(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity & Inclusion blog salon: Gender Parity in the American Theatre
JACQUELINE LAWTON: Where do you live? How do you feel your community has addressed the issues of gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to practice your craft?
CHRISTINE TOY JOHNSON: I am a writer and actor living in New York City. As an Asian American female (and one above the age of…ahem…an age old enough not to tell), I often feel as though I’m looking at trying to increase inclusion through three different lenses – but I’ll talk about the first two for now. I know I’ve mentioned this before in the TCG Blog Salon, but I have to say it again: did you know that there has never been an Asian American female playwright produced on Broadway? Ever? Only a Japanese Canadian playwright, Onoto Watanna (born Winnifred Eaton), had her play A JAPANESE NIGHTINGALE produced at the Daly’s Theatre on Broadway — in 1903. 1903!
A well meaning person once encouraged me to write under a genderless, un-ethnic pseudonym – such as “C. T. Johnson”, in order to avoid the pre-judgment that can come with a gendered, ethnic name – but I would feel so grossly inauthentic doing that. As an actor, I know that we are vigorously judged in this industry by what we look like (including race, ethnicity, gender, presence/absence of a disability, hair color, weight, age, eye shape, resemblance to someone the director/writer/producer/intern hates) – but I refuse to think that in order to “succeed” in this business, I have to strip away elements of myself that make me who I am. (And I also believe that being “successful” in this industry can look so many different ways – -but that’s a whole other topic!) Maybe this is naïve of me – I tend to remain “pathologically optimistic” as I navigate my way through my lifetime love affair with the theatre – but I have to believe that the more we stand by our work, keep writing from the heart, and keep this dialogue fresh and current (thank you for that!), our perspective will find its way into the American landscape of storytelling. We must remain insistent that our stories are a vital and integral part of chronicling this life of ours as citizens of the world, even if we have to produce them ourselves. The obstacles we’re talking about have definitely forced me to forge a creative response in order to get my work (and that of my colleagues) in front of an audience – through such initiatives as public readings, concerts (I’m a librettist/lyricist as well as a playwright) and salons with colleagues.
I also have to mention that thanks to Reme Grefalda at the Library of Congress, there is now an Asian Pacific American Performing Arts Collection in D.C., where several of my plays (and those of other APA writers, both male and female) are being housed and preserved for generations to come. And I’m just thrilled about this! I’ve also been really happy to have several colleges perform and/or study a bunch of my plays (both full length and one act). Though this is different, obviously, from being the next Wikipedia entry after Onoto Watanna, I am thrilled that my stories are being told and are resonating with this younger generation of theatre-goers and scholars, who – bottom line – are (against all odds) getting to know the work of an Asian American female playwright.
JL: Do we need gender based theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?
CTJ: I’ve had a few works produced by some groups here in NYC who are specifically dedicated to getting women’s works out there (The Barrow Group’s FAB Women, Leviathan Lab’s Asian American Women’s Writers Group and New Perspectives Theatre’s Women’s Writers Group). I do think we need more of these opportunities to expand our visibility — but I also strongly believe that having our work join together in performance (by both men and women) lets us share a larger, fully humanistic response to the events of the world – which is one of the great things that theatre does. What we need to shout out from the rooftops is that with parity, we can have a true reflection, in the theatre, of the gorgeous tapestry that really is our society! What an amazing and exciting concept!
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?
CTJ: I think theatres need to take a proactive approach to the development, nurturing and welcoming of women writers, expanding their perceptions of what we are writing, and how we will resonate with their audiences. Seek us out, read our scripts, come to our productions, engage us in conversation to find out the kinds of stories we are telling, introduce us to your audiences, commission us to write more, encourage our voices to keep growing alongside you.
We have a lot to say!
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?
CTJ:I know that without authenticity, our storytelling has no depth and no meaning. And I know that the female writers of this world have a plethora of meaningful stories to tell, without which the human spirit cannot be authentically reflected in the theatre. We need to keep our voices sharp and focused as we continue these conversations. Powerful authenticity cannot and must not be ignored.
BIO: CHRISTINE TOY JOHNSON is an award winning actor, writer and filmmaker. Highlights include Broadway’s THE MUSIC MAN, GREASE!, and CHU CHEM, Off Broadway’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, PACIFIC OVERTURES, BALANCING ACT, CRANE STORY and FALSETTOLAND, the national tours of CATS, FLOWER DRUM SONG and BOMBAY DREAMS, New York City Opera, Minnesota Opera, and leading roles at the Public Theatre, Williamstown, the Huntington, the Ogunquit Playhouse, the Weston Playhouse, Indiana Rep etc. Nearly 100 television appearances include two years as “Lisa West” on ONE LIFE TO LIVE, SMASH, 666 PARK AVENUE, 30 ROCK, UGLY BETTY, THE BIG C, FRINGE, ROYAL PAINS, CROSSING JORDAN, many episodes of various LAW AND ORDERS, NUNSENSE and NUNSENSE 2.
An anthology of her written work was included in the Library of Congress Asian Pacific American Performing Arts Collection in 2010, and her plays have been developed at The Roundabout Theatre Company, The Barrow Group, Crossroads Theatre, Leviathan Lab, Diverse City Theatre Company, Queens Theatre in the Park, The Weston Playhouse, and Gorilla Rep. She co-directed/executive produced the award-winning documentary feature, TRANSCENDING – THE WAT MISAKA STORY and is currently writing book and lyrics to BARCELONA, with composer/lyricist Jason Ma. Christine is a proud member of AEA, SAG-AFTRA, The Dramatists Guild, The BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop and is the founder of the Asian American Composer and Lyricists Project, presenting works created and sung by Asian American theatre artists.
An avid advocate for inclusion in the arts, she is part of the elected leadership of Actors’ Equity Association (and co-chair of the union’s EEOC), on the board of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, and a founding member of AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition). Christine was honored by the Japanese American Citizens League for “exemplary leadership and dedication” in 2010, the Asian American Arts Alliance for “outstanding service in the arts” in 2012, and received the 2013 Rosetta LeNoire Award from Actors’ Equity Association for “outstanding artistic contributions to the universality of the human experience in the American theatre”. For details, please visit www.christinetoyjohnson.com.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com