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What Happened to Women’s Theatre?

February 21, 2007

It existed, in the 1980s and early 1990s: plays written and directed by women were being produced—off-Broadway, at theatres dedicated to the work, such as the Women’s Project and Productions, and even at regional theatres. There were panel discussions and articles about the role of women in the theatre, and, according to at least one poll, the number of plays women produced increased by a couple of percentage points. And then, at some indefinite period in the 90s, the whole endeavor ground to a halt. There is one obvious cause: the cyclical submerging of the women’s movement. From that came many consequences; perhaps the most damaging was that the discourse about women in the theatre ended. No more panel discussions, no more articles, and even when perhaps the best known woman playwright died—Wendy Wasserstein—the New York Times barely addressed her role as an example and advocate (to the extent she was one) for women in the theatre. Then the donors who had supported women in the theatre disappeared—they had always been largely individual women, but the Ford Foundation was instrumental in starting the Women’s Project. The audience that had come because of a belief in the importance of the work fell away—and that audience had never, I think, committed itself to supporting women in the theatre, only to supporting specific playwrights. I was a primary mover in the formation of the Women’s Project in the early 1980s, although the energy and inspiration came from a group of women, foremost among them Julia Miles. I remember talking with her about breaking away from the American Place Theatre, where she worked as a co-producer. (My first play was performed there, in 1980). She made the break, and it seemed dangerous and exhilarating. With the help of several dedicated women, she raised money and began to move toward establishing a theatre of her own, which still exists in the West Fifties. But belief in the importance of the work had already begun to die when the theatre opened, although a small audience remained loyal. Another fatal factor, for the Women’s Project and other theatres that shared its mission, was that as women playwrights became successful—or at least marginally so—they stopped sending their work to these venues. By now it had become clear that the Times reviews would be scathing or at best dismissive. And the plays we were writing became, it seems to me, less concerned with complex and difficult issues and more conventional: comedies, by and large, with no indication of anything that might be called (in the broader sense) a woman’s point of view. Perhaps we all began to accept that “ a woman’s point of view” is inevitably narrower, more parochial, more concerned with relationships, than a man’s. That, of course, is the underlying belief of the culture around us. The more radical among us found it next to impossible to find productions; many of us simply disappeared. There’s a cruel inevitability at work here: as this culture begins to dismiss women, as crucial players in our world, the theatre reflects this turn. And since, to this day, most producers, directors, dramaturges and critics are men, their support was never more than a sometime thing. The world changed, and all of us suffered the consequences.