All About Eves
UMBC's Third-Annual Short Play Festival Spotlights Roles For Young Actresses
When Shirley King graduated from Drury College in 1956, career opportunities for women were limited. With a degree in English, she landed a job with the Las Vegas Review Journal, but she only stuck with reporting for two years. "In those days, women wrote mostly for society pages," she says. "And that just didn't appeal to me."
King became a social worker, then a traditional woman's career, but at 73 years old, she's spent the last nine years as a playwright. Her 10-minute play "Markers" is a finalist in IN10, a theater festival and national play competition presented by UMBC this week. IN10 seeks to showcase plays that feature female protagonists and antagonists, offering strong roles for women actors.
"There's just the need for the work," says Susan McCully, UMBC lecturer and creator of the festival and competition, which is in its third year. She notes that in theater departments around the country, female students outnumber male students 5 to 1, but the literature strongly favors male playwrights and characters.
"Every mediocre guy gets to work," McCully says. "More importantly, the female roles--especially for young women--they're ciphers for the men. They are there to be a reflection of the males' conflict. They're there to be supporting characters."
King's play has no male characters at all. Two sisters are embroiled in a conflict on Sept. 12, 2001. They promised their deceased mother that they would bury the ashes of her dog on that day, but after the World Trade Center tragedy one sister is having second thoughts about the timing.
Good roles for women did not figure into King's inspiration, however. "The play just came out of nowhere," she says. "I started writing this the day after 9/11, in fact. I was devastated. I felt hopeless."
But King is certainly aware of the dearth of plays about and by women. As a member of the International Center for Women Playwrights, "we talk about this a lot," the Benicia, Calif., native says. "Statistics indicate that women write more plays than men do, and yet men's plays are produced more often."
"In reality, we all know what the numbers are," says Francesca Sanders, whose play "The Rudy," took this year's top prize at IN10. "The numbers aren't good for artistic directors, directors, playwrights, and plays with female protagonists and antagonists." Still, she says that less than half of the plays she writes are female-centric.
While her gender may work against her, Sanders won't be deterred. "Good work finds some kind of home," she says. "It finds people who understand what you're saying. My attitude has always been that working in the theater is very difficult, but it's the only thing I want to do."
Sanders, who lives in Portland, Ore., penned her 10-minute play overnight, during a 24-hour play festival. "Who can say exactly what happens in those circumstances?" she laughs.
McCully read hundreds of short plays entered into the competition, narrowing down the field to about 20 to 25 selections that were then reviewed by three other representatives from her department. Ten-minute plays have become an American art form, she says. "To get good clear action--it's like writing a haiku," she says. "If it's well-written, you know by page three."
She's not looking for plays that address "women's issues," like abortion or sexual harassment. Instead, she wants plays with women who are portrayed in unique ways. "That's the literature we need," she says. Men are typically portrayed as universal characters, capable of being or doing almost anything. "The larger project is to try to shift our imagination of what women can be, so that women become universal, too."
To complement the competition winners, McCully also commissioned two short plays by renowned playwrights. This year, she called upon Naomi Wallace and Tina Howe. Wallace, a poet and playwright from Prospect, Ky., who had her play Things of Dry Hours produced at Center Stage last year, wrote "A Duet for Water," which McCully describes as more of a poem than a play. It is a study of addiction with one character split into two performances, illustrating the struggle of living in the present, when escaping reality is an overwhelming temptation.
A Broadway veteran and New York native, Howe also draws upon the metaphor of water in her short play "Milk and Water." "When Susan called me, she said she wanted a play with roles for young women," Howe says. "It seemed that all of my plays have young women."
Howe took inspiration from her own life, even though she describes herself as "broken-down and old." "I am a swimmer, and there's this wonderful [Jewish community center] that's a block from my house," she says. "And I take this water aerobics class each week. There's a lot about the class that I find hopeful. I immediately thought, Well, I have to write a play about women taking a water aerobics class."
She created a cast of nursing mothers, leaking milk into the pool. When the teacher doesn't show up, confusion ensues. "I've written so many plays about women in distress," Howe says. "I am a woman in distress! Always! I don't maneuver in the real world all that well. I'm always the fool."
If so, she's a successful fool. Nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize in drama (for Painting Churches and Pride's Crossing) and once for a Tony (for Coastal Disturbances), Howe is one of the most successful female playwrights in the country. But she doesn't buy the premise that there aren't enough roles for young women.
"It seems to me there are plenty of parts for young women," she says. "My complaint is that there aren't enough parts for older women. I think that's the real problem."
Even though all four playwrights in this year's festival are women, the competition and commission are not exclusively for female dramatists. "This is the first year that there have only been women playwrights," McCully says. Next year, she hopes to commission a male playwright. And soon she hopes to publish an anthology of these plays for use in the classroom. In fact, the festival was not timed to coincide with Women's History Month, which is this month. "That just happened to be our production slot," McCully says.
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