Alexis Greene, an author and journalist who was the first-string critic at the late, lamented InTheater magazine, spent the final months of the 20th century quizzing American women playwrights about their work and their lives. Now, the fruit of those efforts, Women Who Write Plays: Interviews with American Dramatists, has just been issued as a handsome trade paperback by Smith and Kraus.
Greene's book records intimate responses from 23 playwrights of varied ages and ethnic backgrounds; it is a vivid document of the challenges faced by women committed to writing for the stage. Women Who Write Plays sheds light on what it means to be a playwright in an age when theater exists in the shadow of other media; Theresa Rebeck speaks of struggling to make ends meet on what playwrights get paid and the creative dangers of turning to Hollywood to pay the bills. Lynne Alvarez discusses the explosive conflict between counterculture and the Establishment in the 1960s and the impact of that conflict on the present age. Paula Vogel frets that male intellectuals are doing their damnedest to bar playwrights from both pop and high culture. And Elizabeth Egloff derides mainstream theater as a miasma of "male aesthetics."
Most of Greene's interviews are serious, some even somber. Emily Mann tells how the specter of the Holocaust menaced her formative years in the 1960s and Eve Ensler describes self-mutilation among women in various cultures. But Women Who Write Plays also contains a healthy measure of mirth--the Five Lesbian Brothers kid each other, for example, reminiscing about their playful creative processes and the sources of their art. Almost all of Greene's playwrights offer emotional recollections of discovering the magic of drama and the comforts of imagination.
THEATERMANIA: What was the genesis of this project?
ALEXIS GREENE: A few years ago, I taught a course at NYU about images of women in western theater. We needed material to illuminate the backgrounds of the playwrights. We used Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig (Beech Tree Books, 1987), but that work was more or less evenly divided between playwrights from America and other countries. Also, there were so many writers who had come to the fore since that book's publication that I felt a need for a new book. Women Who Write Plays is a spiritual daughter of Betsko and Koenig.
TM: It sounds like a difficult undertaking.
AG: Well, I worked at it pretty intensively. I had spoken with Rachel Koenig, who told me that it took her and Kathleen Betsko nine years to put together their book. Of course, they were teaching and doing other things at the same time, but I decided to be poor and do nothing else. One incentive for accelerating the project was that it seemed to make sense to get the playwrights' words out there quickly. I wanted the elapsed time between the interviews and publication to be as brief as possible.
TM: What were the critieria for choosing the playwrights?
AG: I tried to have a broad range of writers. Some, like Tina Howe and Beth Henley, had appeared in Betsko and Koenig's book but seemed to have earned a revisit. Henley, for instance, has written a number of non-naturalistic plays that haven't yet been done in New York; they're very different from her most famous play, Crimes of the Heart. It would have been easy to ignore the generation of playwrights interviewed by Betsko and Koenig and to concentrate on the younger generations or sub-generations represented by Paula Vogel and Diana Son, but I think it's very important that Tina Howe's generation is represented as well. It may seem to a newcomer that a veteran like Tina Howe has an easier time getting her work produced, but there's really no such thing as an easy time for playwrights. All of these women, no matter what point they are at in their careers, have to fight.
TM: Is there a connection between hard knocks and the capacity to write engaging plays?
AG: We're often not aware, when we go to the theater, of the extent to which particular playwrights have to struggle on a personal and/or professional level. A writer works alone in her room, then has to summon up courage to take her creation out into the world. A majority of the women I interviewed said they feel it's much more difficult for them to carve a career in the theater than it is for a man. We know it's hard for anyone to have a career in the theater, never mind making a living. A playwright, like any artist, has to keep focused on two very different things. First, there's the issue of how to create. And second, there's the question--to be somewhat crass about it--of how to sell, how to get the work produced.
TM: How has the landscape of theater changed over the last century for women playwrights?
AG: At the beginning of the 20th century, there were numerous women whose work was getting produced on Broadway and a number who were writing plays for the little theater movement. As the decades went by and Broadway became more constricted, there were fewer and fewer productions; consequently, there were fewer and fewer productions of plays by women. Then, in the Off-Off-Broadway movement of the 1960s (which coincided with the beginnings of the women's movement), you see more women coming to the fore. The same is true in the regional theater movement of the 1970s. But the proportion of men to women has always been much larger.
TM: Did you discover a sense of community among women playwrights?
AG: I think there is ambivalence on that subject. As Teresa Rebeck says, there's a feeling that such a community is ghettoizing, at least from the vantage point of producers. There are communities or pockets of playwrights, male and female, in various parts of the country: New Dramatists in New York, for instance, and the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. A large number of the theaters devoted to women's work that came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s have disappeared.
TM: What was the value of those groups?
AG: They had enormous value. They encouraged work by and about women and work by and about lesbians. As the 1960s proceeded, it became clear that women had things to say that mainstream America was not interested in hearing. I think it's sad that a lot of those groups came to grief; the United States became very conservative in the 1980s and 90s, and radical feminism has suffered as a consequence. I found it very moving that a lot of these women echo each other on the subject of community. In some respects, it's too bad that there aren't more communities of women playwrights but, on the other hand, I think we all understand why women want to get beyond categories and long to be viewed simply as playwrights. They want freedom to write about anything, whether it's conventionally female or not. They want to be considered as artists. Emily Mann is an example: She says that her experience as a woman feeds what she does as a playwright and as an artistic director, but she doesn't want to be thought of as a "woman playwright" or a "woman artistic director."
TM: Do you feel that your interview subjects are generally illustrative of what it means to be a woman in the United States at this particular moment?
AG: Yes, I do. To be a little self-serving, I think that's what makes the book of interest to readers other than those in the theater. I wanted to talk to women who had an acute awareness of the outside world and how it impacts them as writers. These playwrights place their working lives in context.
[Women Who Write Plays: Interviews With American Dramatists, with a preface by Molly Smith, is available at bookstores and from www.smithkraus.com]
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