How Many Plays Can You Name?
For many years as an adjunct professor of playwriting, I never felt a responsibility to introduce my students to “the canon” of dramatic literature. I was a teaching artist, not an academic, and while I would talk about plays being produced locally and nationally, often bring in a scene to illustrate craft, and recommend plays and playwrights I thought my students should read, I resisted including plays on my syllabus. The focus was on play writing, not play reading. This seemed to work for most of my career, since I taught in a conservatory where I could assume the students already knew what plays were. When I started teaching in a university’s English department about five or six years ago, though, I encountered students who’d never experienced a play before. Clearly my old methods were not going to work.
Around the same time, an email from History Matters/Back to the Future dropped into my inbox with an invitation to participate in their One Play at a Time initiative. Registering meant agreeing to teach one play written by a woman playwright from history to my class, and, if I signed up, my students would be eligible to submit to the Judith Barlow Prize. If one of them won, they would get $2500—and I’d win $500. This got my attention, and I began signing up every semester.
I started by teaching Susan Glaspell’s brilliant 1916 one-act play Trifles, which was surprisingly effective in presenting the elements of dramatic writing I covered in class. My students’ work got better, but over time I noticed another shift. Every semester, I’d ask them how many women playwrights they could name. The first time I asked the question, most of my students knew of only a few, like Lillian Hellman and Lorraine Hansberry, and their limited knowledge didn’t seem to bother them. But, as the years have passed, I have noticed that even if my students can’t name many, they are aware that there are plenty of women playwrights, and they should know more of them.
Last fall, when I asked the question to my students (full disclosure: these were the theatre majors), they filled up two dry-erase boards with the names of women playwrights they knew of or had heard of. We’re less than two years away from 2020, and though we aren’t likely to reach full gender parity by then, maybe something in the zeitgeist is moving us in the right direction?
One Play at a Time
The mission of History Matters/Back to the Future is “to promote the study and production of women’s plays of the past in colleges and universities and theatres throughout the country and encourage responses to those plays from contemporaryplaywrights.” (Italics are mine.) The brainchild of Joan Vail Thorne, History Matters came out of a response to the 2009 Emily Sands Study at Princeton University, which examined gender bias in the theatre and confirmed discrimination against female playwrights. Thorne, a veteran regional theatre director, playwright, librettist, and teacher, came of age during the regional theatre movement, which, Thorne reminds me in our interview, was spearheaded by two women: Margo Jones and Zelda Fichandler. “Of course, everyone was enraged and sad,” Thorne told me, speaking of the study, “but we’d heard this before.” In 2002, Suzanne Bennet and Susan Jonas had conducted a study for the NYS Council of the Arts that had revealed the same profound disparity between professional productions written by men versus women on the American stage. Thorne was angry, but she didn’t want to wallow in it. “We were always lamenting,” she said, and her instinctive resistance to lamentation led her to seek out something to celebrate instead.
Thorne and her colleagues—academics and theatre artists—found plays, and a lot of them, written by women who’d been forgotten across decades and centuries. Thorne describes these writers as “young radicals, with tremendous passion,” who were writing plays that “even when they were commercial were about something important.” The plan wasn’t to just blow the dust off old plays; Thorne hoped to connect young playwrights with these works, inspiring them to write their own equally powerful plays. One Play at a Time was launched, and the competition’s prize—named after Judith Barlow, the editor of Plays by American Women, which reintroduced playwrights from 1900 to 1930s and again from 1930 to 1960s to the public—comes with a generous purse, signaling to young writers that their work is worthy of compensation.
To read Tammy’s essay in its entirety, please visit http://howlround.com/women-s-history-matters.