Drama Is Drama: Women’s Voices in Theater

Last year I was contacted by Erin Guinup, a musician/teacher in the Seattle area who was preparing a lecture and paper on female musical theatre composers and wanted to include my work alongside the music of Kay SwiftMary Rodgers, and Jeanine Tesori.  In addition to showcasing some of my songs, she asked me to respond to the following quote by Rachel Crothers in 1912.

“Drama is drama…what difference does it make whether women or men are working on it?”

I thought about it for days.  Initially, I thought maybe I actually agreed with the statement.  If we’re talking about equality in the workplace, isn’t the goal to be gender-blind?  But no, we can’t be gender-blind when it comes to the creative arts.  Nor can we be colorblind or age blind or nationality blind. A person’s voice is a reflection of who he/she is, and we are not all the same.

Julia Jordan speaks about gender parity in theatre.

Julia Jordan speaks about gender parity in theatre. Visit the Dramatists Guild to hear the talk.

I was reminded of the work playwright Julia Jordan has been doing to bring light to what she calls a gender bias in the theater.  I reread the 2009 New York Times article about Julia’s research, identifying some of the surprising sources of gender bias and watched again her keynote speech from the 2011 Dramatists Guild conference (which I attended). I re-read Marsha Norman’s fiery essay “Not There Yet” and  was reminded how powerful we women writers are as a community, as a network.  Marsha’s words challenge me out of potentially depressing thoughts about my own place in the industry, the reception of my work, the success of my shows. She makes me want to write more and write better.

Here is what I wrote to Erin.

The point is that women make up about half of the world’s population, and to have a culture of theater that does not represent the voices of those women is to overlook the stories that they alone can tell and the perspectives through which they see the world.  Saying “drama is drama” is like saying “people are people.”  We say it, but it doesn’t actually mean anything.  People are these completely individual, unique creatures who are defined by where we live, how we live, what we know and what we believe.  We look for similarities among people but we also revel in our differences.  Drama springs forth in unique ways from unique people.  It reflects the point of view of its author, and those authors come from vastly different places, cultures, religions, races and, yes, genders. Our stories are not the same because we are not the same; we are different, and our work is us.

That’s all very idealistic, though. The practicality of the situation is that even if the women are telling the stories, they are not being produced nearly as often. The New York Times in 2009 suggested that women are not writing as many plays as their male counterpoints. That’s probably true. We’re not conducting as many orchestras, either, or holding as many political offices because we’re catching up. My 90-year old grandmother told me that as a young woman in the 1930s she thought that she might like to be a Presbyterian minister, but she was told that that was not an appropriate job for a woman. My mother, twenty-five years later, told her father that she wanted to be a doctor.  He said, “You mean a nurse. Doctors are men.”  It was only my generation, the children of the 60s and 70s, that started to offer up female role models in greater supply.  Of course there have been female writers and composers since the beginning of time. It’s not that they didn’t exist. But you can’t argue that they were mainstream.

Finally, an anecdote. I had a student in a musical theater class at USC (where I taught in the 2012-2013 academic year). I gave her a song to learn and she was struggling with it.  She said, “I usually just play the prostitute or the girlfriend or the maid — unless I’m in the chorus, where I’m tap dancing in a bikini.”

If we want our daughters to have female role models, first we have to be them, and then we have to write them.

Originally published on Georgia Stitt’s blog.

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