This suggests that whether this sea-change is truly underfoot, the strongest women writers have certainly survived through the years, Allen among them. She moved to Chicago in 1979, and saw her first production, Freedom Riders, mounted in 1980. "I thought, oh baby, I'm hot!," says Allen, adding "Then I had a six year drought." By 1986, Allen scored some success in getting a 20-minute piece about a transient hotel produced on a local TV station, but by 1989, she was thinking about moving. "I'd had 10 years of working away and nobody was paying attention."
Then things changed: Victory Gardens started paying attention. In fact, the theater has since produced a string of Allen's plays, including Winter, a profoundly moving piece about aging and hope that starred Julie Harris in its inaugural production. In answer to the question, How did Allen go from unproduced obscurity to getting one of the finest actress on the American stage to do her play?, Allen is honest. It was in the midst of that drought--when she had little to lose--that she sent the script directly to Harris on the set of Knots Landing, hoping to pique her interest. "People ask me, 'How did you have the ovaries to send people stuff like that?,' and I say, 'I don't know...I just did.'" Currently, Allen's latest, Cahoots, opens at Victory Gardens May 12 and runs through June 18 with Cagney and Lacey star Sharon Gless in the lead.
But Allen, Gilman, and only few select others are in the minority when it comes to having a consistent producer or producing organization behind them. Donna Blue Lachman has authored and performed a series solo pieces depicting the lives of such colorful, complex characters as Frida Kahlo and Peggy Guggenheim, but she has self-produced most of her pieces at her own space, the Blue Rider Theatre.
"The overall climate for new plays is still difficult,'' says Sharon Evans, Artistic Director of the Live Bait Theatre. "There aren't that many places to go. The larger theater companies have a set number of people that they pull from." Evans notes that the smaller houses are forever challenged by bare budgets and less-than-opulent spaces.
That still hasn't stopped Evans' Live Bait from being one of the leading presenters of new plays in Chicago, even though Evans herself must often serve as set builder, lighting technician, publicity flack and overall chief cook and bottle washer. "I like giving people their first chance--that's exciting to me. And it's part of Live Bait's mission," she says. "And my own work...well, no one has ever just taken my work and produced it for me. When we do it at Live Bait, we all end up doing everything."
Evans' most recent piece, the critically lauded Tall Ships, opened at Live Bait's small space in September 1999, going on to become a runner-up for the 1999 American Theatre Critics Association's Osborn Award. Still, Evans avers that queries she's sent out to larger theaters regarding the piece largely have been ignored. "It's frustrating, it really is," Evans sighs. "Tall Ships was chosen [by ATCA members] as one of the best plays in the country last year and missed being named the best by one vote. And I can't get people interested."
"Sometimes, you feel like a marathon runner, training by going up and down sand hills. [But] that which does not kill us will make us stronger," says Evans. "Sometimes, when I see new plays at the Goodman I'll think, okay, that's wonderful--I'm so glad they're doing a new piece. Now let's see them try it with no wings."