With playwriting, as with much else, women began on unequal footing.
Historians say written theater probably began in the 6th century B.C. when the Greek author and actor, Thespis, created the first play that had an actor playing someone not himself.
As far as we know, it took more than fifteen hundred years – while numberless plays large and small, significant and trivial were written by men – before the first woman put pen to paper and created her own work.
She was Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim who was probably born in about 935 A.D. She was a canoness in a German convent. Her plays were in Latin, probably composed for other clioistered women, and they concerned either female characters being converted to Christianity by a pious man, or women becoming Christian martyrs during Roman times.
Times have changed. Although many theater professionals such as The Kilroys say the inequality between plays written by women and those by men remains appalling, the United States has seen twelve of the 84 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama go to female playwrights since 1918, when the awards began.
Subject matter has also changed. Playwright Sarah Ruhl was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010 for In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) about the early history of the vibrator, when doctors used the device to treat “hysteria” in women in the late 1800s.
Another Ruhl play, the award-winning Dead Man’s Cell Phone, will open at The Verona Studio in September. Female characters direct the action, there are more female actors (4 women, 2 men) and the story, according to Jenni Bertels who directs the production, could probably not have been written by a man.
“There are themes about having children and dying before their time,” she says, “communication or lack thereof between spouses, communication throughout the family, connections with others. Women grieve differently and communicate and connect differently than men. Sarah Ruhl captures it beautifully.”
Dead Man’s Cell Phone has been called an “oddball comedy” by The Washington Post and a “zany probe of the razor-thin line between life and death” by Variety. Bertels is excited by the story of a woman who launches into the lives of people she doesn’t know when she takes over the cell phone of a dead stranger she meets in a café, in part because it features such arresting female roles.
“Playwrights like Sarah Ruhl showcase really smart women, powerful women, and a type of female role that we haven’t seen in past decades,” Bertels says. “Male playwrights can only guess at what it’s like to be a woman, how our brains work, how our emotions work. There have been a handful of male playwrights that have successfully written iconic female characters, but they are few and far between.”
Dead Man’s Cell Phone is the latest production the Verona Studio has presented to be composed by a woman.
“So far, all Verona Studio stage managers have been female,” Bertels says, and “we proudly presented plays from outstanding female playwrights like Gail Louw, [who wrote the play Verona Studio presented in 2014,] Blonde Poison, and now Sarah Ruhl. Half of both of our seasons have had female directors, and showcased dynamic local actresses. The female talent we have had, both on and off stage, has been extraordinary.”
Ruhl is also admired by Susan Coromel, Professor of Theater at Willamette University. Coromel says the playwright creates “stories that put women in the drivers’ seat of the narrative.”
Like Bertels, Coromel, who directed Blonde Poison last year at The Verona Studio says she appreciates the theater’s “commitment to work on challenging plays that explore the human experience, and this upcoming season is no different. That’s the key I guess, a commitment to humanistic themes.”
Advocacy groups like The Kilroys and the National Theatre Conference support the work of female and trans playwrights, and object to the “systematic underrepresentation” of excellent plays written by women in American theater. They produce figures that show that 26 percent of works produced in Washington D.C in the 2013–14 season were authored by women; 20 percent of productions in L.A. from 2002 to 2010 were written or co-written by women, and in Chicago in 2009, 19 percent of productions were solely authored by a woman. Meanwhile, women buy between 63percent and 72percent of tickets for Broadway and touring shows, according to The Broadway League.
The division was certainly more marked in the 20th century, with women consigned to writing largely romantic comedies and morality plays. That’s why Bertels has a special admiration for Lorraine Hansberry, both Aftican-American and female, who wrote A Raisin in the Sun in 1957.
“She was a groundbreaker on all sorts of fronts,” Bertels says, “woman playwright, the first black woman to write a play on Broadway. And she explored themes in her plays that were way beyond her time, such as gender, racial and homosexual themes. And, she managed to do all of this before succumbing to cancer at the age of 34.”
Randall Tosh, on the board of The Verona Theater, has read numerous plays written by women. “My personal perception,” he says, “is that women playwrights bring additional depth in subject matter and experience to the stage. The main characters in Sarah Ruhl’s plays, for example, are women, and she has done things like retelling the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice from Eurydice’s perspective. At the same time, her plays are about much more than her female characters or the female experience, just as Tony Krushner’s “Angels in American” is about much more than the AIDs crisis.”
The Verona Studio team says it is excited to continue bringing the excellent work of women to Salem, both in the playwrights it produces and the roles it offers.
“In the theatre community,” Bertels says, “the biggest complaint that I’ve heard is that there aren’t enough really great female roles. Then, Sarah Ruhl comes along. She writes smart, funny, tragic, real women. This should be the norm!”
Dead Man’s Cell Phone
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jenni Bertels
Septeber 17th – October 3rd
Call (805) 657 7538
The Verona Studio
Reed Opera House
189 Liberty Street, NE Suite 215
Salem, OR 97301