Yet Gilman is hardly alone in the spotlight. Hot on the heels of her recent "genius award" grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses swept the 1999 Joseph Jefferson Awards. Jenny Laird penned The Ballad Hunter and took home the $5,000 Cunningham Prize for playwriting from DePaul University, followed two weeks later by the play's world premiere at Chicago Dramatists. In March, Goodman Theatre artistic associate Regina Taylor collected the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award--along with its hefty $15,000 purse--for Oo-Bla-Dee, which premiered last season at that very venue.
Meanwhile, that rarest of animals--the new musical that actually gets a commercial production--can be found in Chicago, thanks to Julie Shannon, the composer of Stones. The tale of Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood in the wake of the 1919 race riots sports a book by John Reeger and is enjoying a run through May 14 at Chicago's Bailiwick Theatre. And then there's Kristine Thatcher, a winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn prize whose latest play, Voice of Good Hope just completed its premiere run on the Victory Gardens mainstage.
But these highly publicized works of late belie one of Chicago's secrets: Rather than a dearth of women dramatists, Chicago has, in fact, long housed a veritable hive of women writers. Donna Blue Lachman, Sharon Evans, Claudia Allen, Kristine Thatcher, Jackie Taylor, Julie Shannon, Jenny Magnus, Tekki Lomnicki, Anne McGravie, and Joanne Koch are just among the scores of women who have been enriching the theatrical scene for years. Indeed, the present flash of just a few doesn't begin to reflect the depths of the talent pool.
So the question is: Is Chicago experiencing a sea change in the dominant demographic of its dramatists? Perhaps, or perhaps not. "A good friend of mine was actually keeping count for a while last year," notes Allen. "It still turned out that 95% of the playwrights being produced in Chicago were men."
Whether or not 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. How did Allen go from unproduced obscurity to getting one of the finest actresses on the American stage to do her play? In the midst of her professional drought, with little to lose, 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.'" 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 a few select others are in the minority when it comes to having a producer or producing organization consistently 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.