When I hear producers say, “Plays by women don’t sell tickets” (and they seem to say that a lot), I always find myself asking, “Which plays by which women?”
The classification “plays by women” denotes nothing other than the author’s sex, and any two plays by any two women are as likely to be as different as any two plays by men. Would anyone, for example, group plays by the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre with those by the humanist William Shakespeare in the single category “plays by men” and assume that that tells us anything about those plays?
The fact is that an author’s sex does not dictate her content, and plays don’t sell tickets based on the sex of their authors. They sell tickets based on whether the play is any good or not.
Two shows opening in Southern California this month illustrate perfectly the fact that one woman’s play is not another’s, and whether either of them is right for your local theater to produce really depends on its mission and your aesthetic, not the author’s sex.
Rachel Bonds’ Five Mile Lake—a 30-something life-crisis play about a group of friends from the same small town—begins performances at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa on April 13. Premeditation, by Evelina Fernández—a black comedy performed by The Latino Theater Company—opens April 17 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Producers looking to attract audiences younger than the typical baby boomer ticket buyer would be wise to take a look at Five Mile Lake. Playwright Bonds says her own small-town upbringing inspired this why-haven’t-I-come-of-age-yet story about family, friends and the struggle to find a home, both literally and metaphysically. Mary, whose brother has just returned from Iraq, works in a bakery alongside Jamie in the town where they both grew up. Jamie’s brother, Rufus, comes back from NYC to visit for the weekend with his girlfriend, prompting everyone to look closely at the past, the present and their dreams for the future.
Rather than focusing on a single protagonist, the play provides a different perspective with each character. Jamie respects tradition—he has stayed in town, poured his savings into the family lake house and is taking care of his aging mother. Rufus, who lives in the big city, is working on his Ph.D without much progress and becoming increasingly directionless. His girlfriend, Peta, an ethnically ambiguous transplant from England, has left her family a whole continent behind. Mary wants to move to New York but is staying home to care for her brother, who has returned from war with PTSD.
Refreshingly, the play does not provide solutions to anyone’s problems. In fact its dramatic effectiveness depends upon a certain amount of ambiguity. Depending on their values and experiences, audience members may come away with completely different ideas of what will happen to these characters once the play is over and they return to their day-to-day lives. Director Daniella Topol says this complexity is reflective of that generation at this moment:
It’s about the anxiety of what it means to be 30-something and trying to find your path, not having a family, not knowing if you want one, not knowing what it means to be rooted. It’s about people looking for individual purpose, family purpose and the purpose of the nation. What do we and don’t we do for our families? How do we care for our aging parents? How do we care for our siblings? How do we have room in our life for children?
Though it may add to the experience, you do not have to be from a small town to appreciate the complexity of defining home. Five Mile Lake runs through May 4.
Premeditation is recommended for producers looking to bring in more diverse audiences, particularly in the Southwest. Evelina Fernández wrote and stars in this production about a disgruntled wife who hires a hit man to kill her UCLA-professor husband. (The show is directed by Fernandez’ husband, José Luis Valenzuela, who, not coincidentally, also teaches at UCLA.) When the wife, Esmerelda, meets up with the hitman, Mauricio, in a hotel room, her husband Fernando and Mauricio’s wife Lydia find out and suspect an affair. When they show up at the hotel to confront their spouses, hijinks ensue.
Staged and designed in the style of film noir, the play uses tango music to set the scene for the battle of the sexes that these two couples play out. Esmerelda worries that after devoting herself to supporting her husband’s career and raising their kids, she hasn’t accomplished anything in her own life and therefore her husband no longer appreciates her. She regrets that she doesn’t have a college education, and has dedicated herself to learning by carrying around a large thesaurus. Her use of both English and Chicano words to parry and riposte in the noir style is better than that of most accomplished women, and her sensuality is evident as she proceeds to instruct Mauricio in how to put some romance back into his own marriage. Meanwhile, Lydia, mistakenly convinced that her husband is cheating, also manages to help Fernando understand what’s wrong in his relationship.
The Latino Theater Company has been creating theater together since 1985, so developing the script as an ensemble led by a husband-wife team naturally involved a certain amount of intimacy and willingness to explore their own marriages. Fernández shared that, early on, the men and the women working on the show disagreed about whether Esmerelda would ultimately end her marriage or not. The men had a hard time imagining that she would really do it; the women believed she would be able to build a new life for herself. I won’t tell you who won that battle: Go see the play.
Since 1990, when the Latino Theater Company produced August 29 about journalist Rubén Salazar, who was killed by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department, they have focused on plays about middle- and middle-to-upper-class Chicanos. Regarding this particular play’s role in fulfilling the company’s mission, Fernández shared,
Once we started [doing plays about middle-class Chicanos] that’s been what we do—not because we don’t think the other stories are valuable or important, they are—but our goal is to tell stories of the middle class. We have also learned that the way to approach serious issues with a Chicano audience is with a lot of humor. It’s a big part of our culture to laugh. This play is about relationships and marriage, and regret and fulfillment, but it’s very funny. Says the playwright.
Trust me—it is. Premeditation runs through May 11.
No doubt some plays by women won’t sell tickets at some theaters, just as some plays by men won’t. However, an audience interested in questions of how and why to live in an increasingly fragmented modern world would definitely buy tickets to Five Mile Lake. An audience that believes in the power of language to reason us through our darkest moments will gladly pay to see Premeditation.
I’m looking forward to both.
Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom. This post is part of her series Binders of Plays which aims to educate artistic directors and producers who claim they just can’t find good plays by women.