Remembering We Exist

by Elaine Romero

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Remembering We Exist

(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 salonGender Parity in the American Theatre

I was going to write this piece using the universal “we,“ but Rachel Jendrzejewski just handed me my voice back. I think that’s what I was trying to do the day I asked women playwrights to start putting their names and the names of their colleagues on my wall.

I’m getting ahead of myself.  They say all good stories require an inciting incident. The particulars of this one would rob this story of its power. It’s never only about the one incident. Death by a thousand paper cuts. Women playwrights read season announcements. They know their work is underrepresented. They only need to stay in the game for a few years to experience a personal, inescapable relationship to gender parity.

Yes, I, Elaine Romero, invited women playwrights and their fans to post their names on my Facebook wall to count women’s heads. Liz Duffy Adams inscribed her name first. I loved that! Liz’s name told me more would follow. The names rolled in. Christine Evans turned it into a list overnight. Quickly, she and Rachel Jendrzejewski dove in with passion and hard work to enter the names in a Google spreadsheet, creating what Christine called “an evolving, open-source list in which anyone could add herself.” We all had deadlines, but those didn’t matter. We became obsessed with counting playwrights. We lost sleep. I remember the day Christine stayed up into the wee hours adding Australian playwrights. I did the same with Latina writers. Rachel input more than 700 names. We were grabbing them off of my wall and other walls, and copying and pasting emails from people around the country who knew of our effort to count heads. When we launched this list I said, “What has emerged is a Declaration of our Interdependence. We practice inclusivity. We celebrate abundance. We celebrate ourselves. We are Female and/or Trans* Playwrights and We Exist.”

Here’s how we got there. We started the list with trepidation. We did not want to succumb to the same system that did not recognize our presence in the first place. We asked each other the hard questions. We questioned each other aloud because I imagine we were afraid we would miss the obvious if we questioned ourselves alone. I received a note in my inbox from a trans* man who asked to be on the list. The request meant so much to me. I wanted to make sure we saw it through. I asked Rachel and Christine if the conversation about “women playwrights” was forcing us into a gender binary construct. I wrote them, “There is so much being discussed about gender today and the spectrum of gender. I don’t want to be thrown behind the times because we are engaging with those who are. I know in my heart that gender is not only male and female. I know it down to my sinews. How do we take that understanding and still move this list forward?”

We thought and we suffered. We were in it together. We were sharing a brain, a woman playwright’s brain. Something felt funny. Rachel sensed it. What I love about Rachel is she caught the fire of the trans* playwright conversation and gave us language! Blessed language. We are playwrights after all. She wrote, “I attended a performance last night, featuring short works all by queer/trans* artists – and in the program, they had a glossary of all the different ways people identify with a note saying ‘please don’t use these terms to describe an individual without that individual’s direct permission’ …. which is making me rethink even the phrase ‘playwrights who identify as female.’ Because I don’t actually know or have that permission for many many people on the list.”

As much as we wanted to include anyone who identified as a woman, including transgender individuals, we did not want to make assumptions about who would want to be on the list and who would prefer not to be on it.  Gender felt tricky and slippery.  I said, “I one-hundred percent agree that we can’t say how people identify or claim anything about identification. So, here we are, we are looking this language shortage in the face and trying to find our place in the American theatre. We know that women’s voices may be born in any body.” That seemed right. We started asking individual trans men and trans women if they would like to be included.

We felt we were running against the clock. We wanted to get the list out and make it available to the public as soon as possible, yet it was worth the time to sort out how to practice inclusion because it was what was true. Rachel added, “Something else I learned from the performance is that the asterisk (which you often see after trans) came about as an effort to create a term that includes ALL non-cisgender gender identities, including transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, etc.’” We started thinking about trans* as a term that could move the list forward as a resource not only for women, but for people of all underrepresented gender identities in the field.

I said, “I think what we’re trying to capture is both the fluidity of gender and how there is a gender spectrum. We have to consider the thinking that created gender binary and created the chasm in gender parity in the first place. Language fails us in our search for equality.” Rachel said, “The * after the word trans is a signal of fluidity and the many possibilities of spectrum. I think by putting in that asterisk we are signalling our commitment to having more conversation about that fluidity.”

Christine added, “So… Yes. We know the gender binary is false and restrictive. We want to represent everyone who is shut out of the same opportunities as the nominal ‘Everyman’ (white male). The point is one of – as Alrhusser wrote – “interpellation” –  i.e., the way that the name you are GIVEN traps you by making you invisible if you DON’T answer to it. I think it is very important this list isn’t just for ‘women to feel good about themselves,’ as Melissa Hillman wrote, but also to have a clear and powerful tool to share with everyone.”

We worried about people who would not be on the list when it went live. Rachel assured us, “We can be very transparent about the fact that not all names are entered yet, we’re working on it, we hope others will help us work on it, it’s fluid and evolving, etc.” Rachel and Christine always made me feel confident that the imperfection of the list was one of the reasons it was important. We knew when we went live that anyone could destroy the list at any time with either an intentional or unintentional act of deletion. It meant so much to us to make it possible for a person to add herself to the list that we took that risk. We made a plan for regularly backing up the spreadsheet.

We work with words.  We write even though we know words only approximate meaning. We write plays because we are more interested in questions than in answers. The list was born out of passion. It buried us in questions. The initial list came in at 600 names. It has swelled to over 1300. We hope eventually all of these collected names will be entered into the National New Play Network’s phenomenal New Play Exchange, to be launched next year, which will make plays and playwrights searchable by various criteria, including gender identity. For now, after worrying so much about inclusion, I delight in the blank lines below the existing names. These lines wait patiently for the next name, the next generation, and the next possibility. The most beautiful element of the list is that it will never be complete. I loved the way it hijacked our lives. May we always have the ability to be hijacked when passion calls. This is the stuff that life is made of.

Click here to visit WE EXIST.

Click here for additional reading about WE EXIST on Christine Evans’ blog.

Award-winning playwright Elaine Romero has had her plays presented at the Alley Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Kennedy Center, across the U.S. and abroad. Recent commissions:  Goodman Theatre (Playwright Unit, A Work of Art), NNPN/Kitchen Dog Theater (Ponzi, Edgerton New American Play Award), InterAct Theatre Company. Publishers:  Samuel French, Playscripts, and Vintage Books.  Her U.S. at War trilogy includes Graveyard of Empires (Blue Ink Playwriting Award) and A Work of Art, which will premiere in Chicago next season, and the upcoming Rain of Ruin. Her Arizona/Mexican border trilogy includes Wetback and Mother of ExilesMother of Exiles was commissioned by and produced at Cornell University. Secret Things received its World Premiere with Camino Real Productions. Romero is writing a play for Ford’s TheatreShe is a New Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists. She holds her MFA from UC Davis.

  • Elana Gartner

    Thank you for this, Elaine! I have passed it on to the members of the International Centre for Women Playwrights who will, no doubt, add many more names!