Theatre Will Never Be the Same

Ms., December 1977


Theater Will Never Be the Same
by Honor Moore

“It’s all right to be a woman.” The Women’s Movement inaugurated its own theater with that message in the early 1970s. Then the New Feminist Repertory Theater produced Myrna
Lamb’s acerbic play, But What Have You Done For Me Lately; It’s All Right To Be a Woman Theater improvised requests from the audience; and Sally Ordway, Susan Yankowitz, Dolores Walker, among others, formed the Westbeth Playwrights’ Feminist Collective.

But women’s theater has matured beyond the exhilaration of consciousness-raising. Collaborative theater groups like Womanrite Theater Ensemble and The Cutting Edge in New York, Circle of the Witch and At the Foot of the Mountain in Minneapolis, and Rhode Island Feminist Theater (RIFT) in Providence create and perform pieces that range from the life of Anne Hutchinson to rape to mother- daughter relationships to women’s spirituality, in styles that range from clown-show to farce to tragedy. (See directory on page 89 for more theater groups.) The off-off Broadway and community phenomenon that has been women’s theater is inching into the mainstream.

Producer Burry Fredrik says it was “not by design” that the three plays she’s bringing to Broadway this season are about women—two, written by women. The Dream Watcher, by Barbara Wersba, stars Eva LeGallienne as an eccentric old woman who befriends a young boy; The Night of the Tribades, a historical play by Per Olov Enquist, is about the love relationship between Strindberg’s wife, Sin von Essen, and an actress, Marie Caroline David; and Judith Ross’s comedy, An Almost Perfect Person, directed by Zoe Caidwell, headlines Colleen Dewhurst playing a woman involved with two men; she is not, as Mary was 15 years ago in Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary, an editor of letters to the editor at Ladies’ Home Journal but a former labor lawyer who has just been narrowly defeated in a bid for public office.

“Of the two thousand scripts a year that come into my office, twenty percent are by women—and more than a third of those are recommended for production by my staff of readers,” says Gail Merrifield, director of play development at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater. “The scope of these plays is broader than it was in the late sixties— the subject matter is no longer political in a narrow sense.”

Seven young women, portraying students at Mount Holyoke in the sixties, dance to a bouncy calypso beat. It is strange at first and then moving to see these women—who throughout the play have been competing, waiting for phone calls from men, examining a first diaphragm, wisecracking (“I think all men should be forced to menstruate .“ “I’m having trouble remembering what I want . .“) and otherwise comically demonstrating white middle- class female paralysis—dancing together so happily.

The playwright’s choice of dance tune—”If you want to be happy for the rest of your life / Never make a pretty woman your wife”—illuminates that contradiction with poignant irony. This and other moments in Wendy Wasserstein’s hilarious Uncommon Women and Others make me weep, not laugh.

After the play (a workshop at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference in Connecticut), a woman director tells me she feels that Wasserstein’s comic approach trivializes female experience. Another woman disagrees: “We have to have farce as well as tragedy about women’s lives!” The next morning at the conference critique, a man says he thinks it peculiar that most of the laughter during the play was male. Later I talk with Marilyn Stasio, critic and conference-appointed literary adviser for Uncommon Women. “The reason the women weren’t laughing as loud is that Wendy was getting us right here,” she says, mimicking by abruptly leaning over, a kick in her gut. I’m sorry this kind of reaction didn’t emerge at the critique. “I had things to say,” said a woman producer, “but I preferred to talk to Wendy myself.”

Women playwrights are a vulnerable minority. There are rarely enough of them in one place—three of 16 playwrights at the O’Neill, for instance—to constitute a context in which their plays can be seen in terms of each other’s plays. What happens instead is that they are judged against men’s plays or against everyone’s ideal of a play about female experience. Nonetheless, Wasserstein says, “every writer at the O’Neill is treated with equal respect.” “But,” she adds wistfully, “I wish there had been more women playwrights because they would know what I was trying for.”

A friend and I subway out to a park in Brooklyn to see Aishah Rahman’s third produced play, Unfinished Women Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage, done by the mobile unit of the New York Shakespeare Festival. She is one of several new black women playwrights.(Cockfight, by Elaine Jackson, opened the season at the American Place Theater in New York this fall—her first play, Toe Jam, was done in 1975 at the New Federal Theater on Henry Street, where Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf ran prior to the Public Theater; Circles and The Tapestry, one-acts by Alexis DeVeaux, were part of PBS’s “Visions” series and have had theatrical productions since; and The Sistuhs by Saundra Sharp, vignettes of relationships between black men and black women, done last year at Cleveland’s Karamu Performing Arts Theater, was held over an unprecedented 16 weeks at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater last summer.)

A jazz combo plays as a sizable crowd gathers for Unfinished Women. Kids run in the aisles, scale the bleachers, spit on people, shout. My friend, taking note of the excitement and small-town feeling in the audience, says, “This must be what it was like for Shakespeare!” The loudspeaker asks whoever is pea- shooting onto the stage to please stop. Suddenly it’s dark. A black man in blackf ace prances center stage: “Ladies and Gentlemen … presenting… .“ He is master of ceremonies and introduces the characters: five young women, jazz legend Charles Parker, Jr., and a social worker who doubles as a European lady, his mistress.

It is the young women who draw my attention. Three are black, one Hispanic, one white, but all are dressed in identical pink sundresses, all lug identical oversize suitcases, and all—are pregnant! It is March 12, 1955, the day Charlie Parker died in the apartment of a rich white woman1 also the day, by the playwright’s invention, these five must decide whether to give up their unborn children for adoption.

“I use Charlie Parker as a symbol of the girls’ absent lovers—his struggle as artist, jazz musician, black man, and his personal fight against drugs are reasons why their men aren’t there,” Rahman tells me. The juxtaposition of two unrelated stories is a risky experiment that pays off because the play is not realistic. “I’m looking for new forms.”

Rahman’s use of characters (who are also types), songs, and poetic language places the action at a distance reminiscent of Brecht—and of Adrienne Kennedy, another black woman who writes poetic rather than realistic plays. I have to “see” all of Unfinished Women by reading the play the next day:
the Brooklyn performance, like many this summer for the mobile unit, was not completed. The peashooters and shouters finally overcame the actors. Happily, Unfinished Women goes indoors at the Public Theater in December.

“I want to produce a whole series of theater pieces about stages in women’s lives,” says Susan Albert Loewenberg, director of Los Angeles’s Artists in Prison, who has expanded the group’s work to include programs for ex-convicts and other culturally disadvantaged people. The second in the series is in progress: playwright Susan Yankowitz (recently in L.A. for the production of her new musical, True Romances, “a relentlessly heterosexual, white middle-class fantasy about how movie models for romance don’t work”) conducted a writing workshop for pregnant women; out of it will possibly come a theater piece. The first in the series, Not as S]eepwa]kers, was produced at the Woman’s Building in June and toured California this fall.

Sleepwalkers was a collaboration among novelist and poet Deena Metzger, director Jeremy Blahnik, and 12 women. ‘3eremy and I were trying to figure out how to facilitate a writing workshop for aged women,” Metzger recalls. “We thought if we brought
women in their twenties together with women over sixty-five, something would happen.” Each of the six older women was paired with a younger woman who was responsible for writing her life history and providing her with transportation to and from class. “We started with the given that the older women are guardians of women’s culture, tribal elders to whom we don’t usually pay attention. They were charged with creating an initiation ritual for the younger women, who in turn were to invent a ritual to empower the older women as tribal elders.” Independently each group decided that hearing secrets from the other would be effective rituals.

The theater piece is the story of the process of forming the relationships and of telling the secrets. Reading Not as Sleepwalk ers was for me profoundly moving, so powerful and courageous are the perceptions and admissions, so delicate the language (all classes were taped—its text was culled from what was written by the women and transcribed from the tapes). The final speech gives a sense of its tone: Denise, one of the young women, says, “I wrote ‘There is something that I have always wanted to tell you’ four times before it finally came out. The something that I wanted to tell you, older women, is that I don’t think that I ever really loved anybody in my family, actually really loved anyone in my family, except for my grandmother. And everything leads from that.”

Likewise the material for Womanrite’s Daughters came consciously from the lives of the group’s members (see Ms., November, 1977); the source of Megan Terry’s Babes in the Bighouse was interviews she and other members of the Omaha Magic Theater had with convicts, and Deborah Fortson’s mime piece, Baggage, had its source in her own pregnancy and mothering. Last summer, women from two feminist theater groups, The Caravan Theater of Cambridge and At the Foot of the Mountain from Minneapolis, came together for a month at Maiden Rock Farm in Wisconsin to exchange skills and work on pieces about mothers and daughters.

“From the start, there was a question about whether the priority should be theater work or the emotional work of building a community,” says Bobbi Ausubel of Caravan. “We tried to honor each other with our emotions.” Feelings and skills were shared, but the piece the groups performed together at the end of the month was not about mothers and daughters, but about their time at Maiden Rock—a piece, like Sleepwalkers, about the healing of divisions and the caring for children.

Negative reviews for the 1970 off-Broadway production of her first play, The Nest (about three female roommates), and difficulty in getting her second produced (Birth and After Birth, a threateningly bold farce about a couple and their four-year-old) has not discouraged Tina Howe from writing—”I get furious, and that makes •me even more determined”—but she did switch subject matter. Her latest work, Museum, successfully produced at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater is “about the ambiguities of modern art and the amazing behavior of people who come to look at it.” Adds Howe:
“Museum has nothing to do with women—I wanted my work to get done!”

Despite the disclaimer, Museum is a good example of the kind of theater that women are exploring. It is choral in form, it has no protagonist. In collaborative pieces like Sleepwalk ers one reason for the choral form is obvious: as Dinah Leavitt of the Boulder Feminist Theater put it, “Each woman writes herself an equal part.”

Some of these choral works are musicals like Elizabeth Swados’s Nightclub Cantata, Eve Merriam’s Viva Reviva and The Club, Sarah Kernochan’s forthcoming Pranks for Warped Children, and Myrna Lamb’s work in progress, Mother Ann, about the 18th-century mystic and founder of the Shakers. Lamb’s opera, with music by Nicholas Meyers, will have a chorus of Shakers. Other works, like Susan
Griffin’s Voices and Shange’s Colored Girls … are written in poetry for female voices and have no conventional plot. Still others are plays with several or at least a duet of female main characters: Megan Terry’s Babes in the Bighouse, Liz Stearns’s adaptation of Kathy Kahn’s book, Hillbilly Women, Unfinished Worn en, Uncommon Women, Leigh Curran’s Lunch Girls (about seven waitresses in a Manhattan key club), and Anne Burr’s play in progress, Solid State (about two elderly sisters who live together).

Perhaps these works are merely reflecting the revelation of consciousness-raising that one woman’s experience is not unique, or perhaps women are simply dazzled by the spectacle of a group of women on stage. For me, these forms represent an antihierarchical move away from the male-invented “leading lady” isolated in her predicament, and a return to the all-female chorus which some scholars claim may have preceded the male chorus of Greek tragedy.

But the chorus is only one common thread. Many plays by women do have a leading character, but she is usually not a “lady.” Susan Miller’s Flux embodies several of the qualities I see characterizing women’s plays now. Dma, one of her characters, “talks dirty,” but she is not defined by her language as are some male-invented female characters. It’s just that she, like many of us, uses such language in daily life. Like many other plays by women that have one main character, Flux takes place in the past and the present, and inside and outside the leading character’s head (as she struggles with her work, with contradictory impulses in a romance with an older woman, and with a former professor who functions as a sort of internal censor).

As do characters in many of these plays, Flux’s protagonist sometimes addresses the audience. In Francine Stone’s Dead Sure, a young mother, whose psychotic husband holds her children hostage threatening to kill them if she doesn’t return to him, is often interrupted by a memory, fear, or dream that she tells to the audience—moments which director Carole Rothman underscored beautifully (in a recent New York workshop production) by catching the mother’s face in a spot of light and darkening the rest of the stage.

Other playwrights divide a character into several selves to dramatize internal conflict. In Ruth Wolff’s Abdication. Princess Christina is haunted by her younger selves, Chris and Tina, who appear to enact scenes from her past, and in Loretta Lotman’s Pearls That Coalesce, three actresses portray different aspects of a young woman who is coming to terms with her lesbianism. Still other characters have hallucinations that are dramatized. In Corinne Jacker’s Bits and Pieces, a dead husband returns to taunt hi mourning wife, often to comic effect.

For many women directors and playwrights, activism is just as important as aesthetics. Nancy Rhodes, a young professional director and graduate of New York University School of the Arts, is one of a group of women called Action for Women in Theater (AWT), who recently published “A Study on Employment Discrimination Against Women Play-• wrights and Directors in Non-Profit Theaters.” Having been repeatedly told that there were “not many qualified women to choose from, one or two perhaps” for a play she was producing, Rhodes gathered approximately 60 names of experienced women directors in three weeks.

AWT has surveyed 43 nonprofit theaters across the country that receive more than $50,000 a year in grants. For the 1969-70 through the 1975-76 seasons, only 7 percent of directors hired and 7 percent of the playwrights whose works were produced were women. There was no appreciable increase in the number of women playwrights or directors over the seven years except at the Mark Taper Forum Lab, the experimental workshop division of the Los Angeles regional theater. According to the report: “The women who … had been involved in a workshop situation never seemed to receive the ustral promotion to directing major productions… . Once in the assistant directori workshop category, their careers, unlike those of their male counterparts, reached a dead end.”

Lynne Meadow, who directed the highly acclaimed Ashes last season at the Public Theater, maintains that if she had not become producer of her own theater (the Manhattan Theater Club), “nobody would have hired me.” Ellen Sandier, an actress who also directs, knows that it wi1l be difficult for her to move from off-off to on Broadway. “When producers think in mainstream terms, they see playwrights and directors as men.”

“It is the women producers who have to take the chance and hire women,” Carole Rothman says, referring to the fact that the percentage of women hired by the Arena Stage in Washington and Stage West in Massachusetts, both of which are run by women, is no higher than the average. She also suggests a women’s equivalent to the Negro Ensemble Company—founded in the sixties to produce black plays and to hire and train black directors. At least one women’s theater is trying to fill this role: “Our policy is to bring women theater artists to the attention of the public,” says Margot Lewitin, artistic director of New York’s Interart Theater.

But like virtually every women’s theater organization I’ve come in contact with, the Interart cannot get sufficient funding to pay competitive salaries or to mount the number of quality productions they wish to. All these groups feel they would get more money from both the government and the private sector if they weren’t women. Andrea Balis reports that her group, The Cutting Edge, lost grants whenit became all female. And the woman producer of another
theater says, only half in jest, “I do men’s plays to get funding.”

The funding crisis and employment discrimination hold women back in the same way. In order to develop and reach larger audiences with their work, women playwrights and directors need to be hired beyond the workshop stage. Martha Boesing, of Minneapolis’s At the Foot of the Mountain Feminist Theater, speaks for many of the collaborative groups when she says, “We’re very young—the only way we’re going to get really good is to be able to go off and work for long periods of time in our own space on salary.”

Action for Women in Theater has taken its case to the National Endowment for the Arts, which they hope will put pressure on theaters that receive federal funds. These theaters can be urged to hire more women directors and produce more women’s plays. A’WT has also assembled lists of women directors around the country and has begun to collect scripts for a women’s play bank.

Despite their poverty, groups like At the Foot of the Mountain continue to produce work and to mature. This encourages and inspires me, as does the fact that women in theater are working together to change conditions. Though some of the women in AWT feel their action may adversely affect their employment opportunities, they are taking the chance because, as Carole Rothman says, “Even if it doesn’t help us, it will pay off for women all over the country.”

Lenox, Massachusetts:
The stage is bare except for one young woman. This is Viva Reviva, a new musical by Eve Merriam and Amy D. Rubin that Merriam calls “a second look at some classic situations.” Hamlet has left. Ophelia bends over the stream, sings the famous lines “Good night, ladies. I Good night sweet ladies,” and then drowns herself. After a silence, she sits up: “As I went under I my whole life flashed before me and I saw /1 had always been going down / I had always volunteered to be under … / I was drowning myself for nothing…“ Then she stands and moves toward us, “I… ripped off the sentimental garland of flowers. / and like the first creature emerging from the sea on the first morning of the world / I gasped upon the shore / began to crawl, stood upright, and walked naked, solitary, free.” The classic stage suicide, archetypal image for nearly five centuries of ingenues, has risen from the dead. The mirror of theater history has cracked and we are on the other side.

Honor Moore, a poet and playwright, is the author of “Mourning Pictures,” which was developed in a workshop at the Lenox Arts Center before going to Broadway in 1974. She edited “The New Women’s Theatre: Ten Plays by Contemporary American Women,” published in May by Vintage Books.