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(I understand the controversy around that term, but this post isn’t about that, so let’s move on), so I’m reading unpublished plays, many (if not most) by early career, relatively inexperienced playwrights.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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53 thoughts on “A Common Problem I See In Plays By Women Playwrights. It’s Not What You Think.

  1. Duncan says:

    I remember I read somewhere that there was a person in charge of reading unsolicited screenplays at a major studio. First of all, anything handwritten or done in the wrong format went in the trash. Then, anything cliche would be set aside. The cliche pile was large. After a while person doing the writing noticed that there was a cliche ‘girl’ pile and a cliche ‘guy’ pile.

    The cliche guy pile’s screenplays went like this “Single ice cream truck driver stumbles across hidden alien artifact. He must get it to the government while evil corporate forces try to kill him before he completes his mission.” or a million combinations of that. Menial nobody finds some big-deal item and is pursued until a climactic finale.

    The cliche girl pile had screenplays that went “Woke up in my bed with the silk sheets I had bought yesterday. Still thinking about Brad. I went to my mirror and picked up my hairbrush to brush my hair. I could see my open closet from where I was sitting. I thought about how my day was going to go.” Detail-driven ‘day in the life’ screenplays that read like stylized journal entries.

    When I talked about this with a feminist friend, she mentioned that it’s possible that men are raised to believe that they can have an effect on the world while women are only allowed a small area of control. Clothes, hair, romantic relationships, maybe a career. I don’t know if that’s true or not but it always made me think. It sounds like you’re running into something similar here. Not exactly the same but in the same ball park.

  2. Anthony Clarvoe says:

    Hear, hear. Meanwhile, up next at the Aurora Theatre:
    a world premiere by anthony clarvoe
    directed by allen mckelvey
    cast: Joy Carlin, Julia Brothers, Anne Darragh, Blythe Foster, Lauren Spencer, Adrienne Walters.
    January 25 – March 3, 2013

  3. Are you interested in one-act plays? I have a one-act play that was performed by Women in Theater of Los Angeles about a decade ago that I never sent anywhere else. It’s based on my most popular short story. And I promise you, there are no dithering women (or men) in it.

    • We’re only accepting unpublished full-lengths at this time. Previously produced is OK, but they do have to be unpublished full-lengths. Thank you!

      • Kris says:

        Where should we send submissions? I have 5 plays in publication and a current script that is winning competition after competition. It sounds like exactly the type of script you’d love!

      • We accept unpublished, full-length plays throughout the year (previous productions OK) to our literary manager, Steven Epperson, at steven (at) impacttheatre (dot) com. Thank you!

  4. pietrobruno says:

    We are also told to make our female characters likeable. And yet, script readers often view strong female characters as too aggressive, angry, bitter and feminist; particularly when the writer is a woman. In real life, women are told that they will be liked if they are weak. Female writers are often told the same thing about the characters that they create.

  5. Vaguechera says:

    Great blog.

    Do you know about the Bechdel test? Most film/TV fails these three simple criteria:
    – Is there more than one female character?
    – Do they have names?
    – Do they talk about something other than the male characters?

    Given that a MASSIVE percentage of popular culture that we imbibe only has inert, reactive female characters, if it has any at all, is it any wonder that women writers (and presumably also male writers, who are no better at writing central, active female leads) are influenced by this?

    • Thank you!

      Very familiar with the Bechdel test. I think it has limited applicability in theatre. You can write a fantastic play with a strong woman in the central role with an active arc and still not pass the Bechdel test because there are only 2 or 3 people in the whole thing, or because it’s all written in direct address monologue format. It’s great for film, though.

    • That’s what I was going to say! It’s a great rule of thumb that every woman writer should follow FAITHFULLY. The last point will lead to better, more interesting plots.

  6. Michelle Carter says:

    Guilty! I have definitely fallen into the reactive-female-protagonist trap. Thanks for the insight!

  7. Jack Worthing says:

    I don’t think this is a male/female thing so much as an apprentice writer thing. Most early plays have a writer stand-in, and learning to step outside yourself takes work.

    • Robin Hushbeck says:

      Even so, this goes back to the more basic issues of women, themselves, taking a more reactive role in life, not just in their work. If women were taught to be more active, we would see that reflected in their work, regardless of their ability to draw on influences outside their (our) own lives.

    • agreed. I see just as many men do this as women.

  8. Mary Knoll says:

    Have you seen or read any of my work? If you google, “To Be Merry Mary Knoll” excerpts from my solo show should be revealed and I think you might like it. Check it out, please.

  9. I am a female playwright with an unpublished full length play I would like to submit. How can I submit this play to be considered?

  10. Callan Stout says:

    If you only want the script how can you tell if the playwright is a woman? About half my rejection letters are addressed to Mr. Callan Stout. Even a simple google search would show that I’m a woman. I’ve never assumed that my gender contributed to my acceptance (or otherwise), but is there a good way to inform of my femaleness the theatre company and/or reader when they only want the script?

  11. At first I thought my play was entirely female-protagonist-reactive, (I’ve even written you about this) but have since realized in the first part of the play she has to be more reactive. I’m writing about early 1960’s on the cusp of the feminist art movement. This changes as the play progresses, as the point of the play is about a woman artist moving from the traditional, male-dominated art aesthetic to embracing her own. I’m nearly finished with the draft and will send it your way and see if we agree. 🙂

    I’m thrilled you posted this. I think it’s important to keep the conversation going. And I’m experiencing warm-fuzzies from your encouragement to all women playwrights.

    I see you as a warrior.

    I want to say this: your blog, unlike some others I’ve read that tend to belittle and mock the playwright, isn’t a forum for complaining or a space for egotistical ranting and useless snobbery, but a blog that informs, encourages, and embraces. You love. You love theater. You love actors. You love playwrights. You want us all to succeed. And we will. We are valuable and our stories are important.

  12. Eileen Tull says:

    This is a great read, Melissa. Definitely made me look at my work (as a baby playwright) with fresh eyes.
    Filtering a female character’s issues through men/male relationships/male ‘action’ is a knee jerk reaction similar to how 90% of plays and films seem to be set in Manhattan. It’s as if we’re looking for some kind of common ground: “All women have MAN troubles” and “Everybody wants to/knows what it’s like to live in NYC.”

  13. Sometimes I wonder why “action” has a positive connotation and “reaction” a negative one. I think both are important in theatre. Something I’ve been mulling over around gender dynamics in improvised theatre… As I often see female improvisors take the more reactionary role, and male improvisors tend to be more action driven. Definitely not a rule, and many exceptions to this. But why is reaction considered negative?

    • Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that as well. I think it’s not at all impossible to write a strong character with a strong arc from a reactive position, but much more difficult to make engaging than an active one.

      That aside, what I’m seeing, I believe, are young women writing in a way that they think they *should* be writing, making their central female characters reactive because they might not yet believe that their own arcs, their own stories, have power and importance, and feel that the narratives of others– especially men– are stronger, better, more important. I don’t think these women, most of whom are writing their 1st or 2nd play, are making deliberate artistic choices to write from a reactive position. I think they just haven’t been taught that their stories are as powerful as any man’s.

      Again, as I say in the post, I’m not seeing this from accomplished, experienced writers in the same way that I do from younger women who are just learning to find their voices. And of course, when I do see this, it’s more often than not just one of several dramaturgical issues in the piece, all common to early career writing. I’m not talking about gorgeously written, strong work that happens to be from a reactive PoV (one woman on twitter used Pride and Prejudice as an example). I’m talking about young women struggling to find an artistic identity and privileging the experiences of others over their own experiences.

    • exactly, perhaps the message we take away from seeing even an overly “reactive” character is the one that the playwright intended. “reactive” doesn’t have to be negative, in fact it can make the characters arc more compelling when the variables change.

      • Of course! But only when passivity is a deliberate choice. What I’m talking about is a particular issue I’m seeing in playwrights who are writing their first or second play, with the passivity of the central character handled in such a way as to make it appear to me that it wasn’t a deliberate choice, but rather a privileging of the stories and experiences of others, usually men, and telling those stories through the eyes of the female central character. I’m talking, as I say in the post, about plays wherein the central female character takes no action and makes no decisions, but rather sits in a room and discusses someone else, wonders where he is, whether he likes her, who he’s dated before, and what she should wear when he gets there. Then, when he finally arrives, she sits on a couch and cries while he discusses his decisions with her.

  14. Melissa, this is an awesome post. I’m a new playwrite (note I said new, not young, lol) and while my hubby assured me this isn’t my problem, I can say that I will be focusing on making sure my female characters aren’t being merely reactive.

    Off to go follow you now!

  15. Oh, and thanks for the Bechdel test. I think it would apply nicely to novels, too, as well as movies.

  16. liftingasweclimb says:

    Reblogged this on Lifting As We Climb and commented:
    Truth. Think about it, then avoid.

  17. David Campfield says:

    I think this was a good article, too! And/but two things:
    1. I like that she wrote “effing eff”
    2. I question whether or not women are actually *taught* to be reactive. Might it just be natural? (And please, I do not not NOT see that as a demeaning possibility) Like from a nurturing perspective?

    • Ferlee says:

      Yes, we are taught it. Practically from birth. Trust me, there is an initial instinct, as there is in men at an early age, but we are definitely taught our gender roles.

  18. Brooke says:

    I think this is all very true — and wonderful to see written about. But I’d add, we must also examine our inherent beliefs about the nature of drama. That single character whose desire and conflict fuels the action of the play? Many feminist critics argue against that as the only way to tell a story. Maria Irene Fornes has said that the notion that a character always wants something s/he can’t have is “an inherently capitalistic assumption.” Not all plays are meant to be read as “lone guy whose lone action drives narrative.” Just saying.

    • I went to grad school in the 90s, so I had to read pretty much every single word about this particular theory. It was all the rage at the time. I don’t think it produces the most compelling drama (just not my cup of tea), nor do I think dramatic structure is gendered in the way these theorists once claimed it was. Plenty of men have written plays using experimental, non-linear structure. I had to wade through several articles claiming the difference in dramatic structure between genders was due to the difference in how men and women experience orgasm. I like a good play, and I like a good orgasm, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to conflate them, and I am much more interested in linear stories than in what these theorists called “circular” or “wave” structures. So I decided early on in my PhD program that I didn’t think that particular theory held water, and that dramatic structure wasn’t gendered, even a little. That said, Irene KICKS ASS. I think about her often, especially now, and hope that her last days are easy and pain-free.

      As far as my ability to read dramatic structure goes, I think it’s quite easy to spot the difference between a non-traditionally structured piece and a traditionally-structured piece with a reactive central character. You really can’t read one as the other unless you are exceptionally drunk. Now THAT would be an interesting final.

      • Michelle Carter says:

        Yes. And it works my nerves when writers who are really truly trying to write a play with a traditional dramatic structure call their failures to do so an experiment of some kind. You really really can tell the difference.

      • Anthony Clarvoe says:

        Maybe my favorite thing I ever heard Irene say was, “At the center of any autobiographical play is a vacuum with a vague complaint.”

  19. Tony Sportiello, Artistic Director, Algonquin Theater Productions says:

    Lol. I agree with the article as well, but I’m curious about the phrase “it’s not what you think!” What is it we were supposed to think was the problem with women playwrights?

    • What I meant was that I had never heard anyone talk about this particular issue before. When women theatremakers are discussed, it’s always from the angle of what’s being done TO us– we’re being oppressed, passed over for promotion, rejected. It’s been interesting to discuss what we DO.

  20. Why are men dominating the world of playwriting? There is nothing, I mean NOTHING in our masculine culture encouraging men to be playwrights. Even in a liberal as hell city like Seattle that has a ton of theatre and art, writing plays is hardly rewarding for men.

  21. a) I love this line – “I like a good play, and I like a good orgasm, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to conflate them…” b) You make some great points – however mainstream voices for women often create reactive female characters. In romantic comedies, it’s always about a man pursuing a woman and at the end of the movie, he shows up in the rain to get her back. It’s rare that we see a woman running in the rain to get him back. The entire first season of “Girls” is specifically about a reactive character and that’s where the humor is found. So if these are the stories women are watching, it’s not surprising that they are emulating those arcs. c) I think female characters in plays are often judged harsher by directors/artistic directors/dramaturgs – I’ve been told often my female characters need to be more likeable ESPECIALLY when they have strong drives. Is that a reaction to a character being aggressive versus passive? Not sure but not once have I gotten that note about a male character. d) I love your final note to emerging female writers – True that. Thanks for the provocative article!

  22. […] of articles from various sources presenting intersecting viewpoints. Melissa Hillman has noticed a trend among emerging female playwrights towards passive female characters who continue to support male-driven stories. She suggests that […]

  23. Reblogged this on mise en théâtre and commented:
    I was having this conversation with a fellow playwright last night (in the theater, of course). What a terrific observation this blog post is and yes, a new one.

  24. Julie Blake says:

    Thanks for this article, very interesting.

  25. […] week, I may steal again from Hillman, because her recent post that kicked up a shitstorm came vividly to mind when reading our next assignment, Sabina Berman’s Between Pancho Villa […]

  26. Amy @ My Friend Amy says:

    Reblogged this on Bblog Central.

  27. […] she thinks holds women playwrights back in the selection process for production. The post, titled “A Common Problem I See in Plays by Women Playwrights. It’s Not What You Think”, offers a certainly interesting perspective. As do the comments on the post. Sure, there is a […]

  28. Kirby Hughes says:

    This post was read in one of my Drama classes at Queen’s yesterday during our discussion of A Bold Stroke for a Wife by Susanna Centlivre. While listening to it I got thinking about my own plays. One is about a young woman who is stuck in a loveless marriage and cannot get up the courage or motivation to leave. The story is about her lack of action and transformation to action when she gets moving at the end of the play. So I wonder, in response to this post, what the opinion would be of this re-active female character. To me her re-active character state is a further comment on her state and need for action and her transformation is taking that active position, but she should still be more active in the rest of the play and not just sitting around talking about her husband or is that the whole point?
    As you can see, this post got me all confused about how to approach my own plays and I would love to hear so responses to the blog post in relation to this dilemma.

    P.S. I loved the post by the way, very inspiring!

    • I think there are plenty of ways to make a passive central character interesting if it’s a deliberate choice, which seems to be the case here. And thank you!

  29. I recently finished a play with 6 female characters and 3 male one. The female characters are very much the driving force of the story but the main character is still male. And that was a very conscious decision. It’s my first full length play and I drew heavily from my own experience and making this character male was my way of distancing myself from him. The play could’ve worked just as well if this character was female but then it would’ve started to parallel my life in a very uncomfortable way and I simply didn’t want that. Just pointing out that there might be a variety for reasons for gender assignment in plays.

  30. […] my last post, I briefly alluded to how Melissa Hillman’s blog post “A Common Problem I See In Plays By Women Playwrights. It’s Not What You Think.” impacted my reading of Sabina Berman’s Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman, and […]

  31. Yes, absolutely, yes! This is INDEED a problem I have observed! I have my undergrad BFA in Original Works – and they never tell you anything like this. About why your plays may or may not get produced.
    I wrote a play that actually examines a woman who chooses to do exactly what you’re talking about – allow everything to happen TO her without driving the action (she has a foil character who is choosing their own fate quite actively). When my mother – a therapist – read it, she said “This is what the problem is. This is why women are going to therapy in their 40s, because they keep waiting for something to happen instead of taking charge”.
    If you’re going to write a play like that, it should at least be aware of itself, characters seeking alternative solutions to their problems.
    I really needed to read this. Thank you. You should wander by my blog because I just posted about this. Literally.

  32. I think the affirmative action to get women playwright’s produced creates a reality where women playwrights who have representation and are being considered for production may not have the chops men have. Passive protagonists are a common problem from novice writers, regardless of gender. Are women being rushed into consideration to change production ratios prior to the necessary growth as writers? When 75% of plays being produced are written by men you see evidence of past, incremental, gender-based competition due to potential marginal profit (based on probable historical sexism but still a datum towards competition). Bitter Gertrude admits this more likely reality near the end of the post when she says that women who have spent time developing their craft have more active protagonists. The desire to produce women playwrights in a field that traditionally hasn’t will open the field to writers not worthy of being produced. The larger the sample the greater the variability. The good news is that time usually smooths off all curves and as women keep writing (and see the incentive of production) there we can expect the prediction of less passive female protagonists. FWIW, I am a novice playwright receiving my first Chicago workshop production of an original script with a female protagonist.

  33. John Byrd says:

    All my plays, so far without exception, revolve around one or two central, active, female protagonists.

  34. I have a play opening July 17th in Los Angeles, THE PORCINI TEST, with three female leads, each one of them with a sassy, driven and active role. It’s about time women bonded together to do something about these passive female roles and make them a thing of the past. We need to support each other in this.

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