For female playwrights, the discouraging statistics are everywhere. The Guardian (no not that Guardian, the one in London) reports that in England, only 17 percent of produced plays are by women. In the U.S., playwright Theresa Rebeck paints an even more dismal picture: For decades, the share of plays produced by women has hovered between 12 percent to 17 percent.
Enter 3Girls Theatre, whose motto is "putting women's work on stage where it belongs." This brand new theater company begins its inaugural season this week with a monthlong festival at the Thick House. Events include readings and productions by eight playwrights, a talk with Claire Chafee, an art exhibition, and a playwrights forum.
We talked with co-founders Suze Allen, AJ Baker, and Lee Brady about their decision to form a theater company, the struggles that female playwrights face, and some of the work we can expect to see in the Celebration of Women's History Month, which includes plays by the co-founders -- a.k.a. "resident playwrights" -- themselves.
What's it like out there for a female playwright?
AJ Baker: When we first started talking about what would make us different, one of the things that really spurred us on was this statistic that at the beginning of the 21st century, the percentage of plays written by women being produced in the mainstream American theater was only about 12 percent. Twelve percent! That's the same percentage as 100 years ago.
Why is it so hard for women to get produced?
Lee Brady: Since the Greeks, we've been accustomed to the dramatic structure that males have set up. People just intuitively recognize men's work as "drama." Even the description we use for plays -- "getting it up" -- that's such a male thing.
Suze Allen: I've had men say to me of my work, "That's not theater." I was so baffled by that because it's not that it was so avant-garde. That has hung with me -- that someone can say, "That's not a play."
AJB: Our cultural way of thinking about what should constitute drama has really been molded by men's perspectives.
Is that changing?
LB: It is. However, we're not young. So that's another reason to form a company. It's not just because we're girls; it's because we're older girls. The field has changed, but it's not going to change for us unless we become the fighters.
Tell us about the mission of 3Girls.
AJB: We're obviously all feminists; that's not even an issue. What we're trying to avoid is an exclusively political agenda -- other than we are looking to do compelling new works by women. There is just not enough opportunity for women -- particularly "girls" of a certain age -- to get their voices heard. For us to do a play, it doesn't have to be about "women's issues." It doesn't have to be political. It doesn't have to be labeled as feminist. It just has to be written by a woman.
For your festival, you three as well as your five associate playwrights are each doing a reading or a production. Can you tell us about some of the work that we'll see?
AJB: My play is called The Right Thing, and it's about a woman former CEO who's just been fired on allegations of sexual harassment. It takes place in a mediation that lasts from 8:45 a.m. 'til midnight. You see all the machinations and negotiations, corporate backstabbing, and sexual shenanigans -- I'm a lawyer myself, and I've seen lots of times what happens when people lose themselves grasping for the gold ring. Catherine Castellanos brings to the starring role so much depth. The play is not about a legal proceeding; it is about the journey this woman makes figuring out who she is, and who she has become.
SA: My play, Saving Andrea, was inspired by a newspaper article about Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children. The blurb said that on the day she was up for retrial, going from guilty to innocent by reason of insanity, her ex-husband got remarried. I was just trying to understand what it must be like for a person who needed medication and wasn't on it and just did this horrific act, and then gets put on this medication where she has clarity, so that now she has to live with what she did. And I just can't let go of Andrea, so I'll be reading her myself.
LB: Mine, What About Ben?, is not an especially new play. But we're now adding songs to it, which makes it a whole different thing. It's about a folk singer older woman who's from Oklahoma, who went through a bad time, then gets to Berkeley and marries an architect who builds her a lovely home in the Berkeley hills where she can write her songs. Thirty years they were married, until he dies. After that she takes up with a tree-trimming, guitar-playing young man half her age, and the whole question is whether she stays in the house that Ben built. All her Berkeley neighbors say, "What about Ben? How can you bring that guy into the house that Ben built?" But Ben is dead, and José is really sexy.
What's on the horizon for 3Girls?
AJB: We're also looking to create a community of Bay Area women writers. That's one of the reason why we have this associate playwright program. Our commitment to the associate playwrights is that we'll put on at least one reading for them a year. The other thing we're doing is our 3Girls Theatre Lab. We're hoping that will be a generative area where we'll meet other Bay Area playwrights. It'll basically be a class, a working group, with Suze as dramaturge/instructor.
SA: We also have an education program for young girls.
AJB: Go Girl! Theatre is our education program that we're just getting started for teenage girls to take them through the play creation process. And starting in 2013 we're going to do a national playwriting contest for women. So we'll also be looking for writers beyond the Bay Area.
The Right Thing opens 3Girls' inaugural theater festival Friday at 8 p.m. (and continues through April 1) at the Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), S.F.