We Hold Up Half the Sky

by Cynthia Burns Coogan

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for We Hold Up Half the Sky

(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.)


TCG Blog Salon
Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc
Gender Parity in the American Theatre

JACQUELINE LAWTON: Year after year, research shows that approximately 17% of all plays produced in the United States and the United Kingdom are written by women. We’re stuck at this number and it’s hard to comprehend. Last year, Forum Theatre convened a symposium to investigate the gender imbalance in theatre and posed this question: Is there a female dramaturgy (ie. a specific point of view that female writers bring to theatre)? If so, what does it look, sound and feel like? Who holds the agency for it?

CYNTHIA BURNS COOGAN: I will answer this question with an example from female dramaturgy. To this day I have never experienced anything more compelling to address this question than Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, a work of gender genius in showing just how differently men and women see and look and sound and feel and experience what is around them. In this play, men and women from the town come to the home where a murder has occurred. The men begin to search for evidence that the wife murdered her husband. While the men can find nothing, the women, left alone while the men search the house, see what is indeed right under their noses. They talk about how they noticed the life draining out of her over the years, her childlessness, the way she knotted rather than stitched her quilting. They are like magnets drawn to the emotional core of the story while the men march through the house looking for clues to jump out and bite them. The women’s emotional intelligence, their hyperalert powers of observation–critically sociologically attributed to minorities observing a dominant culture–give them an awareness the men are missing. Ultimately they hide the evidence and, in an act of early 20th Century sisterhood, help the woman to get away with murder. I never had more fun than when I directed this with an all-female cast of high school girls who had a field day with it. While there is no denying men have written women some fantastic roles through the ages, it is hard to imagine a man writing The Vagina Monologues or My Sister in This House or Painting Churches or The Women or the stage adaptation of I Feel Bad About My Neck. As artists and human beings we owe it to ourselves to at least explore if there is something in women’s writing of their own lives for the theatre today that might vault over that 17% and appeal to a significant portion of the audience who would open their hearts, their minds, and their wallets.

JL: 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?

CC: I have practiced dramaturgy and literary management in the DC area since about 1989. I am also a fledgling playwright. There are great champions of women playwrights here in our vibrant theatre community, from Keith Parker in the heyday of the Source New Play Festival, to Ari Roth and Howard Shalwitz today, to Studio producing Quiara Alegria Hudes and Charlayne Woodard this season and to Martin Blank of American Ensemble Theater, who chose me this year as playwright-in-residence to develop a piece celebrating the life of a pioneering American woman artist, Harriet Hosmer. Arena Stage has fostered women playwrights in lab and productions (you and Karen Zacarias more recently come to mind). Not to mention the amazing work of the women of Horizons Theatre, the longest established women’s theatre, especially Leslie Jacobson and Dorothy Neumann, in championing women’s voices and theatrical empowerment. Both continue to disseminate their wisdom and experience in academia, as do several other prominent women playwrights of DC (you, Ally Currin, Renee Calarco, Calleen Sinette Jennings). I am hopeful that leadership and advocacy for women playwrights will continue to be fostered and perpetuated. And that they will be produced!

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?

CC: I don’t know that we need gender based theaters, though I celebrate them, but we do need gender consciousness in decision-making. Look at an establishment like Steppenwolf: this year 4 of their 5 mainstage plays are written by women and 3 of the 5 are directed by women. Do you need a woman artistic director for this to happen? And does it happen wherever there is a woman at the helm? Certainly not. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in that season planning process! Chaucer’s Wife of Bath said, “If one woman told the story of her life/The Earth would split open.” I think sometimes our narratives and our truths are that alarming. I do believe we have ways of knowing and being and creating and experiencing that are different, and scientific research now shows how differently our brains develop along gender lines. Not that every woman wants to write “women’s stories.” Some, in true DC fashion, want to dress, walk and talk like a man. But there is authenticity and validity to the minority voice having its say. That being the case, I think there are those among us who innately empathize with and understand the experience of “the other.” That is why we make theatre—because we were made to forge connections and build bridges of human emotion, to “feel with.” That is our challenge and if we answer the call we can unite people with our work.

JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?

CC: First of all, I would simply look at the data. As Carolyn Heilbrunn concluded in Writing a Woman’s Life, “…we should make use of our security, our seniority, to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular.” Every new play development program from coast to coast, every institution planning a season, every small start-up jamming their work into a store-front, every MFA playwriting program, should ask themselves how are we representing the world around us? What stories do we want to tell to mediate the experiences out there beyond the fourth wall? What do Lynn Nottage and Eve Ensler know that we don’t know? They are fearless and they have said the unsayable.

JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?

CC: Because we hold up half the sky. And because from Hroswitha of Gandersheim to the deconstructed performance art of Lady Gaga, we may be on the edge of glory.

Cynthia Burns Coogan has worked in theatre, television and film and trained at the Alley Theatre, The Williamstown Theatre Festival, the British-American Drama Academy, and The Shakespeare Theatre. She worked at the Manhattan Theatre Club and for legendary theatrical impresario Alexander H. Cohen. She was Literary Associate at Arena Stage where she co-authored The Arena Adventure: The First Forty Years and was Resident Dramaturg at Theater J. She is currently Literary Manager and Playwright in Residence at American Ensemble Theater and has written The Parachute Bride, Ruined by Rome, and an adaptation of Robert Frost’s Home Burial.

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