives in terms of how it affected the males involved, as the males were the ones that seemed to be in charge. And I was one of them.
You can only write what you know, so I endeavored to know more about women: what was important to them, what their stories were. Although I was raised in a chauvinist culture, there were very few actual males in my life; most of my family and friends are female. To discover their stories I just had to look around. What I began to see was enormous strength, character, passion, and some really fascinating personal stories. I made a conscious effort to flesh out these elements as I wrote. Those things that are important to women, the things that women think are important to talk about, seemed to be the same things that men talked about, the same themes that were already in the stories being told all along; love, death, sex, passion, the fruits and challenges of the experience of life. To tell a womanís story is to tell the same story with a different voice, from a different angle.
I once told another playwright that I wanted to write more interesting women characters, and he told me that he would sometimes write a character as a male, then change the gender (making what he considered an interesting female character). It didnít seem right. I believe men and women are different, and itís not just works and performances by women that are missing in contemporary theatre, but also the very things that women as a sex offer - a particular brand of passion, deep strength, joyous abandon and, well, femininity. To simply change a male character into a female character is not only a bad Jack Nicholson joke, it continues to exclude the feminine from the stage while claiming to be inclusive.
I learned that I didnít have to stop falling in love with the female characters I had created, I simply had to fall in love more maturely. Love them better. I had the good fortune of falling in love in real life, and learned what it felt like to love a beautifully complete and complex person as opposed to being infatuated with an archetype. I become acquainted with more and more women in theatre who continue to face the lack of roles (any roles, let alone good ones), not to mention the general lack of the feminine principle in contemporary theater. My personal challenge to write better roles for women evolved into political advocacy. It is painfully obvious that not much has changed since women were excluded from theatre altogether; itís still the domain of men. Look at the season of any given theatre and look at how many women were directors or playwrights. How many shows had a majority of females in the cast? Why does this continue to happen?
The New York State Council on the Arts recently completed a three year study of the role of women in theatre and found that, with a few notable successes (Wit, Art, The Vagina Monologues, Spinning Into Butter), the presence of women as playwrights, directors and producers, in spite of a steady rise from the sixties to the nineties, has fizzled over the last few years. And in general, the higher the operating budget of a theatre seems to be, the less likely it is you will see work written or directed by a woman in that theatreís season. Why does it represent such a risk? The report suggests much of it is based on how we continue to relate to storytelling...
...stories about men are considered universal while those about women are not, or as performer/writer Lisa Kron put it, "Men are universal; women are specific." Therefore, as director Pam Berlin noted, Wit is perceived as a play about a woman dying rather than about death, like King Lear. "Panelists observed that men and women tend to identify with men." Drama League Executive Director Jane Ann Crumm, explained that women are trained from early on to make "deep connections with male protagonists," while "the same thing simply cannot be said of men." Hamlet is not merely Everyman but Everybody.
The more theatergoers hear universal stories coming from a womanís voice, the more they will learn to make that elusive connection, no matter what the protagonistís gender. We need more plays written by and for women. Most men will stop there and say, "Well, I agree, but thereís certainly nothing I can do about that, Itís up to the women! Good luck ladies!" Well, there is something men can do. Take chances and accept challenges. Male producers can hire more female directors, male directors can seek out more scripts with more and better female characters. And as a male playwright, I can challenge myself to create more and better roles for women.
I fully admit that as a male theatergoer, I am extremely typical in my tastes. I love guns, fake blood, fights and lots of swearing. Sam Shepherd, David Mamet and Eric Bogosian have always been there for me, and for a long time I continued to think that was all I wanted. I hit a personal milestone when I saw Steele Magnolias the first time. I had no choice but to watch the thing (it was either that or some foreign film) and I fell in love with it. It was written by a man who wanted people to know about these great female characters. This started to change the way I looked at womenís stories. I still love Mamet and Bogosian, but as a playwright I donít have to try to be them, we already have them and plenty who aspire to be like them. I can choose to do something different. I can decide that Iíll never write a play with a minority of female characters. I can go out of my way to find female heroes. Embrace the Feminine Principle. Men in the theatre industry donít have to sit passively by and say "thereís nothing I can do" when there is something you can do. Women are strong enough to create their own doorways of opportunity, and they certainly donít need you to carry them over the threshold. But you can be a gentleman and hold the door.
* From the New York State Council On The Arts Theatre Program Report On The Status Of Women. Read the entire report at: