William Shakespeare, Anton Chekov, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill. What do they all have in common? They are all some of the most famous and well-regarded Playwrights in the history of the stage. You can often find their names on lists of the best playwrights and see their plays at any number of theatres around the world. What else do they have in common? They are all male. While they have all rightly earned the praise and respect of the theatre world, the fact that they are all male does beg the question; where are the female playwrights? The answer is, they are out there, but you just may not know them yet. Los Angeles Playwright Jennie Webb wants to change that. With her Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, she is working towards increased representation of women playwrights on the stages of Los Angeles and beyond. Here, she shares her insights on writing for the stage, why her main characters are always women, and why we need more female playwrights.
You are an award-winning playwright and your plays have been presented on stage in the U.S. and internationally. What made you gravitate toward playwriting? Have you written in other genres and, if so, how did the process differ from writing a play?
I’m like a lot of playwrights in that I started out as an actor. I’ve lived my whole life in Los Angeles, and when I was young I did improv and sketch comedy, even stand-up. So I’d been writing with kind of a skewed comic voice for myself and partners for awhile, and then I co-wrote my first play called “Killing Miss America” for a company that I co-founded, called The Rough Theater.
I basically began to write plays because, like a lot of women performers, I was frustrated by the lack of material that featured strong female roles, that said things I thought needed to be said. (Heard that before?)
I am, however, entirely unlike a lot of L.A. writers (okay, most L.A. writers) because I have not yet written a single screenplay, TV episode or webseries. (Note the word “yet.” Can’t. Resist. Forever.)
Still, to date, I’ve pretty much stuck to writing for the stage, aside from a few short radio plays, which are not so different for me because my stuff is very rhythmic and I love sound design!
Many of your plays are centered on women. Do you feel that female characters are underrepresented on the stage?
Actually, all of my plays are centered on women. They almost all have more women characters than men. (I think I have a couple of M/F two-handers.) And yes, yes, yes: it’s imperative that more women’s stories, women’s voices and women characters get out there.
The fact is that plays by women occupy a ridiculously small area of the theatrical landscape at large. A generally accepted figure is seventeen percent. That might be surprising. “Really? But I just saw something by a woman!” Right. After you saw eight or nine plays by men.
Start looking at show listings online or in the paper. Next time you’re at a play, look at the company’s season. Maybe one female playwright?
And this is not because fantastic women playwrights and plays don’t exist.
One of my favorite quotes is from playwright Marsha Norman, in a piece she wrote for American Theatre:
“A theatre that is missing the work of women is missing half the story, half the canon, half the life of our time. That is the situation we have now.”
You co-founded the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, which promotes and encourages women playwrights and advocates for more of their plays to be presented on stage. Can you tell us more about the LA FPI and how it’s helping to get women playwrights noticed? Why do you think there is such a disparity between male and female playwrights in regards to their representation on stage?
Buckle up, this may take a while.
Playwright Laura Shamas and I created the LA Female Playwrights Initative (LA FPI) in early 2010 in order to support, promote, and connect women playwrights to each other and to other artists and opportunities. We’re not a producing organization, but rather a grassroots, organic springboard for ideas and projects.
One of the first things LA FPI did was try to get an idea of female representation on L.A. stages. We sponsored a Study which gave us the number of twenty percent.
(A big caveat here: With our resources, it was impossible to get statistically accurate data. The lack of a clear gender parity picture in the theater is discussed in a terrific essay by Laura Shamas, The Numbers Problem and Why It Matters.)
Today, a group of amazing women contribute to the LA FPI website (lafpi.com) and online communications/social media, and meet regularly to scheme and share work. We’ve hooked up with other organizations and theaters who’ve helped produce very cool events—great stuff is ahead in 2015.
I think our real success is the connections we’ve made, and continue to make, in L.A. and within the international community. When we formed LA FPI, we hoped it could be a model for groups in other cities to increase awareness of gender parity issues and inspire positive action. Things aren’t going to change overnight, but it makes a difference knowing someone else is seeing what you are and wants to do something about it.
Of course, there are a whole lot of opinions on the cause of the disparity. Honestly, what I hear over and over again (from both men and women) is, “It’s not that we wanted to pick plays by men, we just picked the best plays!”
Here’s what I believe: Theater artists are like anyone else. We like to work with people we know, whose work we get. We like repeating success. Since most of the playwrights working today are men, we have to consciously change our patterns and take risks.
I also believe that many women write different plays than men, and that what makes theater makers and audiences comfortable—what’s “best”—often translates to “male.” So there does need to be an overall shift, or expansion, in what plays can look and feel and sound like. I think the more we include women’s voices, the more we’ll get comfortable with them and demand to hear more. In the meantime, we need to challenge ourselves to find new ways to make “different” successful.
Can you take us through the process of playwriting from the beginning stages of writing to the eventual stage production?
When I start a project, I almost always start with a title. The title and themes kind of roll around in my head for a long time and eventually I give myself a deadline to write something down. Without deadlines, nothing happens.
I’m a big re-writer. I tend to kind of spiral or weave my way through a play as I’m writing it, tracking back and forth as I move forward. I’ve worked with so many fabulous actors in L.A. that when I write characters, I write for specific actors and I can hear their voices and tap into their energies. My style is very specific (I call it “domestic absurdism”) so some people click into it easier than others.
Along the way I’ll sometimes read scenes with fellow playwrights and then when I get to the “end” (which is usually a surprise—I rarely ever know how a play’s going to end) I’ll do a few more drafts, maybe have a table read, re-write, try to snag this director I trust, convince a local company to do a public reading, then mess around some more after the read, and perhaps reach out to a super smart dramaturge I know before I search submission opportunities, submit and keep submitting, and if I’m able to hear the script again, keep re-writing. If by some miracle the play is chosen for production, I make sure to stay in the loop to check what’s working and what’s not. If it’s not, I re-write. And cross my fingers.
In the spirit of this issue’s theme of memory, can you share any memorable moments of your life as a playwright? Are there any experiences that remain particularly special to you?
This is funny because my husband always talks about how I have a horrible, awful, head-like-a-sieve memory. He remembers teachers’ names from grade school. I have somehow blocked out my entire formal education.
The result of this is that I steal from everyone else in my life. I’m one of those writers. I especially steal from my husband and my husband’s family. He says that’s the reason I married him. I don’t correct him.
On the other hand, I think what happens when I write plays is that I find emotional memories, stuff that’s somewhere that never goes away. So maybe I create memories within my plays?
Regardless of my unfortunate brain disconnect, my work as a playwright has introduced me to more incredible people I’ve met and work with—who continue to inspire and support me—than I could possibly name.
But I’m serious: don’t ask me any names.
Jennie Webb is an independent Los Angeles playwright currently in residence at Rogue Machine (Yard Sale Signs) and Theatricum Botanicum where she runs the new play program Botanicum Seedlings. Her works have been produced in LA (most recently at Theatre of NOTE, Santa Monica Rep. and GLO 2014), on stages across the country and internationally, and supported by programs including The Playwrights Center’s PlayLabs, Great Plains Theatre Conference and Virginia Avenue Project. She is the recipient of a Women in Theatre Red Carpet Award. A member of the Playwrights Union, Fell Swoop Playwrights, EST/LA Playwrights Unit and PlayGround-LA Writers Pool, Jennie is also co-founder of LA Female Playwrights Initiative (LA FPI). Follow her on Twitter at @jenniewebbsite.