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Pressing for Progress

Celebrating Contemporary Women Playwrights

From left to right: Coos van Coeverden, Anna Fitzgerald, Michael Luong, Lizzie Rajchel, Nina Solberg, Penny Farfan, and Nicole Logan.

By Penny Farfan, Professor of Drama

As campaigns for gender parity such as 50/50 in 2020 (US) and Equity in Theatre (Canada) have made clear, women remain under-represented in twenty-first-century theatre. In my course Contemporary Women Playwrights (Drama 483-02), we are addressing this imbalance by studying plays by women from the 1990s to the present.

Student favorites thus far have included April De Angelis’s Playhouse Creatures, about the first actresses on the English stage; Paula Vogel’s Indecent, tracing the history of an earlier banned play featuring lesbian characters; Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, about women in the 1880s exploring their sexuality through a new electrical invention for the treatment of hysteria; Marie Clements’s The Unnatural and Accidental Women, a fact-inspired surrealist exploration of the lives, deaths, and afterlives of Indigenous women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, which adapts Euripides’s Medea to contemporary Ireland; Lisa Loomer’s Roe, about the US legal case that established women’s right to choose abortion; Anusree Roy’s Pyaasa, about an “untouchable” girl in India who longs to go to school; Suzan-Lori Parks’s Civil War epic Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2, & 3, which connects the historic struggle for freedom to today’s Black Lives Matter movement; and Alix Sobler’s Jonno, inspired by the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault scandal.

Through their work in the course, students are making important artistic, academic, and personal discoveries. As Michael Luong notes, many of the plays deal with women’s objectification, mistreatment, and “lack of voice,” but the playwrights themselves have “so much to say,” foregrounding diversity and empowering women by staging their experiences. Anna Fitzgerald observes, “Women playwrights are utilizing an array of genres, styles, techniques, and forms of theatre to give voice to women and bring forth stories around controversial topics relating to racial discrimination, class, gender, and sexuality.” For Nicole Logan, “The class has opened up ideas and beliefs I didn’t know I had and allowed me to voice them and explore them without judgment. As a woman growing up in the twenty-first century, I value the importance of that—struggling through an idea with peers, finding out why something is wrong or right.” Lizzie Rajchel adds, “I used to be afraid of plays with controversial topics because I didn’t know how to approach them. Now I feel I know how to appreciate and approach plays that bring up uncomfortable subjects.” For Coos van Coeverden, an exchange student from the University of Amsterdam, “the course is so important because we get to read so many different women’s voices in a short period of time. What has jumped out for me is first and foremost how much I have enjoyed reading and talking about these plays. They’re all incredible works of literature and I really feel happy to have read them. So many of them have such important and powerful things to say.”

Next week, we will be studying two plays that feature polar bears as characters: Chantal Bilodeau’s Sila and Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole. With these eco-dramas, the scope of contemporary playwriting by women expands still further, encompassing concerns about the impact of climate change and raising questions about the future of the planet.