Playing 'the woman's card' in the world of LA plays

12FW615.jpgPatrena Murray and Sterling K. Brown in "Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)," written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jo Bonney. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

I had just been watching Donald Trump whining about Hillary Clinton's "woman's card." Then I noticed this provocative headline in a Center Theatre Group program: "In 2016, Women Run the Mark Taper Forum."

Really? I was under the impression that Gordon Davidson and Michael Ritchie were the only two people who have ever run CTG's Taper.

Had I somehow missed an announcement that Ritchie had been replaced by a woman? Or maybe this article was about the fact that a woman, Kiki Ramos Gindler, is the current president of the CTG board of directors?

As I read more of the article, I soon realized that neither of those explanations was correct. Ritchie is still running CTG, and the article in the program didn't even mention the board president (she was, however, touted as the first Latina CTG board president, in a press release more than a year ago.)

Instead, the program article was drawing attention to the fact that all five plays in the 2016 Taper season "have a woman playwright and/or a woman director behind them." To be more precise, two of the five playwrights and four of the five directors are women.

That 80% proportion of directors who are women is indeed noteworthy. Only two women directed at the Taper in 2015 - and only one in 2014.

However, in theater the playwright's voice is generally considered more important than the director's. In a year in which the first woman president of the United States might well be elected, two women out of five playwrights hardly seems worth mentioning - unless we again compare this year's number to the 2014 and 2015 Taper mainstage seasons. Together they featured 11 plays by men and none by women. The article in the program doesn't make that comparison.

The Taper's stats haven't always been as lopsided in favor of male playwrights as they were in the last two seasons. The first Taper mainstage season to include two plays by women occurred in 1977-78. And in that particular season, there were only four instead of five mainstage productions, so half of the Taper playwrights that year were women, as opposed to the 40% level that women playwrights reached during the current season.

Among all of South Coast Repertory's nine mainstage adult shows this season in Costa Mesa, five are by women - 55% of the total. Almost as impressive are the 50% totals at Geffen Playhouse (four out of eight shows by women) and Pasadena Playhouse (three out of six.)

All of these are higher than CTG's Taper total of 40%. If you add the other CTG venues to the discussion, the Kirk Douglas Theatre season maintains the 40% line, but the overall CTG average falls because of the Ahmanson Theatre offerings. Only one woman (Marsha Norman, the librettist for "The Bridges of Madison County") was part of the creative team of any of the shows in the current Ahmanson season.

Of course producing a play doesn't necessarily mean that a company commissioned or developed it. Both of the plays by women in the current Taper season were previously produced in New York. By contrast, South Coast produced four world premieres by women playwrights in just the first four months of 2016.

It's also important to remember than in terms of "running" a theater, it's the artistic director who picks the plays and, often, the directors. In the LA area's most prominent theatrical tier - those companies that belong to the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) -- the artistic directors are almost all male. Ritchie is the CTG decider, as Marc Masterson is at South Coast, as Randall Arney is at the Geffen, and as Sheldon Epps has been at Pasadena Playhouse.

The only woman among the local LORT theater bosses is Ann E. Wareham, artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse, the smallest LORT company in the area (that is, if you even consider Laguna Beach to be part of the same "area.") I doubt that it's sheer coincidence that Laguna's proportion of productions with women creators this season is the highest of the pack - four out of six.

Pasadena's Epps announced early this year that he's leaving the job. So the playhouse is shopping for a new executive artistic director, not only to replace Epps but also to run the theater's administrative side. Epps' successor won't be Seema Sueko, the woman he imported to be his associate artistic director. She too is leaving Pasadena, headed for Arena Stage in Washington as deputy artistic director. There, she'll report to one of the most prominent women in American theater, Arena's artistic director Molly Smith.

Let's hope that the Pasadena search for a new artistic director is seriously considering qualified women as well as qualified men - including some of those who already run LA-area theater companies. After the playhouse was resurrected in the mid-'80s, Jessica Myerson and Susan Dietz were among those who took relatively brief turns running it, but since 1990, it has been in the hands of men. However, the current official job description uses the mixed pronoun "She/He"," so at least the searchers seem to be up-to-date (albeit awkward) in their linguistic sensibilities.

If the Pasadena Playhouse were to hire a female leader to succeed Epps, who broke ground as the first non-white artistic director of any of the LA area's top theatrical tier, it would almost suggest Hillary Clinton replacing Barack Obama - on a miniature scale, of course, with a big asterisk to remind us of Myerson and Dietz from the '80s.

Meanwhile, at East West Players in Little Tokyo, soon-to-depart producing artistic director Tim Dang has announced a final season "celebrating the female perspective." Perhaps the announcement should say "perspectives," as it includes five varied productions, not all of them plays. Only one of them, the musical "Gypsy," was created by men, but of course "Gypsy" is primarily about clashing female perspectives. The announcement notes that Dang inherited a similar season from the late Nobu McCarthy, East West's only previous woman at the top, when he took the job in 1993. Could this announcement possibly anticipate a decision to hire another woman to run the company following Dang's exit?

Those who don't come home from the wars

One of the Taper season's two plays by a woman is currently in its final week: Suzan-Lori Parks' "Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3." In this three-act production, which is intended to be merely the first of three such productions designed to make up one big epic, the leading character (literally, named Hero) is not a woman. Hero is a slave who decides to follow his Confederate master into the Civil War, ostensibly in exchange for his freedom after the war.

It's a great dramatic premise. But the results, so far, feel overcooked, in the length of some of the existing scenes -- and also undercooked, because some important scenes in the story aren't on the stage. This last problem becomes especially apparent in the third act. When Hero (is he the titular "Father"? It isn't clear) returns home from the war, he says he's married to an unseen wife he picked up along the way, much to the distress of the woman who has been eagerly awaiting his return. This would be much more powerful if we had met the wife and knew more about her. This situation (assuming that it isn't somehow amended or unveiled as a ruse later in the saga) appears to demonstrate that even a celebrated and gifted female playwright seems to be capable of ignoring one of the most important women in her narrative.

It reminded me of a peculiar fact about another CTG production by a woman, Sheila Callaghan, seen earlier this year in its premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Despite the title "Women Laughing Alone With Salad," the play turned out to be primarily about a male character. Are Parks and Callaghan still operating from an unstated compulsion to prove that they can write about men? It sounds unlikely - Parks already wrote the much-awarded "Topdog/Underdog," which was about two brothers. The wider theatergoing public primarily knows Parks from that play, and now this one.

7WLAS349.jpgDavid Clayton Rogers, Dinora Z. Walcott and Nora Kirkpatrick in "Women Laughing Alone With Salad," written by Sheila Callaghan and directed by Neel Keller. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The four plays that South Coast introduced earlier this year weren't just written by women but also feature leading roles for women, especially Sandra Tsing Loh's "The Madwoman in the Volvo," Bekah Brunstetter's "Going to a Place Where You Already Are" and Julia Cho's "Office Hour." The definition of the leading roles in Eliza Clark's "Future Thinking" was more of a toss-up - between one man and one woman.

At the Geffen, the current "Stage Kiss" (closing Sunday), by Sarah Ruhl, also is about a woman and a man, but the woman (played by Glenne Headly) is considered the star around which the play-within-the-play as well as "Stage Kiss" itself are structured.

Advocates of increasing opportunities for women playwrights argue that most women writers are likelier to examine women's lives more closely and in greater depth than most male writers. The South Coast premieres confirmed the value of women writing about women in ways that weren't apparent in "Father Comes Home from the Wars" or "Women Laughing Alone With Salad."

Yes, there are many common human concerns. Women should also be able to write about men, and men about women. And no one is asking that women write only about female-specific issues, such as the self-induced abortion attempts that are the central focus of Ruby Rae Spiegel's "Dry Land," currently in an Echo Theater production at Atwater Village.

Yet it seems logical that, generally speaking, the variety of women's lives will be more accurately represented on stage if women writers receive more opportunities - especially if they use those opportunities to focus on women.

Jennie Webb, an avid proponent of women playwrights as co-founder of Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, is the writer of "Currency," currently in an Inkwell Theater production at the tiny VS. Theatre on Pico Boulevard; it's a play that's equally about men and women (and set in LA - yay!). On the other hand, in 2010, her "Yard Sale Signs" was primarily about women (and also produced on Pico, by what was then the nearby Rogue Machine.)

Speaking from my perch on the sidelines, I'd suggest that women playwrights who would like to break into the bigger leagues such as CTG or SCR but who aren't already as famous as Suzan Lori-Parks shouldn't hesitate to submit women-focused scripts. According to Broadway statistics from 2014-2015, women buy 68% of the tickets. I would guess that the proportion of female ticket buyers is at least that high in the local nonprofits.

Go ahead, women playwrights, play the woman's card. Or, as Hillary Clinton said, "deal me in."

By the way...

Two of the South Coast plays mentioned above were directed by men. SCR artistic director Masterson himself handled the funny and poignant "Going to a Place Where You Already Are." Neel Keller directed the riveting "Office Hour." Keller also staged "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" as well as Jennifer Haley's brilliant "The Nether" for CTG, where he's an associate artistic director.

I'm glad to see that South Coast is willing and able to use CTG-employed talent. But I would be even happier if CTG/Douglas audiences could also see Keller's work on "Office Hour," which is a far more finished and satisfying play than "Women Laughing Alone With Salad."

South Coast's prowess with new plays isn't new or surprising. It has specialized in developing new plays, longer and more intensely than any other major company in the area. This year, following its premiere last fall at South Coast, Qui Nguyen's "Vietgone" won the annual $25,000 Steinberg Award for the best new play with a professional premiere outside New York. It also received the most recent Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle's Schmitt Award for best new play with a professional premiere in the LA area. I wrote about it here, and I hope to see it eventually on an actual LA County stage.

web_Currency by Jennie Webb - Stephanie Fishbein Photography 041216-179.jpgJosh Stamell, Shirley Jordan and Warren Davis in "Currency" by Jennie Webb. Stephanie Fishbein Photography.

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