Daily Archives: January 22, 2013

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


Will Hand and Jeanette Penley Marker in Impact Theatre’s Toil and Trouble by Lauren Gunderson, a fantastic play by a brilliant woman with a kickass female character. Check out EVERY WORD LAUREN’S EVER WRITTEN because you will not regret it. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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(I understand the controversy around that term, but this post isn’t about that, so let’s move on), so I’m reading unpublished plays, many (if not most) by early career, relatively inexperienced playwrights.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?)

UPDATE May 2015: For a blog post with only 22K hits, this wins the prize for being the most educational for me as a blogger. One of the most important things I learned from this early post is that the kind of people who will call a stranger an “asshole” or “disgusting” in public for something as small as a relatively unknown blog post are the most likely to be reacting to what they imagine is in the piece rather than what is actually there. I learned that the people who legitimately disagree with the ideas discussed in a post are the least likely to use abusive words. I learned that the people who legitimately disagree with the ideas discussed in a post are awesome, always making me reflect and interrogate my point of view. I learned that engaging with hateful people is always already a lost cause. I learned that I will engage with them anyway. I learned that there are dozens of theatremakers across the country who disagree with some of my ideas and with whom I would dearly love to share a pitcher of beer and an evening of lively discussion.

If you’re here for the first time, I would like to invite you to read some of my newer posts. Click around and see a little more of who I am and what I write. While comments for this one piece are now closed, I approve all comments that are not abusive, so feel free to disagree. Maybe one day we’ll get to share that beer and talk about it in person. Whether you like what you see on Bitter Gertrude or not, I genuinely thank you for being here.

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Young Audience Members: NOT UNICORNS

Impact Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Impact Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

“THEATRE IS DYING. No young people are going to the theatre! There won’t be ANY AUDIENCE LEFT in a few years when they ALL DIE OUT.”

I hear this all the time, and it’s pharmaceutical grade nonsense.  Young people come to the theatre all the damn time. I wrote this article for Theatre Bay Area in 2011. Click here to see it in its original setting.

(I just got back from my theatre company’s annual season planning retreat, so I’m doing the lazy reblogging dance instead of serving you up a fine handcrafted cold-filtered brand new blog post.  One coming soon.)


“How do you get so many young people into your theatre? How can we do that?”

I’ve been asked these questions over and over and over. And over. The real answer is: I’m not sure. All I can tell you is what we’ve done, how we’ve done it and what I think you can do to better your chances of attracting the 18-35 audience. Will it work for you? I don’t know. Did it work for us? Yes, indeed.

Bear in mind that you need to do all of these things, all at the same time. This isn’t a pick-and-choose situation.

1. Do the kinds of plays young people want to see.
I am astounded by the fact that some larger theatres seem to believe young people should *always* be willing to translate, and blame self-centeredness, lack of interest in culture, lack of education and general boorishness when the 18-40 crowd don’t turn out in droves for a production of Dinner with Friends or Love Letters. Yet these very same theatres won’t slot a new play by an emerging playwright for fear of their subscribers’ reactions. They expect young people to translate, and heap condemnation upon them when they don’t, but they see older audience members’ potential lack of interest as their due. (P.S. Believe me when I tell you that 65 is the new 35. Many older Bay Area theatergoers are more adventurous than you think. TRUST. Moving on.)

While it’s always a good thing to have an active interest in the stories of people not in your age group (or ethnic group, or regional group, or religious group, etc), everyone longs to see their own stories, hopes, dreams, fears, realities and fantasies reflected in honest ways. Young people are no different. The key phrase here is “in honest ways.” A play by an older playwright with roles for young actors may or may not speak honestly to your desired potential younger audience members. Some older writers write very well for younger characters. Many do not. Large numbers of young people are not going to spring for tickets to a show that portrays them as mindless, boorish assholes. Find plays that speak honestly about the lives of young people in some way.

But how do I do that, Melissa?

I’m so glad you asked.

There are over 400 theatre companies in the nine-county Bay Area. We do more world premiere plays than almost any other region in the country—last I checked we ranked third. Yet it’s very common that staff from theatres who purport to want young audiences don’t come to world premiere productions at small theatre companies. How many emerging playwrights have you read this year? If the number is under 10, you’re slacking. Impact Theatre, my company, has produced a world premiere by, and/or entirely introduced to the Bay Area, these playwrights: Sheila Callaghan, Steve Yockey, Prince Gomolvilas, Enrique Urueta, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Liz Meriwether, Lauren Yee, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Joshua Conkel, Trevor Allen, Jon Tracy. This is a partial list—I stuck to people you’ve probably heard of. Most importantly, we’re a tiny dog on a very, very big block. There are a wagonload of companies doing precisely what we do. Find them. See their shows. Spy on the playwrights they use. Companies like mine are your R&D department.

Find directors who can make classic plays relevant and interesting—because they are. There are directors all over the country who draw loads of younger audience members into theatres to see Shakespeare, and a bunch of them are directing at these aforementioned smaller theatres.

2. Be realistic about your pricing.
It’s always annoying to hear people say, “But they’ll spend $60 on a concert ticket! Why won’t they spend $60 on theatre?” It’s like wondering why someone would drive all the way across country to be with her beloved but not drive just as long in the hope that she will meet a hot stranger in a bar. People drop bucks on concert tickets because they already know and love the artist and have every expectation of seeing a great show and having a great experience. Condemning those people for refusing to drop a similar amount of money on a show they may know little about that will, let’s be honest, likely bore them because it’s aimed entirely at someone else, is a bit much, yes? If you’re going to condemn the under-40 crowd for not dropping $60 on your play about middle-class, middle-aged white people and their midlife crises, you should also condemn Grandma because she’s not stocking her DVD collection with $60 of Robot Chicken.

So keep your ticket prices accessible. Some companies do an under-30 rate, which, quite frankly, I’m not wild about. That 30-40 crowd is young enough to need enticing into your theatre but old enough to be on the brink of having enough money to become donors and subscribers. You want them. They’re routinely ignored and that’s not going to pay off in the long run for your audience building. Make an under-40 rate if you must. Make some performances pay-what-you-will. Make your less attractive seating areas $20 for the first few weekends. Whatever you need to do, do it.

3. Market to young people.
If you’re not active on Facebook and Twitter, you need to be right now. Learn how to use these powerful tools properly. This isn’t a social media marketing post, so I’ll assume you can figure out where to get this info and move on. The blog on your website is going nowhere unless you’re pushing it with Facebook and Twitter, by the way.

Find ways to make your outreach to young people honest and, most importantly, unpretentious. One of the main things keeping young people out of the theatre is that they’re afraid they won’t fit in—they’ll feel awkward and out of place. As my friend’s dad was fond of saying, they’re afraid they’ll “stand out like a sheep turd in a bowl of cream.” You want to make them as comfortable as possible. A big step towards that is to use your marketing to make them feel welcome. Not pretend welcome, as in, “We want to sell you tickets,” but truly welcome, like “Come over and play with us! We just got a new toy!”

Theatre is not medicine. We don’t go because it’s good for us. We go because we think it’ll be awesome. Make sure you’re approaching your marketing properly. “It’ll be awesome” + “You’re totally welcome and will be comfortable” + “We’re not stuffy and pretentious” will go a long way. Make sure you’re delivering those goods onsite as well. Nothing drives someone away from your company forever as efficiently as an undelivered promise.

And that’s pretty much it. This is what I believe has worked for us over the past 15 years. I hope it’s successful for you as well. We all need to work together to build audiences for our future as an artistic community. There’s not a single one of us that exists on an island. We’re all in this together.

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