When I first learned about Scenes from Historic Women Playwrights: Read by Luminaries of the Stage, I was excited! As an artist hungry to experience the work of great artists, as a race conscious feminist playwright, and as a black women living in DC, I knew this was an event that I had to attend. When I discovered that Jill Dolan was a part of the Steering Committee, I reached out to her immediately and told her I would be there. Then, I took to Google and learned as much as I could about both History Matters/Back to the Future and ATHE's Women and Theatre Program. But it wasn't enough. The dramaturg in me wanted to know more. I wanted to know how this amazing event came together. I wanted the Behind the Scenes as it were! And as luck would have it, these lovely, brilliant, and extraordinary women were more than happy to tell me. With all they have to do on any given day, they granted me an interview and I have it here for you now! Please enjoy!
Jacqueline Lawton: Scenes by Historic Women Playwrights: Read by Luminaries of the Stage is an extraordinary, timely, and important event. The title alone makes me want to be there front row center! Thank you for bringing it to DC. Now, tell me, what role did you play in making it happen?
Jill Dolan: Joan Thorne was the moving force behind this event. She’s been working on “History Matters” for years; I had my first conversation with her about it several years ago when I began teaching at Princeton. I believe I put Joan in touch with Jen-Scott and the other Women and Theatre Program people, since I felt that the WTP would be an excellent venue for doing the kind of educational work to which “History Matters” is committed. It’s turned out to be a happy partnership. This panel and reading at the conference in DC is the first public collaboration; I hope there will be many more.
Jann Leeming: Meetings with other Committee members discussing mission and this event and budget. I'm a big supporter of Joan Vail Thorn who has been championing this project. When Joan asks for something, I say "yes". I provided much of the money needed to support the event.
Helen Mills: I am a business person by training with a love of theater. I believe my contribution has been to offer a business person’s perspective as we developed our mission and set our goals. My fellow committee members each brought their unique gifts to the project. Each meeting and round of correspondence resulted in progress and, for me, a great education and joyful collaboration.
Jen-Scott Mobley: You know, I can hardly say! I am currently Vice President of the Women & Theatre Program of ATHE (association for theatre in higher education). As an organization Women & Theatre promotes women in all areas of theatre from playwriting to directing to theatre for social change, feminist theatre activism, and of course, theatre studies in higher education. We are also home to the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award for student and professional feminist playwrights and our goal there is to promote contemporary female playwrights as well as female centered plays & roles for women through holding a yearly contest, giving out awards, and making sure the winning plays are read and circulated. So the Jane Chamber is kind of the “Future” in History Matters/Back to the Future. We want to facilitate more women writing and being produced. But, back to my role…
Jill Dolan, one of the founding members of WTP connected Joan Vail Thorne and Jann Leeming and Ludovica and the rest of the History Matters crew to WTP knowing that there was organic cross-pollination between the groups and that we could facilitate History matters establishing themselves as an organization. We have an annual conference in conjunction with ATHE and we decided this would be the place for an inaugural event. The members of WTP are already invested in this mission and many of us are professors of theatre and directors and thus, we are in a unique position to help circulate this material and make it happen. We want our students to be exposed to the plays by women as a matter of course that many of us were not exposed to as undergrads. Click here to learn more information about WTP and Jane Chambers.
Joan Vail Thorne: Having watched distressing statistical reports on the persistent disparity between men and women playwrights come and go for decades and having heard and felt the understandable and anguished complaints from contemporary women playwrights because of that disparity, I began to wonder if it might be directly connected to the glaring neglect of women playwrights of the past. I thought that perhaps if we could change some of the complaint to celebration of the classic women’s plays we might serve both the past and the future. Thus the title: History Matter/Back to the Future. I gathered a small but remarkable group of resourceful women that included Jill Dolan of Princeton who suggested that to serve our goal we might reach out to the WTP of ATHE, and they welcomed our idea of a “celebrity” reading of scenes from some of those plays.
Ludovica Villar-Hauser: While I'd like to say that I played an important role in bringing about the wonderful event on August 1st in Washington, DC - I cannot. Joan Vail Thorn has put together an amazing team and has done the bulk of the work. I think my biggest role was simply being a part of tate team Sometimes coming up with ideas - much more in the background than I would normally be on a project.
JL: You’ve selected dynamic scenes from a rich, diverse, and compelling body of plays. What do you feel contemporary artists and audiences can learn from these stories?
Jill: In my decades of teaching and writing about women in theatre and performance, and in thinking about feminism, I’m struck again and again by how quickly history just disappears. Generations of students don’t know what’s happened 10 years prior; their historical knowledge seems to get ever shallower. The conversation about women in theatre history was begun by feminist scholars in the late 70s, but already, when we talk about the lack of progress for women playwrights and other theatre makers, we too often forget to put this struggle in an historical context. Our hope with “History Matters: Back to the Future” is that contemporary artists, students, and audiences will be excited by work from the early 20th century, and make connections among the themes and contents historical women explored and those still being addressed by current playwrights. We have a history—it’s important that we consider it a “usable past.”
Jann: Everything. The stories of life from a female perspective. Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus has become a cliche for a reason. Men and women are different in the way they approach most things in life.
Jen-Scott: I think the significance of established and up-and-coming female artists seeing their history cannot be under-valued. We take for granted that what we have been taught is our American theatre history IS the history and until recently, women’s work has been almost completely absent from that. Just as it’s valuable to look at an O’Neill play and trace his influence to Sam Shephard’s work, it is valuable to look at Rachel Crothers’s work and see her influence on—or make connections between—Wendy Wasserstein or between Mary Chase and Sarah Ruhl. Women are over half the population of the country and yet the majority of those telling our stories dramatically are still men, and certainly, for some reason, the plays written by men seem to be canonized in a way that women’s plays are not. These plays are part of our cultural history and women must be recognized in it.
Joan: Contemporary artists and audiences can learn that great stories never stop “telling” and that they never stop being “telling” and that there are truly great stories to be told in the plays of the great women playwrights of the past. Women artists can be proud and confident that they are standing on the shoulders of giants who have been buried in the dust of an unjust and underserved neglect. Audiences can rejoice that buried treasure has been found and is there for them to enjoy.
Ludovica: Knowing one's past helps us to better understand our present and, hopefully, to create a better future. I also firmly believe that we can learn from the failures and successes of others and that it is easier for us to know who we are if we know where we come from. Wouldn't it be fascinating to learn the history of women in the theatre from the beginning of time? Perhaps we'd find a quicker way to parity!
JL: Why is important to have as many plays studied, commissioned and produced by women as there are by men?
Jill: To me, this is about whose stories get told and how, and to whom. It seems a cliché now to insist that “diversity matters”—it’s become an empty statement, like a bumper sticker that everyone now ignores. But in practice, it’s still true and too often is realized. If only white middle-class heterosexual men are telling stories on stage, then American theatre is representing a tiny slice of its grandly differentiated population. If we hear new stories, we learn different ways of being in the world; we learn that other people have different values and traditions; we learn how we’re different and how we’re similar to one another. This is true in any representational medium, be it theatre, performance, dance, film, or television. How is narrating the story of our lives? Whose bodies do we see enacting these stories? What do they look like? In what spaces and places do they move? Do they challenge our ways of seeing the world? Do they affirm our differences or do they humiliate us? These are some of the questions provoked, for me, by yours.
Jann: Female stories deserve to be told just as men's stories deserve to be told. Otherwise, the audience gets a very biased view of the way the majority of people in the world operate. There's a huge potential audience for female written plays. Most theater attendees are women, so financially for theater producers it makes sense to have women's play on stage. There's a ready market out there! (and I, for one am sick of only seeing men on stage!).
Helen: We use theater to understand the human condition, which requires both the male and female voice in equal measure.
Jen-Scott: US population is over 50 percent women but so many of our extant cultural texts are written by men. Why is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—a play largely about a fathers and his sons, an “American Classic” that speaks to all, but Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother is “feminist play” because it is about a mother and daughter and therefore would only be of interest to women? How can we be half the American family but our stories are not considered universal enough to be part of the American canon?
Joan: Because one can’t respect or respond to what one doesn’t know! The works of women of the past aren’t known. Ignorance is loss not bliss
Ludovica: Oh, my don't get me started PLEASE. Look around. The world is a mess. Don't you think that by including ALL of humanity in ALL phases and experiences we'd stand a better chance? I believe we need to start focussing on the things we have in common and forget about causing rifts by our apparent differences. We are missing out on SO much in life but excluding women. I'm a little more extreme than most of the team and believe that it is time for AFFIRMATIVE ACTION.
JL: Why do you think gender parity remains such a struggle in this country?
Jill: I don’t think the feminist movement ever achieved the success that the media proclaimed. Before feminism really got off the ground in the U.S., the media was declaring it a fad, a trend that had run its course. The public debate turned into one about whether or not women could “have it all,” which was an utter bastardization of the varied, nuanced, much more radical platform that 1970s American feminism advanced. As a result, American culture has really never done more than give lip-service to gender issues. Yes, Title IV has made a huge difference; yes, affirmative action has mattered a lot, as have a bunch of different policies and legislative initiatives. But on the whole, I don’t think American culture has given up privileging white hetero men as its power base and as the arbiters of taste and narrative. So much work remains to be done.
Jann: Discrimination: There is discrimination everywhere in our culture. Men support other men in every way possible. It's comfortable for them to support each other. They speak the same language and have similar values and likes and dislikes. It may even be subconscious in some cases. And men are still in the majority when it comes to leading the government and companies of all sizes.
Lack of support for families: The government and companies do not support families adequately. Every organization should have childcare facilities readily available to their employees and should be encouraging both men and women to take advantage of services offered.
Women do not use their financial power effectively: Statistics show that in the US women control or influence how 75 to 80% of consumer money is spent. Men think "shopping" is a women's job. Women could change anything they chose to just by buying or not buying. Unfortunately, they don't use that power to reward or punish companies selling products and services to them.
Helen: Gender parity is a struggle all over the world. It involves the sharing of power and decision making which is not easily achieved. Accomplishment paves the way and I think we are doing pretty well in this country considering women couldn’t even vote a short historical time ago. I am encouraged each day.
Jen-Scott: I really don’t have a good answer for that. I don’t think men are “out to get us.” I just think traditions are profoundly ingrained in us. Culturally dictated behavior is deeply embedded and we still do not questions gender assumptions as much as we should. We still teach our kids gender behavior and make assumptions about male/female including the idea that women write differently –which in some cases may be true—female playwrights such as Suzan-Lori Parks, Paula Vogel, and Sarah Ruhl are pioneers of dramatic form. But because the forms may be innovative sometimes the assumption is that they are “not as good” as men.
Joan: Why indeed?! Power if precious to those who hold it, and women only began to systematically oppose the power mongers about the time St. Joan was canonized. Ask more questions! Don’t live with worn out answers! Know that you were preceded by masters who were women. Celebrate that fact.
Ludovica: From what I understand, a big section of this large country is still quite conservative. People are always afraid of change - afraid that things might become worse - transition is usually bumpy - but without change we will continue as we are and for many of us that is completely unacceptable. It's like ignoring the existence of a fertile section of one's garden but continuing to starve. Do you have any idea of what incredible potential we are missing out on?
JL: What advice do you have for young feminist (theatre) artists?
Jill: Be an artist and an activist. Know how to advocate not just for yourself and your own work, but for the whole project of women in the arts. Stay informed. Read American Theatre Magazine and make sure you subscribe to feminist blogs, so that you’ll know what’s going on not just in theatre but in the rest of the world (and not just the U.S. either). Read read read—read history; read plays by women from other countries; read plays by people who aren’t like you; go see everything you can. Develop your own analysis, and a sense of the particular contribution your art will make to culture. What stories are you telling? To whom? How? Be self-conscious about your choices. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Find community with other artists and scholars and critics; extend yourself across media, so that you’re speaking with filmmakers and video artists and dancers, as well as theatre people of all stripes. Practice speaking to fundraisers—know how to pitch not just your projects, but the larger issue of women and their place in theatre and society. Be articulate and take every opportunity to get the word out.
Jann: Keep talking, keep writing, keep telling the truth.
Helen: Young feminist artists should get their plays before the public in whatever venue is available, no matter how small their budget or audience, not worry about the reception and keep at it.
Jen-Scott: Find your community; don’t work in a vacuum; get support. This is why it is so great that History Matters is working with WTP who also works with “50/50 in 2020” and the “Legacy Project” headed up by Susan Jonas. We all have the same goals and we have more momentum as a group than as individuals trying to reinvent the wheel on our own. Support other female artists. See their work and teach their work. Talk to each other. And keep writing, keep directing, keep questioning. I actually am very optimistic that things have improved and will continue to improve for female theatre artists.
Joan: Ask more questions! Don’t live with worn out answers! Know that you were preceded by masters who were women. Celebrate that fact.
Ludovica: Well, for starters I'd say tell your friends and colleagues not to be afraid of the word "feminist" (A feminist is "an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women") - so many young people, I have found, are super uncomfortable with the term, are unaware of the issues - hence don't believe they exist - and probably won't realize until it's too late. Young feminists might think about supporting the works of women artists (there are many ways i.e. the Womens Project, Works by Women - join organizations which advocate for women artists such as the League of Professional Theatre Women and so on and so forth. Make sure that they are receiving the same pay as their male counterparts. Most importantly - keep on doing the work!!!
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!