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Cross Post: A Common Problem I See In Plays By Women Playwrights. It’s Not What You Think.

Cross Post: A Common Problem I See In Plays By Women Playwrights. It's Not What You Think.

My theatre company is in heavy season planning mode, so I’ve recently read dozens of new plays. I’m always reading new plays, but this time of year, I’m reading a lot of plays, all day long. We’re making an effort to find more plays by women playwrights. We get between 300-400 unsolicited submissions each year, as well as submissions from agents and theatre professionals (playwrights, other ADs or LMs). 75% of those plays are by men, without fail. Unsurprisingly, 75% of the plays we’ve done over our 17 seasons have been by men. So we’re making an extra effort to find women playwrights and ask them to submit.

My company does new plays by “emerging” playwrights (I understand the controversy around that term, but this post isn’t about that, so let’s move on), so I’m reading unpublished plays, many (if not most) by early career, relatively inexperienced playwrights. I noticed a trend in the writing style of these early career women writers, a trend that initially confused me.

I’m seeing a significant amount of plays by women with female characters structurally positioned as the central character. However, that female character isn’t driving the narrative– she is, instead, just reactive to whatever the male characters are doing. It’s a woman sitting around wondering what to do about some man in her life, talking to her friends about some man, interacting with some man about his decisions or actions. It’s still a story with a central male character, just told from the woman’s point of view. If it’s a lesbian play, just change that male character to a female character. The structurally central female character is just as reactive.

Here’s the weird part: I ALMOST NEVER SEE PLAYS LIKE THIS FROM MEN. When I get a play by a man, the central character, male or female, almost always drives the narrative and has an active arc.

Ensemble pieces don’t change anything– they work the same way, just in the plural.

So what the effing eff is going on here? I rarely see this from the more experienced, accomplished women playwrights, but it’s shockingly common from early career women writers.

I thought a lot about this, talked about it with friends, got into a lengthy discussion on Facebook (of course) about it. Here’s what I think is going on.

Some playwrights, particularly those who are new to it, are drawing heavily from their own lives and are writing central characters that are reflective of themselves. Sometimes they write plays that are about some perceived injustice they suffered (WHY WON’T HE LOVE ME? WHY WILL NO ONE PRODUCE MY PLAYS?) which can put their central character into a reactive position. But the gender difference, I think, can only be explained one way.

As women, we’re taught to be reactive– to pay careful attention to the needs and opinions of others and react immediately to them. Most women become masters of reading body language and gold medalists at empathy. Not all (of course) but most, because we’re taught that being any other way is unacceptable– at home, in the culture, in plays, films, books, TV shows. Men, however, are taught to be active, and are taught that men who aren’t– who are reactive– are not “real men.” We (unfortunately) re-inscribe this into the culture over and over and over.

Being empathetic and reactive aren’t necessarily bad things, but these received narratives of how to “correctly” perform our genders are having an impact on the way some playwrights are writing, and that impact is working against some women playwrights’ ability to tell their stories.

When you structure a play with a central character, you’re writing someone who occupies the same position in your play that you do in your own life, right? Every person is the central character in his or her personal play/film/video game, because your own life is experienced, of necessity, from your point of view. So when a woman sees herself as inhabiting a reactive position in life, she’s likely going to write a central female character as reactive, because that’s how she perceives what living as a woman IS.

When men write central characters– whether that central character is male or female– those characters are almost always reflective of the active position they’re taught to see as “normal.” Men don’t write reactive female central characters because they see an active self-perception as “normal” in general.

This is, obviously, just a guess, but I don’t know how else to explain what I’m seeing, and I’m seeing it over and over.

Plenty of women writers don’t make their central female characters reactive, but I see enough who do to make me think we should be deliberately and consciously teaching women playwrights to CLAIM THEIR OWN STORIES (the way men are taught to do from the cradle by every corner of the culture). Because a reactive central character isn’t as strong or as interesting as an active one, as women develop their voices as playwrights, I see less and less of this in their work. And of course there are some women writers who never do this. But the ones who do need to be taught to value themselves and their stories. BECAUSE THEY ARE VALUABLE.

So let me tell you now, early career women writers: YOUR STORIES ARE INTERESTING. YOUR STORIES ARE IMPORTANT. YOUR EXPERIENCES ARE IMPORTANT. YOU ARE IMPORTANT. You are important to me, to our work, to the theatre community. YOU ARE MORE THAN YOUR REACTIONS TO SOMEONE ELSE. So write that. And send it to me.

(PS to the men out there writing strong, compelling, active roles for women: Thank you. The women actors of the world also thank you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have the right to write stories for women because you don’t have “authenticity.” Jesus Timberlake Christ, do they really want there to be FEWER roles for women?)


Melissa Hillman is the Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley, CA and a frequent contributor to Theatre Bay Area Magazine. She holds a PhD from UC Berkeley and teaches at CSU East Bay, the Berkeley Digital Film Institute, and the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre.

Republished with permission.

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