I am terrible at networking. I am truly shy. Despite that my first full-length play is being professionally produced by Avant Bard to kick off its 27th season.
How did that happen?
I am where I am now because I produced my own work for years with Blind Pug Arts Collective, a path I would recommend to any emerging female playwright. To be more specific, TAME. reached Avant Bard because Resident Dramaturg Maegan Clearwood saw the 2014 Capital Fringe production and it stayed with her. Last winter she reached out to me to submit it to Avant Bard’s inaugural Scripts in Play Festival—and the rest is history.
Because of my natural introversion, producing my own work was the only way it was ever going to be seen by anyone, much less producers and directors. That is not true for all female playwrights, but gendered social dynamics do make it more difficult for women—and particularly young women—to “sell themselves.” Women are socialized to be modest, to not be bossy, to be pursued. Though this plays into that gendered dynamic, it has been gratifying for me to see that if you create solid, affecting work, people will notice and people will remember.
Something that has compounded my reluctance to self-promote is the kind of plays that I create. No doubt my aesthetic is not for everyone: I traffic in brutality, twisted humor, violence, the works. I refuse to apologize if my work makes you uncomfortable. I think that that is sometimes surprising for people who meet me, this ostensibly good Southern girl with big blue eyes and dimples.
I think that surprise is gendered. There is certainly a rebellious part of me that delights in being a woman who creates moments of intense violence. I think it still shocks audiences and our culture at large when women have rage. David Mamet can have rage and be a genius. Sarah Kane has rage and she is called “a naughty schoolgirl.”
I think women playwrights, like any “minority” playwrights, are more sharply scrutinized for how they do or do not address gender issues. I’m a scholar and a journalist; I’ve fallen into that trap myself! I think we find ourselves looking for a statement on gender in the plays of female playwrights even when they’re writing about ennui or something basically universal. I’m going to get a little academic here: Feminist performance scholar Jill Dolan writes that the female body has implied meaning just by existing on stage. I think that is true for female playwrights, as well. Our very existence, somehow, the audacity of writing, has implied meaning.
So, how can we change our perception of female playwrights and practitioners? I think more professional opportunities would help. The Women’s Voices Theatre Festival was a good start.
I believe the best way to create opportunities for woman-focused work is to integrate women into the artistic leadership of theatre companies. We all would like to believe that we can get beyond our own paradigms, our own perspectives to identify and even create art for audiences unlike ourselves. Unfortunately, we have seen vividly that that is not the case. Particularly because women have historically been disenfranchised at the highest levels of theatre leadership, it’s especially important to consciously promote gender parity. I believe, generally, that when you empower diverse voices, you attract a more diverse audience as well.
With TAME., Director Angela Kay Pirko and I are working on empowering more female practitioners. It has been our ambition to make sure most of the artistic and production team is female—not simply as some empty gesture in the name of diversity, but because having a female experience gives you a serious advantage in accessing the play’s themes.
Approaching the question of women in theatre from a different angle, I think companies also have to be willing to take more risks. Unfortunately, even today, it is still considered risky to produce female playwrights and to hire female directors.
One of the things that I most admire about Tom Prewitt, Avant Bard’s artistic and executive director, is that he is not only willing, but excited to take risks with traditional theatre. I think the fact that Avant Bard is willing to invest in young artists like myself keeps the company relevant and certainly disrupts the cycle of accomplished men hiring other accomplished men in perpetuity.
Producing the first play of a 25-year-old, no-name female playwright is considered risky. Producing a play in that context that is deeply disturbing and challenges one of the most famous plays of all time? That’s what I would call bold!
Let’s all be a little more bold. Let’s all take a few more risks. It’s not nearly as scary or as difficult as you might fear. And, to quote Cat, my main character: “It’d be a lot more interesting if you had.”
Jonelle Walker lives and works in DC but will always call Texas home. Her work tends to explore the dark, uncomfortable, and disturbing through comedy and drama. She is the Literary Manager and Artist-in-Residence for Blind Pug Arts Collective. A proud artist-scholar, she is also an MA student in Theatre History and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland with research interests in stage violence and feminism.
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