A Boy in a Man’s Theater

We are the 70% (or is it 17%?)

VIDA has yet to embark on an official count of the number of women playwrights whose work is staged in American theatres, but every few months a new study on gender parity reveals that approximately 17% of plays produced in the United States are written by women.  Although this percentage has increased from roughly 7% in the 1970s, the numbers have not changed much in recent years.


Last week’s announcement of the Guthrie Theatre’s 2012-13 season, a line-up written and directed almost entirely by white men (Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre, is a leading influence in the American regional theatre movement and one of the largest and most well-funded regional theatres in the country) led to an outcry in the local and national press and social media. Leah Cooper, a member of the Minnesota Theatre Alliance, in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), calls the season “insulting and degrading” to women and people of color. MPR’s Marianne Combs notes that of the 12 productions slated for the Guthrie main stages next year not one was written by a woman, and refers to American playwright Marsha Norman’s count for Theatre Communications Group in 2009, which showed that “women buy 70% of theatre tickets sold.” We at VIDA wonder what would happen if women started to wield our buying power in the direction of 70% rather than toward the 17% margins to which we are sequestered by the theatre industry.

One of the most personal responses to the Guthrie season announcement comes from a member of the theater community who has worked in new play development for decades, the brilliant Polly Carl, former producing artistic director of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and now the editor of the journal HowlRound and Director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College in Boston. Carl’s essay—reprinted here— brings home, with tenderness and passion, the void this lack of diversity creates on the American stage. She speaks of the need for each of us to see and experience our own stories in dramatic form, and how the absence of this diversity alienates audiences from the American theatre.

 Lisa Schlesinger and Ruth Margraff,

VIDA Playwriting Genre Action Committee

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I’ve always said that the American musical hasn’t meant much to me. I don’t really connect to most of those stories told through singing and dancing with some notable exceptions. Then I saw a workshop performance of the Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesori musical Fun Home, adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel. There I was on stage. I’ve seen a few other plays featuring gay women, and often those women have been beaten senseless (Stop Kiss) or found dead by hanging (The Children’s Hour). But here was a full-blown musical about a boyish girl, growing up with a closeted gay father, discovering her creative potential—and well, it happened. I understood the power of the musical. I memorized every song. I sang them over and over and over. I wept during every rehearsal—there was an actor on stage who looked like me (well, like me in a younger and cuter kind of way). And though it wasn’t my exact story, it was my story. And I know when this musical is finally produced, I will see it a hundred times and never be tired of it.


Clothes Make the Men

In 1987, a few days after having worn an ankle-length knit skirt, a long cream colored knit sweater, off-white hose, and black flats to a dressy dinner for Junior Parents Weekend, I went into my dorm room closet and tossed out all my girl clothes. I realized I had reached a pivotal moment. I was a year from graduating from college, and heading into adulthood. For someone of my gender, it meant I would have to embrace womanhood, and somehow after that night, I knew I wasn’t ready—that I’d never be ready.

In about 2002, my partner Lynette drove me blindfolded to a local tailor in Minneapolis for a birthday surprise and had three men’s shirts made to fit me. That moment transformed my entire universe and depended entirely on the fact that we both were working full-time and could afford such crazy excess. But between 1991 and 2002, I wandered uncomfortably through men’s clothing stores, a boy covered by too much fabric in a man’s world that I aspired to some day call my own. The problem was I was just too small. Nothing fit right. My neck was too narrow and my legs too short to ever fit in real men’s clothes. And the pain of it wasn’t just about size, but the humiliation of the search for the right outfit was more than I could bear. Once in awhile some kind gay sales clerk in Nordstrom would take pity on me and try to help me find a shirt in the smallest neck size, but often, I was ignored, refused service, or told I couldn’t try on clothes in the men’s dressing room. Women who sold men’s clothes were the worst, one refused to pull out a man’s shirt from a display case I wanted to try on saying simply, “that’s for a man.”

And I realize now, that in some ways, I’ve never grown up, because I had no choices to grow into that suited me. I don’t feel at all like a woman, and well, when someone calls me lady, I don’t know who they’re referring to. Many of my tomboy friends have taken the plunge and transitioned to manhood and I think they are brave and amazing, but I don’t feel like a man either. I’m a boy as best I can figure. I like to play video games, basketball, read graphic novels, ride my bike, and watch baseball. How can I be seen as an adult in the world if I’m not seen? I feel certain though, that I could have grown up if I simply had a gender available to grow into.

As we make our way into a very ugly and gendered political season, and as I look at the seasons of many of our regional theater stages, the most egregious being the one just announced by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, well, I am compelled to talk some truth about finding yourself “other” in a white man’s world—about the importance of insisting on being seen. I didn’t want to be the one to take this on, but as I’ve been searching for other voices to jump into this discussion, I realize I’m asking them to perhaps risk their own livelihoods down the line—I’m asking them to risk what I haven’t wanted to risk myself.


Seeing Yourself on Stage

In my career in the theater I have mostly decided not to think about this problem of my gender dysphoria. I’ve always survived my otherness through stories, through imagining I could be anyone and anything—it was Spiderman for a long time. I’ve been so lucky to work in the theater and submerge myself into the stories of others, constantly lost in the possibilities of what I could imagine versus staying stuck in the limitations of the present moment. In other words, I didn’t want to focus on some of the painful realities of my own story, but have preferred instead to dramaturg and produce many other very compelling stories.

I’ve been supportive of, but not super involved in, all the talk of women’s discrimination in the theater. I didn’t feel I was quite the right choice to be a spokeswoman for the cause, though the lack of women’s voices on our stages enrages me. I’ve kept quiet about that subject because in accentuating my otherness, I feared exacerbating it. And honestly, I didn’t want to ever be dismissed as someone with a chip on my shoulder, a victim of my own circumstances. I want to be taken seriously in this business, fit in to the degree that I can, and make good stories for the stage.

So, I’ve made my way as a boy in a man’s theater—in a theater dominated by men’s voices, predominantly white, both straight and gay. And I like men, I identify with them. They are my best friends and I like making theater with them. And had god forced me to choose, I’m certain I’d have compared wardrobe choices and decided to be a man.

But that said, I believe the transformative power of art rests in undiscovered stories, and if large not-for-profit theaters don’t lead the way in developing and producing those stories, then who will? And if we give the leaders of those theaters a pass because it might cost us something later, then we’re not being nearly imaginative enough about the possibilities for a new future for ourselves and our field.

If a young girl/boy playwright came to me for advice about how to make it in this business, I would likely suggest they run like the wind from this crazy thing we call the American theater. I’ve been wildly lucky to have found a place here, and I’ve been treated relatively well as a short, tattooed boy/girl in boy’s clothes, and I’m grateful for the artists I’ve met along the way whose imaginations and stories saved me from feeling unseen. I’ll never forget supporting Madeleine George’s workshop of The Zero Hour several years ago, and thank god Bonnie Metzger had the courage to produce both Sylvan Oswald’s Pony and Sarah Gubbins’s The Kid Thing, and rock on Basil Kreimendahl as you develop Orange Julius at the O’Neill this summer. And a quick tip of the hat to those who blazed some trail through this gender isolation—thank you Peggy Shaw, Paula Vogel, Susan Miller, Holly Hughes and others I’m sure I’ve missed.

But I decided to pass, to pass as an arts administrator who could make myself relevant by fundraising, supervising, marketing—in clothes that could be either overlooked or admired as creatively quirky. But you, my tomboy playwrights, are attempting to tell stories that could subvert the reality of our donors and subscribers—and from what I hear from many of our artistic leaders, these are stories that will never resonate with our current audiences. If women playwrights, those who are representing the stories of half of the population, and as Lauren Gunderson points out in her recent article, buying 70 percent of the seats, can’t find a place on our stages, it doesn’t bode well for those playwrights unable to comfortably embrace a single gender.


Narcissism or Art

Joe Dowling, in defending the almost entirely white male season at the Guthrie, said in a public television program that complaints about his manly white season are “self-serving.” And I couldn’t agree with him more. For those of us passing in a man’s world, we’re exhausted from serving the man. I am anyway. Everyday I serve the worldviews of others. I am forced to file my taxes as a single person although Lynette and I have been together almost fourteen years. And damn if I don’t have to serve the two-gendered party system on every form that requires me to choose a gender—that’s every form, by the way. So I’m putting myself out there in the most self-serving way. Please call me narcissistic. I want more diversity on our stages and more short, tattooed folks running our theaters because I’m selfish enough to want many more moments like I had at that Fun Home workshop in December.

Art rises from the unknown and the undiscovered. Sometimes different is better if only because it makes us stop and consider languages and cultures and ideas not our own. It forces us to engage the act of translation in the encounter with unfamiliar stories. I don’t think we shell out big money to see plays only to be comforted by stories we already know—I’ve met very few audiences who would articulate this as their reason for attending theater. If it’s self-serving to crave surprise, if it’s selfish to seek the new and the undiscovered, then I embrace my self-serving nature for the sake of the future relevance of the theater.