Saturday, 28 September 2019

Killing Dead White Men: Female Playwrights, Directors, Practitioners and Theatre Makers - A Day in the Lives

Female Playwrights, Directors, Practitioners and Theatre Makers
A Day in the Lives

Although, I have elsewhere in blogs, tried to emphasize the continuing contributions, influences and commitments of females to theatre, I think that sometimes a through line or overall sense of these contributions can be lost. The history of female playwrights, directors, practitioners, theatre designers, theatre managers and drama makers is long and significant. Unfortunately, because of cultural mores, constraints and the overemphasis given in written records to the exploits of males, it is sometimes more difficult to easily measure and appreciate the exact commitments of female practitioners and makers to theatre and drama. The story of females in theatre is a much more complex one not simply confined to professional theatres and professional theatre productions. It is hidden in private readings and performances, and concealed in the landscape of collective, little, youth, children's and student theatre, One very useful resource and contact point is The International Centre for Women Playwrights. Their website has many resources, contacts, workshops, conferences and information. Here is the weblink

One observation of mine from looking into this is that female dramaturgy is often collective or grows through the sharing of stories, ideas and supporting groups or communities. Learning by exploring my ignorance and the serious gaps in my knowledge is always an experience. So here is my attempt to provide a short overview.

In case you don’t have time to read this entire blog, I suggest the following to start. I really don’t believe in the canonization of the written text and the performance of the popular play as being at the center of drama. The written text does give some sense of permanence to a drama or text but I will try to not make it my only priority. I also don’t really believe in Top 10, Top 40 or Top 100 lists so I suggest a day in life or evolutionary journey approach. The first part of this post is a short day in the life history of female dramaturgy.

Since drama involves stories, characters and form and since females in most cultures were the cultural caretakers in most societies, I suggest starting your day at sunrise with reading some creation stories. Imagine women as the cultural caretakers of stories, songs and dances – a performance historical and cultural record. African female creation stories particularly those of the Ananse tales from the Akan peoples would be a good place to start. However, this clip of a modern female African storyteller gives the sense of the power and the danger that faced and still face females as the caretakers of story knowledge.

Stories from Indigenous Australian traditions are also truly enlightening. Perhaps even watch the Awakening Ceremony from the 2000 Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Activity - The New Dreamtime
This is an activity I developed working with Indigenous women in a workshop. I have used it in different countries as a way to start storytelling and performance making activities. Stand or sit in a circle. Look at all the people in the circle slowly. Think that they have stories and backgrounds which are rich and you don't know about. Now turn your attention inward. Think of a woman who was important to making who your are. It might be your mother, your grandmother or an auntie. Think of what they did or what they were or are. Give a special label to mythologize them. For instance, if your mother was an electrician you may call her My Mother, the controller of energy.  If your grandmother was a theatre designer, you may call her My Nana, the magician of fabric. If your auntie liked to cook, you may call her My Auntie Lorraine, the Spirit Queen of the Senses. It is not necessary or even desirable to tell the group exactly what this woman was or what she actually did. Mythologize this woman. Now think of a way you could tell the story of this woman to the group making eye contact with everyone in the group. You will start with the mythology title and end with it. Now one by one, tell your special woman's story briefly. Here is an example of one:
"Mother, the Spirit Weaver. She was a magician. She gathered a group of young people and gathered their energy and spirits and had them dance and move and tell their stories and then she threw their dreams into a space and the images, stories and dreams would come to life. My Mother, the Spirit Weaver."

Native American stories work well especially the myths of Iroquois is a great Native American creation feminine story.

Over a light Middle Eastern breakfast look at the work of Enheduanna. Enheduanna is probably the earliest poet, playwright and musical lyricist whose name we have recorded. She was born in 2285 BC in the Sumerian city state of Ur (an ancient city of Mesopotamia situated in modern day Iraq halfway between Baghdad and the head of the Persian Gulf and today known as Tall al Muqayyar) in the 23rd century BC. She died in about 2250 BC,

As a royal daughter holding the title of EN, she was appointed to the role of high priestess and it was while in this role that she wrote, performed and had others perform, the ritual devotional hymns, devotions, scenes and poems many of which were written to the Goddess Inanna. In her lifetime, she composed some 42 temple hymns which were sung and acted out in ritual dances and performances. Of her own work, she is quoted as saying: “My king, something has been created that no-one created before.”

No record remains of how her hymns and poems were performed or presented. The performative aspects of her work are evident in the words, images and rhythms of her language. Some of her remaining hymns and verses which are available in translation are:
Nin-me-šara, "The Exaltation of Inanna" (153 lines written in the first person about her exile from Ur and Uruk), In-nin ša-gur-ra (incomplete but 274 lines remain), In-nin me-huš-a, "Inanna and Ebih", The Temple Hymns and Hymn to Nanna.

Here is a section from Enheduanna’s ‘The Adoration of Inanna of Ur:
"Queen of all the ME, Radiant Light,Life-giving Woman, beloved of An (and) Urash,Hierodule of An, much bejeweled,Who loves the life-giving tiara, fit for High Priestesshood,Who grasps in (her) hand, the seven ME,

My Queen, you who are the Guardian of All the Great ME,You have lifted the ME, have tied the ME to Your hands,Have gathered the ME, pressed the ME to Your breast.You have filled the land with venom, like a dragon.Vegetation ceases, when You thunder like Ishkur,You who bring down the Flood from the mountain,Supreme One, who are the Inanna of Heaven (and) Earth,Who rain flaming fire over the land,Who have been given the me by An,Queen Who Rides the Beasts,Who at the holy command of An, utters the (divine) words,Who can fathom Your great rites!Destroyer of the Foreign Lands,You have given wings to the storm,

Beloved of Enlil - You made it (the storm) blow over the land,You carried out the instructions of An.My Queen,the foreign lands cower at Your cry,In dread (and) fear of the South Wind, mankind brought You their anguished clamor,Took before You their anguished outcry, Opened before You wailing and weeping,Brought before You the "great" lamentations in the city streets.In the van of battle, everything was struck down before You,My Queen,You are all devouring in Your power,You kept on attacking like an attacking storm,Kept on blowing (louder) than the howling storm,Kept on thundering (louder) than Ishkur,Kept on moaning (louder) than the evil winds,Your feet grew not weary,You caused wailing to be uttered on the "lyre of lament."My Queen,[all] the Anunna, the great gods,Fled before You like fluttering bats,Could not stand before Your awesome face,Could not approach Your awesome forehead. Who can soothe Your angry heart!”

As you continue your Middle Eastern or Mediterranean breakfast. Read or look at Ancient Egyptian drama or two. Imagine you are in Ancient Egypt at the Festival of Osiris. Imagine the role of females in enacting out The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys. Here is a translation of the text:

As you finish your leisurely breakfast imagine you are in Ancient Greece. Perhaps imagine yourself inside or outside the women’s quarters (gynaikônitis) in a private house and read the works of the Ancient Greek female poet Sappho (630 BC – 570 BC), who lived on the island of Lesbos. Her poems were probably performed in circles of all females around 600 BC.

Then take a quick look at the Nāṭya Śāstra and read about the form, or look at the pictures or try out some of the gestures and movement of this form developed in India around 500BC to 200BC and which as form still informs Indian drama, theatre, dance and films. Here is a link to a website with some information, videos and pictures of the Nāṭya Śāstra

Then move to another location and imagine you are in 10th Century Germany in Gandersheim Abbey in Lower Saxony in a community of unmarried daughters of high nobility. Read at least one of the plays of Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. She wrote in Latin but here is an English translation of her plays.

In the same location, try to get a taste of the great German Benedictine abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Listen to or look at or read some of her Ordo Virtutum written in about 1151. Here is a video-clip of a modern performance of the piece.

Now as the morning progresses imagine you are in Italy around 1550 in Venice or Milana around the 1550’s and you see and hear in the marketplace the improvised form of mask theatre called the Commedia dell arte and you see women on stage and you see the comic scenes they have developed
The following clip may give some sense of how female actresses performed scenes in the original commedia dell arte plays:

As the sun is rising higher, you may want to read part of (or all of) some of the writing of Elizabeth Cary, the first female playwright to write original plays in English. Her 1613 play The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry is a classic.

As an appetizer just before lunch, try reading some of the work of the great Aphra Behn. She wrote eighteen plays from 1670 to 1689. Here is a link to her work, I suggest that you read The Rover, Parts One (1677):

Over a leisurely lunch, look or listen to some of the work of the great Indian poet, courtesan, writer and performer Mah Laqa Bai who was born in 1768 and wrote and performed in Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Bhoipuri. Here is a short video with some of her poetry giving some sense of her life and her work:

In the middle of lunch, try to explore some of the work of the prolific Restoration actress and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald. Here is A Lovers’ Vows (1799):

As you finish lunch, print off or download onto your IPad or Kindle, one of the plays of the great Scottish playwright Joanna Baillie. She wrote tragedies, comedies, farces, romantic comedies, patriotic vitriols, gothic tragedies, musical dramas and melodramas. Try her Gothic Drama De Monfort (1798)

Then as the shade of the afternoon starts to first appear, take a walk and move onto exploring the work of Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie who is perhaps the first female North American playwright. Her 1845 play Fashion, or Life in New York is a good place to start.

Stay with North American female writers as the afternoon progresses. Although mostly known as the novelist who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the American writer and playwright Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a couple of important plays including the 1855 play The Christian Slave based on part of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Here is a link to the play:

As the sun goes lower in the sky, I would suggest that you read the work of the American born Elizabeth Robins who is known for her acting, playwrighting, writing and involvement in the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom. Look at her play Votes for Women (1907) since it is thematically and stylistically revolutionary.

As the moon gently rises, I think there is no better place to start than to look at pictures from the mise en scenes of the English theatre director, theatre producer, costume designer and one of the pioneers of the suffragette movement Edith Ailsa Geraldine Craig. Look at the paintings of Clare Atwood to get some sense of Edith Craig, her mother Ellen Craig and the world of woman suffragettes in the early 20th Century.

As your eyes adjust to the night light. Look at the work of the American playwright and theatre director Rachel Crothers. Read her 1909 play A Man’s World and get the sense of her great contribution to drama.

As the stars first rise in the evening, please look at either a script from or a video of the performances of the great Italian actor, playwright and militant leftwing politician Franca Rame who was also the wife and professional partner of Dario Fo and whose work spans 60 years and advances theatre and females in theatre in so many ways. Here is a 2013 performance of her scene A Woman Alone from Female Parts.

Look at the moon and open some of the work of the Mexican playwright Ximena Escalante. Her work is truly international and uses archetypal characters. Look at these clips from two productions of her plays and see if you can get her work in translation.

Sit back and look at the whole night sky and open and read some of the work of
Caryl Churchill, one of the greatest and most prolific playwrights to write in the English language female or male. Her work Cloud 9 or Top Girls are good places to start.
Here is speech from Cloud 9:
And another from Top Girls:

As the evening progresses look at the work of the Japanese/American female playwright Naomi Iizuka. Try to read one of her plays but perhaps as an introduction to her work look at this trailer for a college production of her 2006 play Anon (ymous).

As the night grows older and stiller, read one of the plays of Australia Indigenous playwright and Muruwari women Jane Harrison. I suggest starting with Stolen (1998). 
Here is a video-clip of Jane Harrison talking about how she came to write Stolen:
Here is a link to download the play:

There is no better way to end the evening than by reading or viewing the work of the great female playwright and director Mary Zimmerman born in 1960. Here is an extract from her 2005 play Arabian Nights.
Here is a link to buying the play on Kindle:
Here is a clip from a production of the play:

Here is an interesting article on females in theatre specifically in Shakespeare's plays and Shakespeare's time:

And now, when you have time, the next posts will explore the long, rich and partially hidden history of the dramaturgy of women in theatre and drama.

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