A Thousand Voices
By Theresa Rebeck
[Theresa Rebeck is the author of sixteen
of plays, including The Understudy, which was produced
by The Roundabout Theater in New York in 2009. She has also written
extensively for film and television. Her second novel, Twelve
Rooms With A View, will be published in May 2010 by Shaye
Areheart Books. This year she was the invited speaker at the annual
ART/NY Curtain Call presentation at the Laura Pels Theater, on
March 15, 2010. The following is the text of her speech.]
Because I am someone who believes in the power of storytelling,
I am going to tell you a story. It is the story of a play, and
the story of things that happened to me, because of that play.
The play is called The Butterfly Collection.
I wrote it in 1999. It is about a family of artists, and the tensions
that rise between the father, who is a successful novelist, and
his two sons, one of whom is a struggling actor, and the other
who is an antiques dealer. Tim Sanford at Playwrights Horizons
fell in love with this play and said he would produce it in the
fall of 2000, and he talked to the guys who run South Coast Rep
and they read it and included it in the new play festival that
spring, so that we had a chance to work on it out there. The workshop
was great, and we were the hit of the festival. When the play
came to New York the following fall, we had a thrilling cast--Marian
Seldes and Brian Murray, in their first production together, Reed
Birney, Betsey Aidem, and the young Maggie Lacy in her New York
stage debut. Bartlett Sher directed, and there was enormous excitement
gathering around the production. A lot of commercial producers
came, as people felt that it could potentially move. Nine regional
theaters were circling to produce it. American Theatre
magazine called my agent to ask for the script because they were
interested in publishing it (in one of those cool inserts -- I
was very excited I've always wanted one of those). Audiences were
thrilled with the play. Lincoln Center Library for the Performing
Arts was filming it for their collection.
When the New York Times published
its review it was not what anyone expected. The reviewer, who
shall remain nameless, dismissed the play--which was about art
and family--as a feminist diatribe. He accused me of having a
thinly veiled man-hating agenda, and in a truly bizarre paragraph
at the end of the review, he expressed sympathy with the director
because he had to work with someone as hideous as me.
review was horrible and personal and projected all sorts of terrible
things onto me. I was shocked, a lot of people were shocked. And
there was real outcry in the community. A lot of letters were
written to the Times--someone told me it was sixty letters,
and I don't know how anyone would know that but it made me feel
better, even though none of them were published. Apologies were
made behind the scenes, none to me but to other people. The heroic
Tina Howe went to the Dramatists Guild council and read the review
aloud and insisted something be done about this; she and a lot
of other people made the excellent point that if anyone at the
Times had ever dared to publish a review as racist or
homophobic or anti-Semitic as this review was, in its bigotry--well,
the review would never have been published. So there was a flurry
of upset. But with a review that bad, the play closed. All the
other productions went away. American Theater magazine
went away. Everybody knew that that was a crazy mysogynistic review.
But no one would produce the play. Ever again. And you should
know that many people consider it my best play. Still.
This is what happened to me in the months
People couldn't get over it. For about
a year and a half, I had people come up to me at least once a
week and this is what the conversation would be:
NICE PERSON: Hi Theresa,
how are you? I saw The Butterfly Collection! Wow it was so beautiful!
What a great evening of theater!
THERESA: Thank you.
NICE PERSON: That review
was crazy! So mysogynistic! Wow, how could he write something
And then this nice person would go on and
on and on about that crazy mysogynistic review, so I got to live
through it all over again.
I cannot tell you how many of these conversations
I had. Maybe 200. Then one day I did a joint interview with the
great Chuck Mee, and after the interview was over, and the reporter
had left, Chuck said to me, "I saw The Butterfly Collection.
It was really beautiful." And I said, "Thank you." And then I
waited, for the rest of the conversation, about that crazy review,
and Chuck didn't say it. All he said was, "that play was beautiful,"
and for a minute, I had my play back.
The other person who repeatedly and heroically
gave me my play back was the wonderful actress Lynn Cohen, who
was really angry about what happened and who would speak to me
with such courage and compassion about it that even though I didn't
want to really talk about it, she always made me feel better.
This is another thing that happened: A
whole lot of people decided I should change my identity. This
is the conversation I had with other well-meaning people:
NICE PERSON: You know,
Theresa, everybody knows that your work is terrific but the
New York critics don't like you personally.
THERESA: How can they
not like me personally? They don't know me!
NICE PERSON: Hey! We
love you. But you know what you should do? You should produce
your plays under a male pseudonym.
THERESA: You mean, I
should pretend to be a man?
NICE PERSON: That's
right. That's the only way they will accept you. Or the plays!
They would like your plays, if only you hadn't written them!
Okay I know that sounds crazy but I swear
I had that conversation at least a dozen times. Arthur Kopit,
who really is great and I love him, thought this was a hilarious
idea and he had a lot of fun figuring out for me how I would pull
that off, becoming a man. We never went as far as surgery but
there were lots of other clever ideas about what I might do to
trick people into thinking I was a man, which is what I needed
to do, to make my identity acceptable.
This is another thing that happened to
me: one of my friends who was a producer in New York told me that
this was all a sign, that I was being told by the Times
that I am not welcome in New York and I should think of something
else to do with my life.
This is another thing that happened: A
close friend of mine who is a theater director started screaming
at me in restaurants and he told me I wasn't an artist.
This is another thing that happened to
me: my agent said, you know, Theresa, how you've always wanted
to write a novel? Maybe you should do that. Which is not necessarily
bad advice, but it's also not particularly advice you want to
hear from your THEATRE AGENT. He also told me that my next two
plays, Omnium Gatherum and Bad Dates, were unproduceable
and that he couldn't represent them.
And, I couldn't get produced. He was right
about that. No one wanted to touch The Butterfly Collection
and no one wanted to touch me. And then I fell off of the map.
I got really depressed because of all this, as you might imagine,
and I couldn't think anymore, and I was spending way too much
time lying on the couch all day, and I was drinking white wine
a lot, in one-inch increments. I would lie on the couch and tell
myself I wasn't turning into an alcoholic because I was only drinking
white wine one inch at a time. And then one day my son, who was
five years old at the time, came up to me and said, "Mom, are
you all right?" And I looked at him and I thought: GET UP. It
is your job to take care of this kid and it's not his job to take
care of you and you are not going to turn into this person. So
I got off the couch.
And then a bunch of other things happened
that were equally or more hideous. It's not like getting off the
couch solved everything. I did start writing a novel, although
that's a whole different story. But I really was off the grid,
for two years, and then one day I went to see my friend Sinan
Unil's play up at the Long Wharf, and I caught a ride back to
the city with John Eisner, and we talked for three hours and he
said, "you should come up to the Lark." And then the next day
Arthur Kopit called and told me as well, "you should come up to
the Lark." And the Lark saved me. They saved my sanity and they
saved my career and I thank them for everything they did for me,
and what they do for a lot of playwrights. There is no organization,
in my mind, that does more.
And that is the last time I am telling
that story. I am never telling that story again. But I tell it
today because I don't want to hear from anybody that there isn't,
or hasn't been, a real gender problem in the American theater.
I really did think about what I might talk to you about today
and I had no choice, honestly. I felt like my whole career as
a playwright has been so hyper-defined by my gender--sometimes
I feel like it is strangely blinding, even. And it's time for
all of us to look at this, and talk about it--without just saying,
"oh there's not really a problem" because there IS a problem--and
then start talking about what we, as a community, are going to
do to solve it.
This is an important point to realize:
before I came to New York and started working in the theater,
I was never told that being a girl was going to be a problem for
me in any way that I took seriously. It's not like I was a stranger
to conservatism. I know a lot about the Republican party and the
Catholic church because I was raised, basically, in both. Both
my parents were staunch Ohio Republican Catholics until a point
when my mother got a clue and switched parties. Now she's a Democrat
and my father is still a Republican, and since then they've done
nothing but fight incessantly about politics. My
father, who is as I said both Republican and Catholic, thinks
I'm insane BUT there was a moment in my childhood when some of
his buddies got into ribbing him about having so many daughters.
He had four daughters and two sons, and someone apparently even
expressed pity one day, the story goes; one of his golfing buddies
said something like, "Poor George, what is he going to do with
all those girls?" And it pissed him off, and he came home and
said to my Democratic mother, "Those girls can do anything the
boys can do." And that is what the expectation was in my house.
Then I went to an all-girls Catholic high school where the nuns
were all quietly radical liberation theologists who were secretly
agitating for women's ordination. Then I went to Notre Dame, which
was more traditionally conservative, but I couldn't take it too
seriously because they had things like panty raids there. I thought
it was just too dumb to be believed. And then I went to Brandeis,
where I read a lot of feminist literary theory and considered
questions like, "Is the Gaze Male?" This was in the EIGHTIES;
that's more than 25 years ago, for people who are counting. And
at the time there were fantastic plays being produced all over
the country by Wendy Wasserstein and Tina Howe and Marsha Norman
and Emily Mann, and I thought it was a cool thing, to be a woman
playwright. I thought, I'm not in the Catholic church anymore,
and the world is saying we haven't heard from the women, and now
And then I began my career as a professional
playwright, where I was told that since I'm a woman, if I write
about women, that meant I had a feminist agenda and that's BAD.
I also got told that when I write about men, since I'm a woman,
I clearly have a feminist agenda, and that's bad too. I couldn't
write about anything without hearing that I had a feminist agenda.
It turned out that being a woman playwright was just in itself
suspect; if you were a woman playwright by definition you had
a feminist agenda, which was so bad, it annihilated the work itself.
The other word for woman playwright might as well be "witch."
As an aside let me add that I would rather
be called a witch than a man-hater. Honestly, "man hater" really
does need to be simply OFF THE TABLE. It bugs the shit out of
me. I have a husband and a son and a lot of men in my life whom
I love a lot and it's creepy that people would toss that ugly
accusation at anyone in the jovial spirit of name-calling. Someone
actually called me that at a party a couple of weeks ago and I
wanted to hit him. BUT I DIDN'T. Anyway, if you need to call me
a name, "witch"--the preferred insult would be "witch," or "madwoman
in the attic" is also acceptable.
So those are some of the ways I know there
actually is a gender problem in the American theater. This is
another way: because so many people--not just Arthur Kopit--have
told me, over the years, that in order to have a career that is
commensurate with my talent, I should pretend to be a man. This
is another way I know there is a problem: because the extraordinary
Julia Jordan ran the numbers for us.
Two years ago, in what I think was an act
of inspired intelligence and courage, Julia Jordan conducted a
series of town hall meetings at New Dramatists, which put the
question of gender parity on the table for the American theater
to discuss. She invited women playwrights to come and present
their situation and they showed up in droves. Then she invited
artistic directors and literary managers to come and confront
the situation with us. And this is the situation: plays written
by women are not being produced. In 2007, the one year I opened
a play on Broadway, I was the only woman playwright who did so.
That year, nationwide, 12 per cent of the new plays produced all
over the country were by women. That means 88 percent of the new
plays produced were written by men. (Back in 1908 before women
had the right to vote, the percentage of new plays in New York,
written by women, was higher. It was higher before we had the
Generally, over the last 25 years the number
of plays produced that were written by women seems to have vacillated
between 12 and 17 percent.
This is a disastrous statistic, and it
is related to another disastrous statistic, which is the number
of women writers and directors in Hollywood. This year 6 percent
of films were directed by women, and 8 percent of produced screenplays
were written or co-written by women. That means 88 percent of
all plays were written by men, 94 percent of all movies were directed
by men, and 92 percent of all movies were written by men.
Women playwrights like myself have a lot
of anecdotal evidence to support some pretty coherent theories
about why this is the case. People in the power structure seem
more mystified and often they don't seem sure that there is a
problem. (One of them actually said to me, not too long ago, "But
Theresa, where ARE the women playwrights?" Seriously, he looked
me in the face and said that.) Several artistic directors have
expressed concern at the idea of "quotas." They really don't like
the word "quota." I don't like that word either. Other words I
don't like are "discrimination," and "censorship," and I wish
I could get them to dislike those words as much as they dislike
"quotas." "Boys club" is another couple of words I could very
well live without. But since there is so much murky territory
in language, I think this discussion of numbers is very useful.
Here is what the numbers say to me: if
we lived in an ideal world, the balance of new plays produced
in theaters all over America would come out to, roughly, 50:50.
The Dramatists Guild--of which I am a proud member, I serve on
the council and it's a great organization, everyone who is a playwright
should belong, here's a shout-out to Gary Garrison and Ralph Sevush,
you are excellent, and so is Stephen Schwartz, our excellent president.
Anyway, the Dramatist Guild tracks the percentages of women and
men who enter graduate school as playwriting students, and it
also tracks the numbers of people who apply for membership, and
those numbers either stick to the 50:50 ratio OR there is a higher
number of women. So in the ideal world, those women and men who
are over the years developing their craft as playwrights should
rise though the system at an even rate. This is not what is happening.
Women are being shut out, at different levels of development and
production, and you end up with this crazy 17 percent number,
which seems to be the highest percentage we can get to, year in
and year out. Seventeen percent of fifty percent is thirty four
percent of a hundred percent. (Bear with me, I'm not making this
up, I'm actually pretty good at math.) That means that sixty-six
percent of the best plays by women--the plays that SHOULD be rising
to the top, the plays that in a fair world would move into the
culture as the stories we are telling ourselves--sixty six percent
of women's stories are being lost. Every year.
And I have to reiterate: the premise of
those numbers is that playwriting is NOT in fact a gene on a Y
chromosome, and we are NOT losing women playwrights because they
decided to run off and have babies. The reason we lost all those
women playwrights is: we buried their work, and we sent them away.
I would also like to note that in January
a lot of reports came out about the recent study of the American
Council on Education, which informed us that last year women earned
more than half the degrees granted in every category--associate,
bachelors, masters, doctoral and professional. The actual numbers
nationwide stand at 57 percent women, and 43 percent men, and
they have stood somewhere in that vicinity since the year 2000.
USA Today asks, is this "cause for celebration, or concern?"
When I read all these accounts, I thought:
43 percent, wow, women playwrights would be so happy if our numbers
got up to 43 percent. We would be throwing parties. But the people
who do the studies and write these reports up are in fact WORRIED
that it's not fair to the boys that they only have 43 percent
of the slots in the college population. This is a bad thing, we
are told, for a lot of reasons, chief among them that smart girls
won't have enough men to date. (That is how the New York Times
reported the story.) A lot of colleges have admitted that just
as they might consider race or geographical diversity in building
freshman classes, they similarly look for gender parity, which
means they are letting boys in over more qualified girls--which
does look like affirmative action, or shall we say "quotas," which
apparently are okay when they favor boys.
So women playwrights live in a world where
we are told it is a bad thing if women are 57 percent of the undergraduate
population, because that's too big an imbalance, but it's an okay
thing if women are only getting 17 percent or 6 percent or 9 percent
of the best jobs in show business (and elsewhere, in America),
and if we tried to rectify that it would be unfair because it
would involve "quotas."
Now let me tell you something: a lot of
people will think that what I just pointed out was a "feminist"
statement. But I don't actually see it that way. I see these contradictions
as just kind of comical and even, well, stupid. As an indication
that there is just something truly, systemically unfair going
on here. That's not a feminist agenda. That's the truth.
I never had an agenda. I just wanted to
write plays that told the truth. Some of those plays told the
truth about what it is like to live on this planet as a woman.
Why would that be off the table? Why would that story be something
that they only do in fiction, or on cable TV? Why can't we do
that in the theater? I just don't think that we theater people
want to align ourselves with the backward-looking institutions
of culture. We want to see ourselves, I think, as a relevant and
intellectually rigorous and culturally progressive community.
It's past time to acknowledge the fact that that means welcoming
the voices of women into the cultural discussion.
There are a lot of ways to do this. Primarily,
I think, we need to encourage theaters and producers and foundations
and boards of directors to extend to women playwrights the kind
of excellent programs which have been put in place to encourage
the work of minority playwrights. All across America, and here
in New York, there has been strong and necessary support for these
voices, and wonderful writers have emerged because of that support.
I have been told so many times over the years that theaters and
foundations are interested in "diversity" but that doesn't mean
women. That needs to change. We need to stop discussing why the
numbers are so bad, and stop asking where are the women playwrights,
and we need to start recognizing them where they are--which is
right in front of us--and hold them up and celebrate their voices,
and produce their plays.
In that context, I would like to report
that this year, in New York, the following plays were produced:
Circle Mirror Transformation,
by Annie Baker
Or, by Liz Duffy Adams
This, by Melissa James Gibson
The Vibrator Play, by Sarah
The Understudy, by me
Smudge, by Rachel Axler
Happy Now, by Lucinda Coxon
All of these plays have received wide critical
recognition; most of them were extended and all of them played
to packed houses. In short, there were a lot of plays by women
in New York this year, and they were not only fierce and dazzling
and interesting: they also made a lot of money. Tim Sanford, over
at Playwrights Horizons, who has long been an unacknowledged champion
of women's plays, is having a truly sensational season, in a worried,
recessionary economy. He deserves it. Julia Crosby over there
at The Women's Project is also having a sensational season, and
she and they deserve it too.
Which brings us finally to another couple
of statistics which I think are worth noting: women buy more tickets.
They buy 55 percent of movie tickets and anywhere from sixty to
SIXTY FIVE percent of theater tickets. So opening our stages and
our hearts and our minds to women playwrights is not only cool
and relevant and interesting and just--it is also a sound business
Sir David Hare recently made news by informing
the London Telegraph that "many of today's best plays
were being written by women, but that 'macho' theater managers
were failing to capitalize on the trend." That is a direct quote,
and here's another: "I don't think the repertory of most theaters
is reflecting what seems to be happening in terms of the most
interesting new theater. We would hope to see management in theater
reflecting where we think the creativity in playwriting is coming
A friend of mine was worried about me after
all that shit went down with The Butterfly Collection,
so she got me a session with an astrologer named Coral. So Coral
did my chart, which was apparently in very poor shape at the time,
like me. And she got very specific about the names of the stars
and the planets which were passing through my heavens, and apparently
there's a planet out there named Chiron. It's not actually a planet.
I think it's one of the moons of Jupiter, but Coral informed me
that Chiron is the wounded healer, and Chiron was just all over
my chart. Then, and now, I apparently have been claimed in every
way by Chiron, the wounded healer. And there is no question, I
am wounded. But I offer you all this information as a hope that
I might actually provide one of the healing voices in this discussion.
I really do believe that if enough people stand up and say "this
cannot go on," it will not go on. After a season like this one,
where so many plays in New York were by women, and were so relevant,
and important, and successful, both in what they achieved dramatically
and the way they drew in audiences, we will not go back.
There is a Native American saying, "It
takes a thousand voices to tell a single story." And Walter Cronkite
told us, "In seeking truth, you have to get both sides of the
It's time to hear both sides, to hear all
voices, to build a culture where stories are told by both men
and women. That is the way the planet is going to survive, and
it's the way we are going to survive.
Thank you very much.