Female Playwrights Call the Shots
A exciting trend emerges as the women of the Windy City become the divas of the drama.
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 even 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."
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."
Like Evans, the ever-ebullient Jackie Taylor, Founder and Artistic Director of the Black Ensemble Theatre, has been writing, producing, directing, and starring in her own works for a long time--in her case, 24 years. Like Evans and many of Chicago's other self-producing playwrights, Taylor is not in the business of creating vanity projects. In fact, the work of the Black Ensemble tends toward joyful musical biographies. Taylor has scripted words and new music for a host of energetic productions that tell the stories of such luminaries as Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, and Mahalia Jackson.
"It never even occurred to me to send my stuff out," Taylor explains. "The scripts I've written have copyrights and have been successful and make money. I have a whole library of them. In the future, maybe that's something I'll take up, pursuing other producers, but right now, it's not a priority."
What is a priority, Taylor says, is "educating and entertaining," with equal emphasis on both. For example, she has of late been immersed in Moms: The Life and Times of Moms Mabley. After that, Taylor's on to a biography of Nat King Cole. The prolific nature of Taylor's work is not as impressive as the fact that she has been able to maintain her output and keep the Black Ensemble a viable cultural institution for almost 25 years. "Burn out?," Taylor asks with incredulity. "I can't even imagine that. I'm having fun."
Fun may be the end result, of course, but for many a theatrical outing, it's seldom the genesis. For example, Susan Nussbaum started out as an actor, but was seriously injured when she became the pedestrian victim of a freak auto accident and now uses a wheelchair. "When I started writing, there was no disability movement or consciousness at all," Nussbaum recalls. "There certainly weren't many parts for me as an actress. I decided I'd have to start writing my own things, so I could cast myself."
That she did. Today, Nussbaum is the author of seven plays, all of which have been staged by theaters around the country. Her Staring Back won a Joseph Jefferson Citation for Playwriting and went from the Chicago stage to a television production. Her latest work, No One As Nasty opens at the Victory Gardens Theatre this spring.
"What I realized after I started writing and after I was injured was that there is this very rich vein of black humor that exists among people with disabilities," says Nussbaum. "And there is a very strong sense of being a marginalized minority group, a group that is seething with its own resentments and angers and ambitions. Many minority characters I've seen in plays are symbols--pathetic creatures or creatures of this great nobility. That kind of view has no meaning to actual disabled people but it seems to strike some kind of mythical chord with the non-disabled. I am hoping to contribute a new kind of voice."