Women Playwrights 2: Electric Boogaloo


So this happened:

A blog post I thought about 20 people would read has gone viral . . . ish. Or, viral for theatre anyway. (Comparing my stats to the inappropriate cartoon my son made last year and put on reddit, garnering half a million hits in 72 hours, is just going to depress me.)

I’m enormously flattered by all the attention it’s received, and I’ve had a deluge of interesting responses, some here on the blog but most out in the innerwebs.

The response I didn’t expect, but have received more than a few times, was the defensive: But women’s lives ARE like that! Those ARE our stories! Which is a little heartbreaking. I don’t believe that any woman’s life is just waiting around for someone else, talking about someone else, and reacting to the decisions of someone else. Women are so much more than that.

The most curious responses were from people holding up extremely active characters who drive the narrative bus all through the town as examples of reactive central characters (Hamlet was one such example). The most valuable challenge came from the people who made me examine my assumptions about active vs reactive dramaturgical positionality. I’m thankful they gave me the opportunity to evaluate an assumption and deepen my understanding of it.

The best response of the bunch, unsurprisingly, came from the brilliant Lauren Gunderson, who responded to my post with an inspiring, challenging piece of writing that I think you should all check out.

My opinion is, obviously, not definitive. My writing reflects my opinions about my experiences, and of course responses from others will be reflective of their opinions about their experiences. Our responses to anything– writing, theatre, pumpkin muffins, bad traffic, the distressingly continued presence of Uggs– say as much about ourselves as they do about the thing itself. So it’s been a very valuable process for me to examine my own reaction (and imagined responses) to the people who are saying my post is valuable and a worthwhile read as well as to the people who are saying that I’m a “patriarchal tool” whose self-hating gender bias is deluding me into evaluating works of feminine genius as lacking simply because they don’t conform to a “masculine structure.” (Penis-shaped plays, amirite?)

Despite the fact that the response has been overwhelmingly positive, my first reaction to that was to zero in on the negative and think: I AM NEVER WRITING ABOUT GENDER AGAIN. I said, from that moment on, my blog was going to be about pictures of puppies in baskets, cupcakes, and my rack.


So what did that reaction say about me? To me, it said that the girl who was bullied for years in school still tries to make decisions for the adult she has become, and that’s not OK. It said that I’m still far too willing to give power to the people who want to silence me with their public disapproval. And devaluing your own experience while privileging the experiences of others was EXACTLY what I was trying to get women to stop doing when I wrote the post. So I had to take a seat and give myself a Come to Moradin talk about Having a Blog and Having a Voice.

The answer, of course, is not for me to hide, but to learn instead to take the good with the bad, develop a thicker skin, keep my chin up, keep calm and carry on, and all the other British platitudes you can think of go here.

Thank you all so much, truly.

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13 thoughts on “Women Playwrights 2: Electric Boogaloo

  1. I discussed your earlier post with my female playwright classmates and we disagreed on some of your points (haven’t yet cleaned up my thoughts enough to write about it) but thank you so much for starting this conversation! And thank you for being a champion for young female playwrights. I’m sorry there were people out there who just tried to dismiss and silence you. This is something we should be talking about. Like Laura Gunderson said, it’s always good to take a look at our work and ask ourselves exactly *what* we’re doing.
    (Also, totes jealous of your excellent rack.)

  2. My problem with the original post is not whether “life is really like that”; my problem is with its vagueness. What qualifies as “reactive”? Because a protagonist making unmotivated decisions out of nowhere is bad dramaturgy, but if a protagonist makes their decisions as a result of outside factors, are they “reactive”? What is the difference between “reactive” and, y’know, good old cause-and-effect?

    • I’m talking about protagonists who aren’t making decisions at all, but are instead discussing the decisions of others and waiting for others to make decisions. I believe the inexperienced writers I’m discussing are not making this choice deliberately, but are seeing their actions outside of that context as less interesting and important, therefore creating entire plays around “Why doesn’t he like me, when will he commit, why did he ask someone else out” and the like.

  3. gwangung says:

    “To me, it said that the girl who was bullied for years in school still tries to make decisions for the adult she has become, and that’s not OK.”

    I thought this was a very interesting comment on how deep our socialization is and how it still influences us, if we’re not careful.

    But, as it may….rock on! (With careful and considered thought).

  4. I loved your post yesterday, and today for that matter. I’m glad you’re not going to stop talking about gender (but got a laugh and a nod of understanding out of the “pictures of puppies, cupcakes, and my rack” line).

    For me, not having seen many new plays by female playwrites, I can’t really comment on that part of the discussion (but I’m still stoked about the Bechdel test). I come to writing plays from a novel-writing standpoint, which is EVERYONE has to have a goal in the play. EVERYONE needs a reason behind their goal. And it helps if there’s something preventing them from getting that goal immediately (your typical Goal, Motivation, and Conflict character structure from novel writing POV – see Deb Dixon’s book on the same). I find if I stick to this structure, it prevents me from having cardboard characters – no matter what gender they are.

    Okay. Off to check out Lauren Gunderson.

  5. Sigh. Checked out Lauren G. I think I want to be her when I grow up.

    • DON’T WE ALL.

      I want to clarify that I’m not talking about produced work, but rather plays I’m *reading* by inexperienced playwrights. The sad fact is that there are many, MANY more plays written than there are production slots in which to produce them, so most plays never see the light of day.

  6. What I found so very helpful was your perspective as someone who reads a staggering volume of new plays. I sure don’t read as many as you and I very much appreciated hearing about the trends you were seeing. You’re allowed to rant for the time you give to us inexperienced playwrights.

    My next play will be stronger because of your post. So thank you and hats off to you. Yay for your voice.

    (Also jealous of the rack.)

  7. Thank you for your thoughts, Melissa; I found your post quite interesting, especially in light of the general dearth of produced plays by female playwrights, and I’m glad it has generated such discussion. Don’t get discouraged by negative reactions!

    I find myself thinking about plays I’ve written with female protagonists (which are fewer than my plays with male protagonists, but that’s another issue), and hoping I haven’t fallen into the trap of making them passive and reactionary. I have one full-length featuring what I believe is a strong female protagonist, but she turns into a man (literally) partway through, so I’m not sure if that counts!

    It may be easier to let females be passive because women are still socially defined so much by their relationships to men. Men are MEN, individuals, while women are girlfriends, or wives, or mothers. That’s changing, of course, but maybe it’s still reflected in the way we write…

  8. erainbowd says:

    Just wanted to chime in to say
    a) that I found your initial post super interesting. It made me think and ask myself questions about my own work and the work I see flurrying around these parts. That’s cool. and also,
    b) I had a very similar experience of writing about gender (for what I also thought would be 20 people max) and stirring up a whole bunch of surprising dust. I also thought, “I never want to do this again.” And I simultaneously thought, “I guess I have to do this some more!” And both are true. And I have done it again. And it (so far) was worth it. It was awful and awesome all at once.
    c) Big picture? I think it’s interesting that, in both our cases, gender is what’s attracting so much blog traffic. It feels like there’s a real movement afoot to deal with gender biases and inequalities and institutionalized (and internalized) sexism and all of the stuff that comes with it. I’m somewhat heartened by everyone’s (what seems to me) new willingness to talk about this stuff.
    Side note: I was particularly struck by the beginning of your viral post – and the fact (one that I’ve not noticed anyone respond to yet) that most of your company’s agent submissions are from male writers. Which makes me ask some questions about our gate keepers and wondering what can be done to generate more equity at THAT level.

    Anyway – keep at it if you’re up for it and if you’re not, go have a cupcake and play with a puppy for a while. You can keep your chin up, etc, etc, if you want – but you can also hide for as long as you need to and come out swinging later.

  9. Matt S, obv says:

    But *where* is the infamous “patriarchal tool” response? Even Google can’t find it. I feel like I’m too late to the party, and not in the fashionable way…

    Ah well. One thing, though: the most effective and insidious tool of the patriarchy is and has always been SILENCE. If you let some hater dropping buzzwords keep you from ever posting about gender again, then the patriarchy wins.

    I hope that the tool-caller doesn’t actually have that kind of power. Someone needs to grab her and quote some Audre up in here: “The master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.”

    At the risk of mansplaining: you are a powerful woman in the theater. Every post you could possibly post is already “about gender” at some level. It’s just about owning it. Please, dear God, own it.

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