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Women/ Text/ Theatre Gayle Austin What theatre by women in New York has surely shown in the last decade is that writers need groups and groups need writers. As Literary Manager of the Women's Project at the American Place Theatre for six years, I read hundreds of scripts written by women. Most often there was a paralyzing safeness to the scripts. So little use was made of the ways actors, space, sight, sound and an audience could interact. Attending group-created theatre I was almost always impressed by the energy and immediacy of performance , but disappointed by the actual text-thought, language, interplay with action. This is not a situation unique to women, but it seems more acute with them. Male playwrights as a whole seem more able to experiment with form, perhaps because of a greater exposure to the production process. Nearly all group-created theatre has found the integration of a writer who is not a director or performer in the group problematic. Women in theatre have a great deal to gain by looking for ways to better combine the skills of writing and performing, instead of separating them. An overpowering majority of plays written by American women in the last decade are in a realistic mode. Some of these plays have gotten a great deal of attention, including two Pulitzer Prizes, and the impression has been that women have joined the mainstream in unprecedented numbers. This is not true. There were more women playwrights on Broadway at the turn of the century than there are now. Most were writing the same type of forgettable hack plays as their male counterparts, but they were earning a lot of money for their trouble. Today's women on Broadway are making neither money nor much of an impact. I encourage their ranks in general, 185 but I think women have a more important contribution to make by expanding and changing the forms of theatre than by creating conventional work. What is necessary is the portrayal of more women characters and more aspects of women's experience on stage. This will only come about when women write such plays, but experience has shown that women writers using only traditional structures have not done so. What is needed is not simply the expansion of images of women on stage, but a rethinking of the forms theatre takes. This territory, normally occupied only by the avant-garde, needs to be invaded by more women playwrights. This was made clear at the first annual POW (Professional Older Women's) Theatre Festival produced last spring by Elsa Rael, and housed at the Public Theatre. It's purpose-" . . . encouraging the creation of a dramatic literature for the most under-employed group of theatre professionals -women [actresses] over the age of 50"-is entirely commendable, especially since the over-50, or even -40, woman occupies the smallest patch of any group on our stage (the reasons for this deserve at least an essay of their own). But the festival itself consisted almost entirely of realistic plays, mainly about the family. Though many showed accomplished writing, the overall feeling was of putting slightly new wine in very old bottles, which were doomed to sit on the shelf, unopened. The undeniable strength of the event was in the performances of the actresses, the desire of the audience to see good plays about older women, and the excitement created by the idea of the festival. A number of the playwrights writing for that festival were themselves over forty, but a terrible irony is that they seem not to have been influenced at all by their female contemporaries, such as Megan Terry, Adrienne Kennedy, Rochelle Owens and Maria Irene Fornes, who came to prominence doing non-conventional work in the '60s. Younger women writing today also seem to be unaware of their predecessors, and tend toward either "performance art" or "playwriting." If they choose the former style they still sometimes end up writing their own material, but it is not a central part of their training, and in avant-garde performance writing is either devalued or entirely the work of the director of the group. Young women who know early...


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