Women are doing it by themselves. (Theatre that is.) Since they first took the English stage in 1629, women have been nothing short of authentic at playing themselves. We’ve come a long way from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where young boys recycled the small cadre of great female roles in the Canon. It seems only fitting that teen boys would squeeze into corsets under britches to play strong women the likes of Viola or Rosalind, needing to hide their sex to win the hearts of their true love.
In the same year that the Brits lifted the ban on women playing women, the Japanese banished women from the Kabuki stage. Thirteen years later, the Onnagata (female role) was completely stripped from the Kabuki repertory. But the all-male plays dealt with erotic homosexual themes and featured Wakashu (adolescent boy actors), which led back to an official ban and eventual return of both male and female roles, played only by males to this day.
Flash forward four centuries. Cross-dressing and sex changing are more prevalent than ever. Same sex marriage is legal in 32 out of 50 states. How then, is it possible that women represent only 24% of working theatre professionals?
In an attempt to even the playing field, female thespians have struck out on their own with their own. In Los Angeles proper, there are five women’s theatre non-profits. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company wrestled the Bard to the ground with the creation of a dynamic all-female ensemble. The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival and The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project both produce plays and performances by and of interest to women.
If “the play’s the thing,” than the obvious solution is the development of more female playwrights. The chief complaint of Hollywood’s female A-listers is that male writers put words in their mouths that just don’t ring true. For 37 years, The Women’s Project Theater of New York has been nurturing American women directors, writers and producers throughout their careers. The ’70s, ’80s and ’90s gave us the great works of Marsha Norman, Tina Howe, Paula Vogel, Anna Deveare Smith and Irene Fornes. But close your eyes and try to think of five female playwrights currently working in professional mainstream theatre. Now close your eyes and try to think of famous Jewish women playwrights of the 20th century. (Here are two: Lillian Hellman and Wendy Wasserstein.)
Enter: the Jewish Women’s Theatre based in Los Angeles. After the first incarnation of the company disbanded, artistic director Ronda Spivak signed on to “debunk the Jewish woman stereotype, to turn it on its head.” As a playwright, Spivak found theatres eager to develop the works of Latino or African American women, but little if any attention was given to Jewish women. To create a room of one’s own, the salon-style collective performs in homes, Jewish centers, synagogues and as of November, their own space, The Braid. JWT uses mostly professional female actors and directors, but solicits thematic writings from both amateur and seasoned women writers. The group aims to empower, not politicize. Pluralistic in its orientation, the focus is to represent universal themes inspired by varied points of view and affiliations. More than 80% of their selections are true stories. The company boasts a robust patronage, male and female, Jew and Gentile. Season 7 opens with something completely different! “He Said…She Said,” (Jan. 18th-Feb. 2nd) is a provocative show where both women and men take to the stage to share the words of sons and mothers, husbands and wives. Adapted for the stage by Spivak, the show explores pivotal moments such as first meetings, challenging times, or a mother and son reuniting after years of estrangement.
Across town, the Jewish Women’s Repertory Company presents Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” just before the holiday season release with Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt. JWRC is a women’s musical theatre troupe performed exclusively by and for women. Orthodox women who, following the laws of kol isha cannot sing in front of men, created the company. JWT, on the other hand chooses to amplify and mix the voice of the 21st century American Jewish woman-warts and all.
Aimee Greenberg is an internationally produced theatre artist and published author. She has written for noted publications including: “Variety,” “Total Film,” “The Orange County Register” and “The San Diego Union-Tribune.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.