Gender Bias and Playwriting at Georgetown, Reading Will Highlight a Long-Standing Reality of Theater

By Brown, DeNeen L | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), July 31, 2012 | Go to article overview

Gender Bias and Playwriting at Georgetown, Reading Will Highlight a Long-Standing Reality of Theater


Brown, DeNeen L, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


It is a peculiar distinction in the world of playwrights: Works written by men are often called plays. But works written by women are often categorized as "women's plays."

"There is a notion in the canon, when men write plays, they speak to the entire human condition, and plays written by women speak to women," said actress Kathleen Chalfant, a 1993 Tony Award nominee for best actress in a play for her role in "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches."

Even plays written by men that are "particularly masculine and talk about issues particular to men, are never called 'men's plays,'" she said.

On Wednesday, to draw attention to the issue of gender bias in American theater, Ms. Chalfant and two other actors will read from works by notable female American playwrights in a program titled "History Matters/Back to the Future." The reading is sponsored by the Women and Theatre Program of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University.

Ms. Chalfant will be joined onstage by Maryann Plunkett, a 1987 Tony Award winner for best actress in a musical for "Me and My Girl," and Tamara Tunie, an actress and Tony Award winner for producing 2007's "Spring Awakening." Joan Vail Thorne, a librettist, playwright and stage director, will direct.

The two-hour program will include scenes and monologues from nine works, including "The Old Maid," adapted from Edith Wharton's novel by 1935 Pulitzer Prize winner Zo? Akins; "In the Summer House" (1953), the only play by novelist Jane Bowles; and "Trouble in Mind" (1955) by pioneering African American playwright Alice Childress.

"They are all American playwrights. If one were to do the great forgotten playwrights of history, it would be a larger pantheon of women," said Maya E. Roth, chair of the Department of Performing Arts at Georgetown University. "I'm confident the question will percolate for audiences, 'Why don't I know more of these playwrights?'"

While Ms. Thorne hopes the reading, presented in conjunction with the Women and Theatre Program's annual conference, will highlight the issue of gender bias in theaters nationwide, she said the Washington region is "doing quite well with women playwrights."

The reason for holding the event in Washington is to connect with a panel at the conference being held in Georgetown, she said. "We thought the place to begin some activities toward gaining more respect for women playwrights is in universities, syllabi and anthologies."

The impetus for this event "grew out of my awareness of the possibility that the current disparity between the production of men's and women's plays might have something to do with the terrible neglect of the illustrious women playwrights of the past," Ms. Thorne said. "The scenes selected for the reading were chosen from plays that should occupy a significant place in the consciousness of all informed theater persons but have been largely forgotten."

Each playwright chosen for the reading was "a well-respected and widely produced playwright in her moment," Ms. Roth said. "But our ears have forgotten their names because they haven't been kept active in the repertory and anthologies."

The reading is a response to a surge of calls for parity for women in the theater, which was described in 1989 by scholar Lynda Hart in "Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre" as "the last bastion of male hegemony in the literary arts. …

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