More Stories Left to Tell

by Stephen Spotswood

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for More Stories Left to Tell

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. 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.)

I write for women.

A lot.

Over the course of my relatively short career, the majority of my protagonists have been female, as have the majority of my characters overall.

That’s not accidental.

One reason is that I’ve always gotten along better with women than men. Most of my close friends are female, and have been since I was a teenager. I communicate with women better and I find writing from their perspective easier and more enjoyable.

Another reason is that I don’t write in a void, and the ratio of women to men in the acting pool, at least in my experience, is considerably overbalanced. Combine that with the fact that the majority of roles on stage are written for men, and you end up with a slew of talented female actors who are without work for far too much of the season.

And the last reason? There are simply more stories about women left to tell.

Which still leaves the question: Why should I be the one to tell them? And if I tell them, are they even women’s stories? They are emerging, after all, out of the head of a white, heterosexual male. Because of this, aren’t they a man’s stories dressed in female skin?

Honestly? I don’t know.

There’s the argument that, if art is a tool to teach empathy and understanding, then the creation of art should enable that same empathy and understanding for someone not our gender.

But there’s also the fact that centuries of social engineering have kept women from controlling the world they live in, and because I stand in a place of privilege I cannot understand in a visceral way how that feels.

So, yeah. I don’t know.

I take comfort in this: Apparently, I write women well.

I would not know this, except women tell me so—women whose opinions I respect and who are not known to fib—and so I believe them.

But I’m not always entirely sure I know what it means “to write women well.” Does it mean that my characters are nuanced and believable? That they are crafted to allow you to step into their skin and see the world through their eyes? I hope so. As a storyteller, that’s pretty much my job, regardless of my character’s gender.

Or does it mean that the events driving the story are both created by women and centered on them, and that their drama doesn’t revolve around a man? That’s a pretty low bar. It’s a low bar that doesn’t get leaped very often, but it’s still damn low.

Maybe it just means I write women well for a guy. Maybe the bar really is lower, though the opposite feels true. Rather, I feel I need to be hyperaware of the role gender plays in my scripts. I can’t decide on a female protagonist and then call it a day. I certainly can’t write a play for a man, switch pronouns, and declare success.

I need to think about the gender dynamics within the play, as well as the dynamics between the play and the world we live in. I need to make sure that the protagonist is driving her own story and is not just passively reacting. Conversely, I need to not shy away from really messing with her.

Because when I say I want to write strong female characters, I don’t want that strength to manifest in imperviousness or unemotional stoicism. I want it to manifest in her ability to be deeply impacted by the world, to fall, to find a way to rise again or to go down fighting, to show the audience just where her strength resides and what she’s capable of.

I want to write complex and conflicted female characters with sometimes crippling flaws, which leave them reeling and blind to their own needs, who do not always attain the goals they’re desperately striving for. This requires me to create compelling, nuanced women and then take a wrecking ball to their lives.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a chore. I enjoy doing this. A lot. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.

As I write this, I’m in rehearsals for my play IN THE FOREST, SHE GREW FANGS, which has two teen girls at the center—one who is the quintessential bullied high schooler, the other who faces more insidious slut shaming. The most emotionally brutal scenes—the ones where the bullying reaches a fever-pitch—were some of the most enjoyable to write. Partly because it’s always fun to write villains. And also because I knew it would just feed the ending, and that these two girls would eventually have their say.

But at the same time, I have to make sure all of it is dramaturgically necessary, that we’re not showing the sexualization of a teenager on stage to titillate the audience, but to make a visceral point about the casual abuse teenagers, especially teen girls, can face.

The same inner dramaturg will be on the job as I continue work on a play for Pinky Swear Productions—a company devoted to creating new opportunities for female artists, of which I’m an associate member. The play centers around a dying burlesque house and features a number of live burlesque performances. That means I’ll be asking actors (mostly female, but at least one male) to get very vulnerable onstage and that I need to have a better reason than “burlesque is sexy and fun.” Except for the times when—as the women in Pinky Swear have assured me—that’s a perfectly acceptable reason.

Maybe I overthink gender dynamics in my work, though hopefully not so much that it impedes that initial creative process. But I’d much prefer to overthink than underthink, or not think about it at all. I don’t want to be blind to the incredibly varied ways—textually and subtextually—that gender can impact a story and an audience’s relationship with it. That kind of willful blindness leads to terrible mistakes I’d prefer to leave on the page.


Stephen Spotswood is a DC-based playwright, photographer and journalist. He received his MFA in Playwriting from Catholic University in 2009 and is currently a lecturer there. Produced works include: In The Forest, She Grew Fangs (Washington Rogues); We Tiresias (Best Drama, Capital Fringe Festival 2012); When the Stars Go Out (Bright Alchemy Theatre); Sisters of Ellery Hollow; The Resurrectionist King (Active Cultures Theatre); Off A Broken Road (Imagination Stage); and A Cre@tion Story for Naomi (Bright Alchemy). He is a member of the Forum Theatre artist ensemble and an artistic associate with Pinky Swear Productions. You can follow him on Twitter at @playwrightsteve and learn more about his upcoming projects at playwrightsteve.com.

  • theatresmart

    Fascinating post. Thank you!

  • Amanda Zeitler

    I really appreciate the comments that you make here about making sure you write true to the female character and the female experience. And I’ll hop on that bandwagon of women who, after seeing “Fangs” thinks you do so successfully. And I think it’s great that you make this awesome decision not to write theatre in a vacuum (as a woman – I really appreciate it). But I also don’t think gender politics and workings are things that need to be overthought – I think there are times where you can write a “mans” story and change the pronouns. I don’t mean to belittle the story of women or say that all human experience is the same – it most certainly isn’t. But I guess that’s the point. No human story is the same or universal. Women’s stories vary WIDELY from each other – we are not one universal entity with the same opinion and background and beliefs and life style. I don’t think its possible to pin down one sort of kind of stories as belonging to specific gender – especially since we live in a world where definitions and expectations of gender are changing and challenged on a daily basis. I think all writers should push themselves to write outside of that “what you know” bs – because lets face it, the majority of published and produced writer are white men who “write what they know” and therefore end up writing about the problems of white men. So I guess my point is, props to you. Don’t stress too much.