In praise of theater by, for and about women

A feminist thought for Mother's Day

May 10, 2012

This ought to be a tired old subject by now, but as I watched Shattered Globe’s Her Naked Skin recently, I couldn’t help thinking it was good to see a show about women, written by a woman, presented by a theater that doesn’t primarily identify itself as a women’s theater. Though there are certainly exceptions–Chicago Dramatists is one; 16th Street Theater in Berwyn is another–it remains the case that Chicago theaters are more interested in stories about boys than in stories about girls.

Well, what of it? Mainstream white theaters are more interested in shows about whites than in shows about blacks or Latinos, and there are culturally-specific theaters to fill in the gaps.

What’s wrong with having the same system to handle work by, for or about women?

What’s wrong with it (leaving aside the question of whether separate-but-equal is actually a valid approach to minority theater) is that women are not a minority. In fact, we’re a large majority of the people who buy tickets to live theater (and books, for that matter). When the primary audience of an art form is still sitting at the back of the house–as when Jonathan Franzen dissed his selection by Oprah because it might make people think his book was chick-lit rather than serious fiction–we need to ask why. 

Take the Goodman season: Red (two men), Race (men; women as traitorous objects), The Convert (women as victims), Camino Real (men), The Iceman Cometh (13 men; women as madonnas and whores); Fish Men (men); and Crowns (Women! Women at last! A single show!

What more could we ask?)

Or look at what’s onstage at the Big Four right now: To the Goodman’s Iceman add The March at Steppenwolf (men fighting the Civil War); Angels in America at Court (men fighting the war on AIDS); and Timon of Athens at Chicago Shakespeare (men fighting the war on greed).

Am I arguing that the canon shouldn’t be performed because it’s so focused on men? No, just
that the canon should be expanded to include more of the work of women. Do I think someone is sitting at the helm of these theaters chortling as they exclude women from their seasons? No, of course not: Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakes are both led by women.

What I do think is that these theaters, and many others, should be practicing affirmative action in
seeking out plays by and about women. Affirmative action does not mean putting on lesser
plays, or choosing plays based on tokenism. It means being conscious of the need to look harder
for women’s stories because our ingrained prejudices and traditional cultural constructs condition us to regard them as less important, less valid and less universal than those of men. It also means having women directors and artistic directors take special responsibility in that search, and not feel they have to defend themselves against the charge of promoting women’s work as if they were charged with spreading typhoid.

They don’t all have to be plays about suffragists. But they also don’t all have to be plays about
women in relation to men or women whose autonomy is attributable to their being psychopaths
(e.g. Miss Julie, Lady Macbeth). Just getting to watch the full range of human experience,
including women’s experience, would be a treat.