Here's how it works... Remember the old playground game called Red Rover? Two lines of kids facing each other, and one team calls out, "Red Rover, Red Rover, send so-and-so right over!" and then the kid whose name was called starts running toward that line, while the kids all link arms and try to keep her from breaking through.
Now... here's the part that's pertinent: If the kid breaks through, she gets to take one of the two people who let her break through back to her home team. But, if she cannot break through, she must join the enemy team. To put it in corporate terms, the loser must assimilate.
In the world of top-tier commercial theatre, they don't exactly call us over by name. These days they do make a pretty big show about "Where are the women?" So we come a-running, manuscripts under our arms. If we can't break through, we are supposed to line up with their values, even against our own interests. Yes, and some of us do.
These women who have gone over to the big-boy team may seem like good strategic points to try to break through. But, they are not. They understand that, if they are the reason another woman breaks through, they will have to leave the big-boy team and return with the winner back to the women's team. And we all know the women's team does not own any commercial theatres. They are far more motivated to keep us out than their brothers on the line.
Well... Red Rover is an analogy for a dynamic that has frustrated women playwrights for centuries. What is really at stake, of course, is power. And having a voice is having power. And women's voices, when we really tell the truth about our lives, cannot be assimilated with the voices of those who are benefiting from the systems that oppress and exploit us. That's what this is all about, really. It's not about men who don't like women, although that's part of it, of course. It's not about women not being good enough. It's about whose story is going to be heard.
So, okay, whose stories are heard? Let's look at four examples that are on issues that are central in the lives of women and critical in defining our experience and shaping our personalities: rape, sexual harassment, assault, systemic child sexual abuse, and its subset, incest.
When these stories get told in the commercial theatres, and they do occasionally get told... who does the telling? Whose point of view, whose issues are represented?
Let's take a look:
One of the first plays that was focused on rape was Extremities, and it actually opened with an onstage, attempted, violent rape. The choreography was usually out-of-hand. Audience members would catch blobs of flying oatmeal, and, as Wikipedia notes, "it wasn't uncommon to see the lead actress with bandaged and splinted fingers during the run of the play." Real bandages and real splints, people. Actor, not character, assaulted. Susan Sarandon left the cast, if memory serves me, on the advice of her therapist. Farrah Fawcett had an actual stalker disrupt one of her performances to ask if she had been receiving his letters and photos. So this, one of the very first plays focused on rape victims, opens with a scene that is guaranteed to traumatize the audience, if not physically and emotionally brutalize the leading lady.
And the subject matter? The would-be victim manages to overpower the rapist and tie him up. Her housemates come home and the subject becomes, "Whatever will we do with him?" Because, of course, we all know rapists rarely are convicted, and even if they are, they may or may not be sentenced to prison. Should the women kill him?
In other words, the focus is on the rapist. The question of the play is, "What would women do to rapists if they were ever in a position to exact revenge?" Now, I know hundreds of survivors of rape. So does everyone, because it's one-in-three women. And I have sat in on thousands of conversations on the subject, and never, ever ONCE has it been, "Gosh, what will I do if I ever catch one?" It's simply not our issue.
The conversations go like this: "How can I leave the house?" or "How can I support myself while I'm trying to work through the PTSD?" or "How can I keep from losing my partner when I have so many traumatic associations with intimacy?" or "How can we make sure this never happens again?" or "How can I help my daughter/lover/sister/neighbor/roommate... myself?" These are the issues for women.
The rape play that went to Broadway was voyeuristic for perps and restimulating for trauma survivors, and obsessed with a question that only a rapist would find compelling.
Well...okay... but how about sexual harassment? And, yes, it's a real problem. These stats are from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:
- 31% of the female workers claimed to have been harassed at work
- 62% of targets took no action
- 100% of women claimed the harasser was a man
So, the sexual harassment play to go to Broadway? Oleanna. It's about sexual harassment on college campuses.
Okay... but I'm talking about the mainstream Broadway treatment of an issue that is huge for women. In the play, it turns out that the professor is a well-intentioned victim of a confused female student who has been manipulated by those evil, man-hating, paranoid bitches (read "dykes") over in Women's Studies.
Wow. And whose story is that?
Okay... next example. Let's take something that is irrefutable, documented, topical, and epidemic... the priest abuse cases. Of which there are tens of thousands globally.
The play that went to Broadway was Doubt. Yep, you heard that right. Doubt. And, again, there is an evil, man-hating, spinsterish woman-- this time a nun. And of course, the priest is progressive and much-loved. Yeah, so you know who you're supposed to be rooting for. He ends up, in spite of a history of "doubtful interactions with children," with a promotion, and she ends up... doubting. Now, some have said that the play plants seeds of doubt, but I doubt that. Read the reviews. It frames a global horror as a situation fraught with gendered ambiguity. Not.
And how about incest? Well, there was How I Learned to Drive, which went to Off-Broadway. This play is by a woman, and represents a very accurate depiction of sexual abuse by a skillfully seductive, adult family member, who preys on the insecurities of his victim. The playwright depicts, with accuracy, the confusion of a teen victim who is unclear about her role in the perpetration. Her protecting of the memory (play is told in flashback), her occasional role as the aggressor, her sentimentalizing of her relationship to her uncle/perpetrator... these are all very real dynamics that can be present for the victim of incest. AND this confusion, this sentimentalizing, this ambivalence is actually part of the post-rape syndrome. The play does not frame it that way. Audiences and reviewers go away with comments like, "Incest is a complicated issue; there's no black-and-white" and "it's a two-way street." If you don't believe me, read them online.
And who benefits from that?
This is what is at stake in the Red Rover game for women trying to break into commercial theatre. Whose voice will be heard?
And you know what? The most important, the most dangerous, the most competitive, and the most successful strategy we can engage is to arrange our lives and our careers so that, first and foremost, we can hear ourselves.