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A Response to the XX PlayLab at Company One

I had the pleasure of attending one of the events in Company One’s XX PlayLab series last week. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Company One describes the XX PlayLab as “a collaborative program of the Boston Center for the Arts and Company One Theatre, designed to propel the work of female playwrights from development to production.” Each year, the company chooses a piece from each of three female playwrights to develop. The first couple events are staged readings, and the final event is a festival in which the pieces are produced/staged, with the playwrights working with actors, directors, dramaturgs, and designers. I find this program incredibly commendable, and especially relevant considering the recent buzz about the lack of female playwrights being recognized and produced (#DCSummit).

This year, the three artists in the program are: Natsu Onoda Power, who wrote Astro Boy and the God of Comics, which will be fully produced by Company One this coming July; Miranda Craigwell, the writer of Shelter; and Obehi Janice, who turned her solo character work into a scripted play called Fufu and Oreos. The subtitle of this week’s event was “New Forms,” which calls attention to the ways in which these playwrights are challenging the boundaries of the traditional play structure. The event features segments of each play that showcased particularly how these boundaries were being challenged. The segment from Astro Boy was structured like a staged radio play, the scene from Shelter featured a long-form song that underscored and was interspersed with dialogue, and Janice’s one-woman performance wove together the character work she had done of real people from her own life. These three segments were followed by a talkback – led by Company One’s Director of New Work Ilana Brownstein – in which the audience could respond to what they witnessed in the pieces. The discussion was less centered around feedback, as often happens with new work, and more around the reactions to the plays and questions for the playwrights and their creative teams.

I always have mixed feelings about events/opportunities for women that specifically call attention to the fact that the participants are women. This is not in any way to undermine the extreme excellence and relevance of the programs themselves; they provide amazing developmental support and exposure for playwrights who have to grapple with an implicit bias in their field. These events are set up to combat that bias, and I am very, very glad that they exist. I guess I just wish they didn’t have to. I felt this way when I heard about the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in DC, for which “forty-four Washington theater companies…will produce a world-premiere play by a female dramatist in the fall of 2015, one of the more audacious and ambitious responses by an American city to the gender gap in high-profile jobs in the arts” (Washington Post). On the one hand, I was ecstatic that real steps were being taken to produce (not just develop but PRODUCE!) work by female playwrights. On the other hand, I was wary that for many theaters their piece of the festival would be their “woman play” for that year, and that these playwrights would be recognized as “good female playwrights” and not just “good playwrights.” I fear that work by women will become tokenized or put into its own category as “female theatre.” The danger there is that it implies anything non-female is default, and we as a society remain stuck in the notion that work by men is “theatre” and work by women is a subcategory of theatre.

My greatest hope is that these events do what they were intended to do: increase exposure of female artists so that artistic directors and producers can have an increased awareness of their existence and the quality of their work. Women are prolific and they are good. There is not a dearth of female playwrights, just a dearth of productions of their work. People who consider themselves theatre professionals should be able name ten female playwrights off the top of their head and still have more in reserve. Thanks to Company One, I now know of three more, and I am stoked to see their work come June.

In particular, I want to share a small conversation I had with Obehi Janice after the show. When she spoke about her process of creating her piece, she mentioned that she didn’t see any young Nigerian girls onstage that she could relate to, and rather than wait for someone else to write that for her, she decided to do it herself. She also noted that her family was excited that she was telling their stories and adding their personal experiences to the communal experience. This inspires me, and is the biggest reason why I consider myself an advocate for more new play development and production. Theatre exercises our capacity for empathy, and it also often shows us that we are not alone. I’ve wept at plays that showed me characters who were sharing thoughts and experiences that I thought only I had ever had and considered myself crazy because of it. We as a society owe it to ourselves to produce the work of many different kinds of people so that we add a wider variety of stories to our collective consciousness. For me, this story came from a woman, and if we exclude female voices from the American theatre scene, we won’t have their stories to add to our concept of our identity. Again, this is why I am extremely grateful for programs like the XX PlayLab that seek to support and develop the work of women specifically, and why I hope we won’t have a need for those programs in the (hopefully near) future.

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