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L to R, Linda Park as Lady Nijo, Karianne Flaathen as Isabella Bird, Sally Hughes as Marlene, Rhonda Aldrich as Pope Joan and Etta Devine as Dull Gret

Few women playwrights have garnered as much praise and generated as much controversy as Caryl Churchill. Her work has been called feminist, post-modern, post-colonial, Marxist, experimental, irritating, innovative, ludicrous and brilliant. She has worked with feminist collectives such as Monstrous Regiment and at establishment institutions such as the Royal Court Theatre, where she was the first woman to hold the position of resident dramatist. In both spaces, she has maintained her dedication to dismantling sexist, economic and colonial power structures through an ever-evolving exploration of dramatic form. Though she is still writing today, her early plays are already considered part of the Western canon.

Unfortunately, being included in the dramatic canon does not ensure that your plays will get produced on contemporary American stages, and even theaters devoted to producing the classics often avoid Churchill. This may be partly because she didn’t win inclusion in this elite, mostly male club by being one of the boys. If the traditional dramatic form, which proceeds in a straight line from exposition to climax, can be said to be “masculine,” Churchill’s writing is the epitome of the “feminine”: circular and multi-climactic. Likewise, if a masculine form can be said to be concerned with the individual protagonist’s psychological experience, Churchill’s feminine structures deliberately de-center the individual in order to explore identity as a product of social and historical forces.

Churchill’s style, then, requires more of actors, directors and audiences than the typical canonical play. Yet a classical theater in North Hollywood, CA, has taken up the challenge: The Antaeus Company is running an engaging and highly relevant production of Top Girls through May 4.

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Flaathen (left) as Mrs. Kidd, Hughes as Marlene

Top Girls, which premiered in 1982, is best known for its opening act, during which an ambitious woman, Marlene, throws herself a dinner party to celebrate a work promotion. Her guests are historical and folkloric figures: Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese concubine; Isabella Bird, Victorian world traveler; Patient Griselda of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Dull Gret, from Breughel’s painting of the same name; and Pope Joan, a medieval female Pope. The second act takes place largely in the employment agency where Marlene works. The third is set a year earlier in Marlene’s sister’s living room.

Though Churchill originally wrote the play for 16 women actors, practicality led the first director, Max Stafford Clark, to have seven actors play all the roles. This doubling, which is almost always replicated and is being used in the Antaeus production, creates resonances between the historical and mythical characters of the first act and the women of the 1980s in the second and third acts. Despite centuries of supposed progress, these women face similar oppressions, from violence committed to unequal marriages to limitations on their ability to earn money and live independently.

The resonances don’t stop with the 1980s. Churchill, whose feminism is deeply rooted in socialism, says Marlene, an ambitious, upwardly mobile Thatcherite, was inspired by a visit to America, where for the first time she encountered a capitalist feminism designed to enable women to climb the corporate ladder. In Act Three, when Marlene tells her sister, who has not escaped the poverty in which they were both raised, that she “doesn’t believe in class. Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes,” the audience can hear not only the politics of Thatcher and Reagan, but also the voice of crusaders such as Sheryl Sandberg , who even today insist that the only thing keeping women out of leadership positions is their lack of ambition.

Not only are the women of Top Girls limited in their economic aspirations, but they also struggle with patriarchal conceptions that pinhole them as domestic creatures rather than as autonomous human beings. In Act One, Isabella Bird recalls that being at home made her physically ill; she was only happy while traveling. Her Act Two counterpart, played by the same actor, has dedicated herself to being a housewife, and is therefore left helpless when her husband’s ability to earn a living is compromised. In Act Three, that actor’s third character is abandoned by her husband and trapped in the small town in which she grew up, living out the same miserable existence that her mother did. Even the maid job she is forced to take is domestic. The audience cannot help but think of contemporary marriage proponents such as “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton, who urge women to subvert their own interests and ambitions in favor of finding a husband, thereby risking their abilities to ever care for themselves on their own.

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Flaathen (left) as Joyce, Hughes as Marlene

Finally and perhaps most frustratingly, Top Girls shows that, despite centuries of progress, women still do not have complete control over whether and when to have children. In the first act, Lady Nijo, Patient Griselda, Dull Gret, and Pope Joan all have their children taken from them. Joan, not having received any sex education, had not even realized she was pregnant until she gave birth in the street. The professional women of Act Two have had to give up having children entirely in order to succeed in the corporate world. And in Act Three, we discover that Marlene had a child but gave it to her sister to raise, enabling Marlene to earn money and enjoy her freedom while her sister remained stuck at home. Today, lack of access to family planning and childcare continue to make successfully balancing work and motherhood far too difficult for far too many women.

Nevertheless, many producers worry that Churchill’s plays, unlike the plays by men in the canon, are dated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The clear design, crisp direction and excellent acting—the accents in particular deserve note—of the Antaeus production mine Churchill’s script for its full potential so that the audience is constantly bringing the content into the present. Unless the issues Churchill addresses in this play–income inequality, lack of reproductive freedom and paternal conceptions of women as the weaker sex–have been solved and I didn’t notice it, Top Girls is nothing if not topical.

Photos by Daniel G. Lam

5. Slap bets, Slapsgiving, and all the other ways we get to see the sexist and manipulative Barney get the shit kicked out of him.

4. The complex narrative structure at the heart of the show: Stories within stories, jokes that continue to pay off season after season, and a complete disruption of the idea of the past, present, and future.

3. A married couple with an active sex life and the frank discussion of female desire that Lily’s unboundedness allows for.

2. Did we ever find out what the deal was with the goat?

1. A show about a DUDE who has made finding a wife and having kids his number one priority.

At a recent summit of DC-area artistic directors, Ryan Rilette of Round House Theatre made a reference to the infamous “pipeline” of new talent that runs from New York and London to America’s regional theaters, claiming that there are not enough plays by women in this pipeline for his theater to produce. The idea of this pipeline is nothing new, but importantly, it is not inviolable.

Pre-Revolution, the colonies actually had three equally important centers of theatrical production—Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—all of which primarily presented British plays. Theater in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania was limited by the Puritan philosophy that writing your own worlds into being is an offense to God, the ultimate playwright of our theatrum mundi. New York, on the other hand, being primarily a center of commerce, managed to develop a theater culture that continued through the Revolution (even when it was illegal) and beyond.

As the young Republic expanded, theaters founded without reference to one another sprang up in other parts of the country. It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth-century, when railroads allowed the exportation of both commerce and culture, that these theaters became stops on tours of shows created in New York. Then, in the early twentieth-century, a locally-sourced Little Theater Movement began in Chicago and took hold throughout the country, spawning a generation of dramatists that did not live in New York. Federalism reasserted itself in the sixties, when local theaters of a certain size joined together under LORT, an organization based in New York, and regional theaters once again became aesthetic subsidiaries of Broadway, Inc.

Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, local artists are again asserting control over the means of production and claiming American theater for themselves. The huge Twitter response to the reference to the pipeline made at “The Summit” revealed a deeply felt frustration at the unwillingness of artistic directors to recognize that forty-year-old notions of what makes great theater are no longer relevant. Sure, New York still has more theater than most other places, but there is no longer any reason to believe that it is any better.

Furthermore, by limiting themselves to plays, playwrights, directors, and actors based in New York, non-New York theaters run the risk of presenting material that has little relation to the lived experiences of their audiences. As anyone who follows politics can tell you, inhabitants of different regions often hold sharply distinct if not altogether contradictory beliefs. The primary industries that drive the economy in America’s various regions are vastly different, meaning that the work lives of the people who live there are vastly different. Even the environment itself, from the weather to the landscape, has an influence on the thinking and values of people who live in it.

Additionally, theaters that insist on relying on talent that has already proven itself in New York perpetuate a theater that is inevitably elite. New York City is expensive. Self-producing, acting in showcases, assistant directing for free, and interning all require steady income streams from elsewhere. Very few people are able to do this without significant family support. Companies that aim to produce theater for a diverse audience cannot expect to do so while only producing plays written and directed by people born into privilege.

Of course some artists not born into privilege who work three jobs and do theater for free in New York do manage to find success in regional theaters. But even those people, unless they happened to grow up in New York, have uprooted themselves from their communities and families and transplanted themselves to one of the most difficult cities in which to live in the world. Yes, some artists are inspired by New York. Yes, some are glad to leave their previous lives behind. Others are overwhelmed and exhausted. How much American talent are we actually crushing by needlessly requiring that people spend years of indentured servitude in New York for the privilege of having their plays produced in theaters not in New York?

New York does have at least one quality that sets it apart in terms of its theater community. In New York, the big theaters pay attention to the small theaters. Even a small show can get reviewed, and if it does well, it can get the attention of the legacy theaters. The artists who created it will often be invited to remount the production at a bigger theater, or they may be hired, based on that success, to work there on something else. This is why a few emerging artists can develop a national reputation by working in New York.

But the synergy of the New York theater community is not an argument for regional theaters to only do plays that come out of New York. It is an argument for regional theaters to develop the same level of synergy with the other theaters in their cities. In fact, regional theaters could save a ton of money by developing new work with artists for whom they don’t have to provide housing and a per diem.

The lack of men of color and women in the pipeline is an excuse used to justify seasons that fail to achieve diversity and gender parity. But New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. If success there is the barometer by which plays are chosen for regional productions, LORT theaters would be producing plays developed by Intar, The Women’s Project Theater, and the National Black Theatre, to name just a few New York institutions devoted to developing work by underrepresented groups. Rather, the same dated notions of who and what makes good theater that lead artistic directors to rely on a mythical pipeline also keep them from recognizing the surfeit of diverse talent in New York and across the country.

Though New York remains the center of American commercial theater, companies across the country need not largely rely on plays created in that place for that audience. Today, the pipeline flows in many directions at once. Theaters genuinely interested in serving their communities would do well to develop twenty-first century ways of making theater.

_JWG8561‘Tis the season when theaters across the country announce their 2014-2015 seasons. Two plays continue to dominate the boards, just as they did last year: David Ives’ Venus in Fur and Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. These shows played off-Broadway in 2010 and 2012, respectively, both transferred to Broadway and both have been top choices for artistic directors across the country ever since.

The bajillionth time I saw that one or the other of these plays will be/have been part of a regional theater’s season, I had to ask myself,  What is it about these plays that makes them necessary art right now? Will they help promote the theaters’ stated missions of diversity and attracting new audiences? Are they about healthcare? Immigration? Gay rights? Gun violence? Unemployment? These are issues concerning all Americans these days. Plays about these topics might actually be timely in New York and Los Angeles and D.C. and San Francisco and Nashville and Dallas and Minneapolis and Chicago and Seattle and Milwaukee and Portland.

But neither of these two popular plays are about any of those things. They are both written by white dudes and  feature middle- and upper-class, educated white characters. And both plays contain characters who work in the theater. In other words, the plays are set in the same worlds occupied by the mostly white male artistic directors who love them, which may explain why they all find them so relevant. But I’m not so sure that they are that relevant to a theater audience that is 68 percent women (at least in London), and they certainly won’t bring in the young, diverse audiences that theaters claim to be devoted to attracting. Oh, but Venus in Fur does have a dominatrix. So there’s that.

_JWG8917Meanwhile, genuinely relevant, quality plays are being written by women all over the country. Deborah Salem-Smith’s play Love Alone, for example, is an intimate play about family and grief that also manages to take on gay rights and medical malpractice. The story centers on three women at totally different points in their lives: Helen Warren (50s), her daughter Clementine (20s) and Dr. Becca Neal, a 33-year-old anesthesiologist. When Helen’s partner of 20 years, Susan, dies while undergoing minor surgery, Helen and Clementine have to learn to live without her, while Dr. Neal has to deal with her first “bad outcome”–the loss of a patient on the operating table.

The brilliance of Smith’s play is that it works on both personal and political levels. Helen and Clementine go through the same thing every mother and child go through upon losing a family member: They cry, they laugh, they yell and, in the form of a lawsuit against the hospital, they seek an explanation for a loss that can probably never be satisfyingly explained. Witnessing these deeply human experiences allows audience members to empathize and identify with the characters, so that when they discover that Helen–not having been married to Susan–does not have legal standing to hold the hospital accountable, they understand on a personal level how deeply unjust marriage inequality is.

In what must feel like a rare gift to the women in Love Alone, all three characters have complete story arcs that make them more than just wives, mothers and daughters. The loss of Susan changes Helen, who had never been the kind of person who seeks revenge. It changes Clementine, a rock-’n’-roll performer whose music becomes quieter and more introspective. And Dr. Neal goes from being cold and distant (she experiences the tragedy primarily as a threat to her career) to being compassionate and able to accept responsibility.

Love Alone, which premiered at Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island in 2012, will open its second production on March 1 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C. Smith shared with me her goal in writing the play:

I really wanted to write a play with a 20-something female who is not in a love story, because I don’t see that person on stage enough, and I think 20-year-old vibrant women have a ton going on in their lives. They’re not just trying to kiss someone.

Smith’s previous plays did not contain gay characters, but as her children have grown older she’s begun deliberately writing them and deliberately addressing issues relevant to gay families like her own:

I started to have a growing realization that as our children are getting older and they start coming to the theater, I want them to see our family on stage. The other motivation was that when we talk about marriage equality in our country, we tend to overlook that the biggest cost of having a lack of marriage equality is on children. Because a lot of gay families now have children, and you put those children in a really perilous positions when you don’t empower those parents to make choices for the family.

_JWG8833I spoke with the director of this production, Vivienne Benesch, about how she thinks the play will resonate with a North Carolina audience:

I hope and expect that it leads to a very genuine conversation about an important topic–marriage equality–that may not even be in the zeitgeist of that community in the way that it should be. I’m also excited to be doing it in the Research Triangle and the medical community, because they understand the ethical tightrope that medical professionals have to walk.

Relevance to the community in which it is being produced? Check. Written by a woman, featuring women characters that can be cast with any ethnicity and therefore add diversity to a theater’s season? Check. Appeal to a young audience by featuring live rock music and projected music videos? Check. No wonder artistic director Joseph Haj decided to produce it. He put it this way:

Deborah’s play is beautiful. Full stop. That’s why we programmed it. It offers aesthetic diversity, a diversity in point-of-view and diversity in style from much of our other work. We’d be crazy not to want that for ourselves. It’s actually that simple. Running a theater is monstrously difficult. Including women and people of color as playwrights and directors is not one of the hard parts of the job.

PlayMaker’s 2014-2015 season includes 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog and Trouble in Mind by the late Alice Childress, who is African American as well as a woman. Of course the season also includes Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. Given Haj’s genuine dedication to diversity, maybe at least he, unlike everyone else across the country, won’t cast it entirely with white folks.

Love Alone runs through March 16.

Photos by Jon Gardiner

Originally posted at In These Times

According to the Congressional Budget Office, cuts to America’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—more commonly known as food stamps—contained in the farm bill signed by President Obama last week will harm 850,000 American households. Around 1.7 million people in 15 states will lose an average of $90 a month in benefits. Though the cuts won’t keep new people from enrolling, they will reduce payments to people who had previously been allowed to deduct their utility bills from their income.

Conservatives call this “closing a loophole.” But in reality, it will reduce assistance for people whose incomes have not actually risen.

And it’s not as if this help is easy to come by. Despite the image propagated by the Right of Uncle Sam eagerly handing out cash to anyone who wants it, the process through which one qualifies for assistance is Kafkaesque. It seems, in fact, designed to keep people out. As I go through the task of obtaining assistance in California, one of the states that will be affected by the cuts, I am amazed that anyone is able to navigate the system successfully at all.

I was last employed full-time in 2010. Just as that job ended—and as I was moving from the East Coast to the West—I fell down a flight of stairs. The recovery was long and expensive, and since then I have only been able to find sporadic, part-time work.

Last September, when I ran out of savings, I applied for CalFresh (California’s food stamp program) and Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid) by filling out an online application. In response, I received a paper application in the mail asking for the same information again. I filled it out, made copies of my driver’s license, social security card and proof of income, and sent it in the old-fashioned way: through the mail.

As the year neared its close, I still hadn’t heard back from either program. Our new insurance exchange, Covered California, began processing applications for Medi-Cal in October. Having gone through the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) with no reply, I decided to try this route.

This second attempt yielded mixed results. In January, I received a state benefits card in the mail, though it came with a piece of paper that cautioned, “This does not mean that you are necessarily enrolled.” I called Covered California to find out whether I was, in fact, insured, but reached a recorded message saying call volume was high and I should call back later. I found a number specifically for Medi-Cal; the woman I spoke with said she couldn’t answer any questions about applications submitted through Covered California. She gave me yet a third number to call. When I did so, I got a message saying, “If you are calling about Covered California, please hang up and dial …” And then it listed the number I had just dialed.

Confused about both my insurance and my food stamp situation—which I still hadn’t gotten any notice about—I eventually navigated my way through the web-maze of the California DPSS to send an email. Two days later, I got a call back. The woman kindly told me that although Covered California Medi-Cal was in the process of enrolling me, DPSS never received the information I had mailed in and so had canceled my application for food stamps altogether. She suggested I go to a local office and talk to someone in person.

At the DPSS office, I waited about three hours to meet with a caseworker, who began a new food stamp application for me. He asked what I did for a living. “I’m self-employed,” I replied. “I’m a writer.”

“How much money do you make a month?” he asked. I told him. “O.K., then just get your accountant to create a statement of your income and expenses for the last three months and fax it to me.”

“Um,” I hesitated, confused. “I’m having trouble affording food. How am I supposed to afford an accountant?”

“You said you were self-employed! Just ask your accountant.”

He handed me a piece of paper with his direct phone and fax numbers and ushered me out. The next day, I faxed him my own accounting of my income and expenses and called and left a message to make sure he got it. I did not hear back. I called a week later and left another message. I did not hear back.

By now, it was early February; I had been in the process of trying to obtain assistance for five months. Because I had met with a caseworker in person and now had a case number, I was able to make an appointment online to see him again without the three-hour wait. At that appointment, he told me though he had received my fax, my application had not been processed in the two weeks since.

“Is there anything else you need from me?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “It’s pending.”

I had not been denied food stamp assistance, but neither had I been approved. As of now, I am still waiting.

In the meantime, the state benefits card I received has been covering prescriptions; because I am “not necessarily enrolled,” however, I can’t actually see a doctor. Although I applied for health coverage through Covered California, my case eventually made it to the same DPSS office where I was trying to register for food stamps. When I asked my caseworker about completing my Medi-Cal application as well, though, he informed me that I needed to speak to someone else about that. After submitting my driver’s license and income statement—again—to a different caseworker in the same office, I am now finally “pre-enrolled” in a Medi-Cal plan. I’ve been told to call another 1-800 number in a few days to make sure the enrollment is complete.

The waiting room at my local office is chock full of women with children, the elderly and people with disabilities. I’m sure their processes are even more complex than mine. I am only navigating three government programs—Covered California, Medi-Cal and CalFresh. Others are navigating four, five or more, and may be doing so without the help of the Internet or a cell phone plan.

For many people, the cuts to food stamps contained in the farm bill will likely create even further bureaucratic nightmares. When and how it will happen is still largely unclear. Will people simply wake up one morning to find their assistance reduced? Will these individuals and families have to re-prove their lack of income? Will they even be told what they have to do? No matter what happens, though, one thing is for certain: America’s most vulnerable populations are going to suffer.

Regardless of how persuasive some people may find the conservative idea of the “welfare queen driving a Cadillac,” public assistance programs are not full of people taking advantage of loopholes in the law. They are full of American citizens with no other way to survive.

Holly DerrOriginally posted at Ms. in the Biz

Got your B or MFA from a theater program? Congratulations! Looking at 30 years of consolidated loan payments even as you get further and further away from the training you’re still paying for? Take heart! Your training matters, even in Hollywood. Just ask Winona Ryder, Felicity Huffman, Alison Brie, Holly Hunter, and Laura Linney — all of whom have theater degrees.

In many ways, the worlds of film, television, and web series seem like water to theater’s oil – they only mix when you really shake things up. But even though you may never have to call upon your ability to perfectly execute an historically accurate Restoration curtsy, many of the skills you learned and practiced in theater school can be of use. Here are a few of the things that set trained actors apart in Hollywood:

1. Dialects.

Being able to walk in to a first audition and perfectly execute a specific dialect is not a skill that every actor has, yet that very skill is in high demand. You can be ready at a moment’s notice to perform the wide variety of accents employed in The Walking Dead, which vary both by geography and class; you are ready for any of the increasingly popular genre TV shows set in mythical lands where everyone speaks with some version of an accent from the British Empire, like Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland; and you’re perfect for geographically and culturally specific dramas like Justified (set in Kentucky) and Nashville. Sure, those productions can afford to hire a dialect coach, but the ability to nail it in the audition gives you a decided edge. It also makes you especially appealing for smaller-budget productions. So rest assured, those hours spent learning IPA (no, I’m not talking about beer) may come in handy yet.

2. The Method of Physical Actions.

Often confused with American “method acting,” Stanislavsky’s Method of Physical Actions is actually a way of creating character and telling story through movement. Stanislavsky’s system – though rarely practiced in its complete form – creates a carefully designed physical script that an actor can replicate exactly, night after night. What does this have to do with film? An actor who has trained in the System can hit her mark on every single take while also varying the inner emotional experience, providing editors and directors with a million different pieces that can be fit together perfectly without anyone having to worry about continuity. Looking to refresh your memory of the process? Check out the new, improved translations of Stanislavsky’s acting bible An Actor’s Work.

3. The Method.

Derived from the Russian Method of Physical Actions, the American Method focuses on the actor’s internal experience. Though onstage it all too often leads to an overwrought, self-indulgent performance, on film, it can be a powerful tool for generating the kind of inner intensity that the camera craves. If you studied the Method, you are ready for your close up.

4. Script analysis.

The actor’s job, whether on stage or screen, is to realize her specific character in as much detail as possible. Too often for screen actors, this means coming in, executing your role (often without the other actors in the scene even being there), and getting out of the way. Theater actors have a distinct advantage here: Years of scene study means that you can realize not only your character, but also realize your character’s function in the whole story. Trained to take the text as a whole into account, even when appearing in only one scene, you can make sure your performance integrates seamlessly into the whole. The key? Do your own dramaturgy.

5. Collaboration.

Remember how, after spending two to three years shut up together in a dark room, you and your classmates had to perform a thesis or final project? And you had to do it like professionals, even when playing opposite the person who broke your heart last year who’s now dating your best friend/costar in a production directed by the professor of whom you’re terrified? Compared to this, the fact that in Hollywood we often have to work with people we don’t like, many of whom are narcissists with incredible power to make or break you, is small beans.

6. Vocal training.

Looking for a place to use the training you got from one of the top voice teachers in the country and practiced doing the likes of Shakespeare and Moliere? Look to the voice-over world. Some films and television shows can get away with Mumbly Joe as an actor because the close up on the person’s lips makes them understandable. But without a body, all you have is your voice, so use your training to make a few bucks from corporate America doing voice overs, or put some effort into breaking in to animation. And don’t forget to warm up. All together now: Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather…..

7. THE LOS ANGELES THEATER COMMUNITY IS THE BOMB.

No, you can’t make a living in it. But you can make a living as a commercial/tv/film/web actor while also performing live in classics, new plays, experimental theater, and international festivals. If you haven’t looked into yet, do it. Many Los Angeles theaters have figured out a way to work around the schedules of working actors to mount productions of artistic integrity and intellectual and/or political value. You can not only practice the expensive skills you paid for in your theater program, you can also connect with other actors, directors, and producers invested in doing both.

I’m not saying that the day you pay your final installment on your loan you won’t have trouble remembering what exactly you did during that all-too-brief period in your twenties. You probably will. But you will also undoubtedly have used what you learned, whether in a career in the theater, in film and television or as a well-rounded human being capable of understanding the connections between all of the liberal arts and of factoring those understandings into the way you live your life as a friend, a citizen, and a human being.

CRK-1Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

At a recent panel on diversity in Southern California theater, several of the artistic directors on the panel trotted out familiar platitudes about their commitment to diversity, their willingness to challenge their audiences with plays about people that don’t look like them and their desire to build a more diverse audience. Yet these same artistic directors run theaters that still devote the majority of their resources to plays written and directed by white men.

Given the astonishing range of theater being made by women and people of color all over the country (see here, here, here and here, to name just a few plays), the reluctance of major theaters to walk the walk they talk is increasingly at odds with the reality of American theater as a whole. Yet somehow, the argument is still being made that there just aren’t plays out there by women and people of color that are ready to be produced in the big time.

Well, I’m starting a binder. Binders of plays, binders of playwrights and binders of women and people of color currently writing and directing in the professional theater will be available to any leaders who continue to protest, “I want to produce a diverse season, I just can’t find any plays.” I’ll start the list with two–you add on in Comments.

After, all imageJennifer Berry’s After, All, which opens February 14 at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre as a guest production of The Pasadena Playhouse, explores the nature of female friendships through two women in their 40s who were brought together by circumstance and torn apart by loss. The play explores marriage, motherhood, divorce, mid-life career changes and the particular kind of intimacy that women share. Berry, who is directing the play herself, shared,

Women’s friendships are close, so I find what we tell each other, what we keep secret, what we show, really interesting to write about. Women raise their children side-by-side. If you go check out any park in Los Angeles, you’re gonna see a bunch of women sitting their with their kids talking, and usually it’s not the kids that they’re talking about. They’re usually talking about their lives and their secrets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe play not only provides roles for two women in their 40s, it also shows us these women free of any male gaze. Though men are spoken of and are part of the characters’ lives, the audience engages directly with these women as people rather than through their husbands and children. Accordingly, they talk about much more than husbands and children. Berry again,

One of the women says things that nobody else will say: We’re just friends because of circumstances. Some of it harsh, but a lot of it is real. It’s what two women, closed in a room together, would say to each other if they knew this is the last time you were going to see this friend that you loved so much.

Though the production is taking advantage of the opportunity to market the play specifically to women and their friends (the matinee on Sunday, February 23, offers a two-for-one deal to women who come together), nothing about the play actually makes it niche. After all, the Western canon contains a number of plays about men that are not presumed to be of interest solely to men. With plays about men by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett,  Sam Shepard and Edward Albee, audience members can simultaneously empathize with the characters as humans and understand the role that sex and gender play in defining them, regardless of whether they share that character’s sex, gender or ethnicity. The same is true of After, All.

Note to artistic directors: The actors in After, All could be women of any color. So go on, make it a two-fer.

On February 22, Closely Related Keys, written by Wendy Graf and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, will open at The Lounge Theatre in Hollywood. Graf’s play takes place in New York and centers around Julia, a young, successful lawyer who suddenly finds out she has a half-sister in Iraq. When that sister shows up on her doorstep, Julia and her estranged father are forced to confront their past and their own prejudices.

Rich Schmitt Photography 002Graf, who is Jewish, has written a number of plays with Jewish characters and themes, but she also writes characters with cultural heritages different from her own. No Word in Guyanese for Me is about a lesbian Muslim refugee from Guyana. Leipzig  features an Irish-Catholic family in Boston. Though this production has a black family at the heart of its story, with Julia being in an interracial relationship with a white man, director Finney told me,

Anybody could tell this story or play this story. The core of this family could be anyone. The biracial relationship, the betrayal of the father, the multi-cultural child and the foreign element could be told by anybody and the story would remain the same. This is not a play about the African-American experience. This story is very contemporary and is about the interconnected world we live in.

Finney’s resume is as diverse as Graf’s: She has directed plays by and about African Americans, Latinos and Japanese people:

My job as a mythmaker is to tell the emotional truth of that story—to tell a story that helps us navigate our time. Emotions see no color. Storytellers who transcend race consciousness, who transcend gender consciousness, are doing the due diligence of transformation in our artistic world.

ShirleyJoFinneyAnd yet, Closely Related Keys is as firmly grounded in the details of the cultures it represents, as it is in the basic humanity of its characters. As the family drama unfolds, the truth of America’s relationship with Iraq, past and present, is illuminated, as well as what changed (and not for the better) for women in Iraq when we deposed Saddam Hussein. One moment in particular could have been pulled straight from the feminist blogosphere: When Julia attempts to get her Muslim half-sister to put on an American dress, her sister firmly rejects the idea, arguing, “I would not feel like me.”

After, All and Closely Related Keys are just two new plays by women being done in one city in one month. Others premiere all of the time in cities across the country. What new work have you seen that would refute the notion that big theaters are trying but just can’t find plays by women and people of color to produce?

The thicker our binder gets, the fewer excuses established theaters will have to produce seasons without gender parity and ethnic diversity. They claim they want their stages to look like the world we live in: Let’s hold them to it.

After, All runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. from February 14—March 16 at the Carrie Hamilton Theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Closely Related Keys runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m/ and Sundays at 4 p.m. from February 22—Mar 30 at the Lounge Theatre in Los Angeles.