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
The 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 after
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 like that?
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
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 we're ready!
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
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
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 vote.)
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
In that context, I would like to report that
this year, in New York, the following plays were produced:
Circle Mirror Transformation, by Annie
Or, by Liz Duffy Adams
This, by Melissa James Gibson
The Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl
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 model.
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 from."
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 story."
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
Thank you very much.