Why a Month? Theresa Rebeck, Lynn Nottage, Lee Daniels, and World Theatre Day

Today is World Theatre Day. Each year, a theatre maker is selected to write a quote for the community, a sort of suggestion for the rest of us. Lynn Nottage, the most recent Pulitzer Prize Winner in Drama for Ruined, wrote this:

I challenge all of us to sustain the complexity of our world; to invite a
multitude of diverse voices onto the stage. We must open the doors and
windows of our theatres to let the world in. It is our responsibility; it is
our burden and our gift.

I find this a really pressing quote, especially when Theresa Rebeck just gave this speech on the 16th. In it, Rebeck describes the rather strange account of a New York Times review that dismissed her play The Butterfly Collection as a man-hating feminist diatribe, commending Tony-Award winning director Bartlett Sher on his impressive work “done with the playwright so ready to resent him.” She is too classy to name the reviewer. (He now seems to be focusing on writing obituaries as far as I can tell.) The production sunk, offers to publish in American Theater and transfers disappeared. Tina Howe complained to Dramatists and apologies were made, but not to Rebeck herself.

People suggested she write under a male pseudonym for a while, but Rebeck didn’t see the point. There are lots of women playwrights, aren’t there?

Now, the aforementioned (and absolutely brilliant) Tina Howe is still writing. Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) passed away in 2006 after writing Third, a comedy about a middle-aged feminist professor at a liberal arts college who accuses a WASP-ish conservative republican white male student of plagiarism when he writes a well thought out paper on King Lear. (My issues with this story as far as what it means for the feminist movement are another post entirely, but the point is, she’s still contributing.)

Yet, we live in a world where, statistically, more women than men are earning college degrees. Where women run for President, where multiples of them have been Secretary of State, where they hold positions as CEOs and studio executives. Yet, as Rebeck points out,

Generally, over the last 25 years the number of plays produced that were written by women seems to have vacillated between 12 and 17 percent.

This is a disastrous statistic, and it is related to another disastrous statistic, which is the number of women writers and directors in Hollywood.  This year 6 percent of films were directed by women, and 8 percent of produced screenplays were written by women, or women had a shared credit on them.  That means 88 percent of all plays were written by men, 94 percent of all movies were directed by men, and 92 percent of all movies were written by men.

Kathryn Bigelow has finally become the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director after less than five women have been nominated for the award in the Oscars’ history. But it goes further than women. Why on Earth is it that Lee Daniels (Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) is the first African-American male with a shot at the top honor? (i.e. WHY HAS SPIKE LEE NOT BEEN NOMINATED FOR BEST DIRECTOR?!?!?! Seriously, if Quentin Tarantino gets at least a nomination, how does Do the Right Thing and/or Driving Miss Daisy not qualify him for greatness?)

It is not an issue of not knowing where the non-white male playwrights, directors, and screenwriters are. As Rebeck said, “We buried their work, and we sent them away.” When you’re asked to name living female playwrights, even most theatre artists have trouble filling one hands. Caryl Churchill, Sarah Ruhl, Suzan-Lori Parks, Paula Vogel, Sarah Kane (deceased), Wendy Wasserstein (deceased). If you’re up on your New York Theatre scene you might say Lynn Nottage, Annie Baker, or Lucinda Coxon. It gets even harder when you limit it to American or non-white. It cannot be that these playwrights don’t exist. It just cannot be.

Again, to quote Theresa Rebeck,

I really do believe that if enough people stand up and say this cannot go on, it will not go on. After a season like this one, where so many plays in New York were by women, and were so relevant, and important, and successful, both in what they achieved dramatically, and the way they drew in audiences, we will not go back.   We will not go back.

There is a Native American saying, “It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.”    And Walter Cronkite told us, “In seeking truth, you have to get both sides of the story.”

It’s time to hear both sides, to hear all voices, to build a culture where stories are told by both men and women.  That is the way the planet is going to survive, and it’s the way we are going to survive.

Special thanks to Women in Hollywood, Ann Holt, and Julie Berger for bringing Ms. Rebeck’s comments to my attention and to my acting teacher and role model Ingrid Sonnichsen for introducing me to Rebeck’s fierce, fearless theater.

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