A Modern Girl's Musings

My earliest political memory is of my parents laughing at me when I asked if we were voting for Ronald Reagan. Even I could tell poor Carter wasn't looking so good. I was about five. I think the laughter was accompanied by something along the lines of "for crying out loud!"

Nevertheless I consider myself a Reagan Baby. Those eight years of my childhood were spent realizing that there was still a lot of work to be done, despite Dr. King, in addition to the Kennedys (a lot of them were still alive then), and hopefully including me (if my Quaker education by the hippies was teaching me anything at all).

So after Reagan, after Clinton, after hiding in those Bushes, I am still hopeful, I am still working on my addition, I'm still on my way to a new way of living in this world.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

To Those 19 Playwrights

This week it was announced that the 2010 Wasserstein Prize was not awarded because its judges felt that no woman playwright who is 32 or younger in America is worthy of the prize, which is supposed to honor promise in emerging  playwrights(newsflash, though, you could have raked in 500 thousand in prize money, commissions, advances, and house sales, be 57, and STILL be considered emerging in this business).

So this being the age it is, I just signed an email petition to let those who decided such a matter that this is absolutely ridiculous.  My colleague Michael Lew voiced many of our playwright community's concerns brilliantly in his blog.

And I must admit, when I first clicked on the link to his post, the first thing I thought was: 32?  Seriously?

At 32 I think I was only beginning to realize what it means to be a playwright who is also female. 

Here is what I thought it meant:  when I began to think I wanted to be a playwright, I had no idea women could really do such a thing.  I was a senior in high school and had just plowed through TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED, AND BLACK, but Lorraine Hansberry had died young.  I did not want to die young.  So I pushed her out of my mind and just thought about all the other playwrights I was not like at all:  men playwrights, white playwrights.  I had not yet met the works of Shange, Nottage, Parks, or Corthron that made me think: OH!  I could do this.

I also thought being a female playwright just meant  that usually girls don’t do this kind of work.  I didn’t realize that they do, and when you look around any given conference, workshop, production experience, or fellowship opportunity and do not see someone who resembles one of your demographics, you should wonder why.  You should not always be the only.  And if you are, you should not accept that you really ARE the only, but that there are others (female, black, poor, or what have you) who are not there for a reason, not because you are so much more talented than they are.

I had an inkling being a female playwright was considered “different” when I got in to Humana and Marc Masterson said, early on, before I even got into the rehearsal room, ‘be prepared for people to call this the year of the woman, since all the plays are by women this year except one’.  I am pretty sure, when there is only one woman in a line up of plays being done, that people do not call it the year of the man.

But then I experienced something that really only women experience.

I had a kid.

Then another.

While boys have kids, too, I am pretty sure they do not complete commissions for rent money while breastfeeding.

And given how so many developmental programs are geared towards LEAVING your home for weeks on end, I am pretty sure that while most  male writers in our modern age are more aware of childcare issues than they were fifty, twenty, even ten years ago, most probably do not lug their kids around the country to work on plays. 

All this is to say that, at 32--since I had my daughter at 32--I had no idea what the full extent of being a female playwright could possibly mean. 

I had no idea I’d have to place many writerly things on ice while I went about the kinda messy dealings of learning to be a parent.

I had no idea I’d have to say no, at times, to a career I’d spent over a decade and a half creating.

And yet, something continued to burn, something continued to make me need to write, even when my self was at odds with how and who was celebrated as a writer.  In this business.

So to those 19 who were rejected:  your beginnings are burning.  Your need to do what we do is real and right and necessary.

Fold that letter carefully and put it where you will not be tempted to read it or believe it.


  1. Well said, Kirsten. My advice to those 19 writers is to take that letter and burn it. That committee made a very bad decision and now they look foolish for it.


  2. Hi Kirsten -

    I've been meaning to contact you (directly) to let you know about an initiative Epic is launching to support women playwrights with young children and specifically address the unique challenges for mother-playwrights and still will - but reading your wonderful post about the Wasserstein prize and a number of other posts on the subject throughout cyber land, I also wanted to "publicly" express my own, well, excitement actually at what feels to me a knocking down of the age-barriers and false thresholds prizes like these seems to establish even when they're awarded.

    I'm sure it's not the intention of TDF to further divide women by generations, and it's certainly vital for "non-established" "early-career" writers to have opportunities that help them feel part of the theatre community, and have the means to continue their work within our community. But given the long history of institutions separating women from women, I think it's important we take a careful look at anything that perpetuates this.

    Moreover, Wendy W's deep commitment for supporting future generations of women seemed to me to always included a direct, personal, vital, active engagement between these generations. Her plays, in fact, often showed what can happen when the bones and muscle between generations is not exercised sufficiently. So I can't imagine she'd want a Berlin Wall between those who are over 32 and those who are under 32, where all they can do is send smoke signals to each other.

    Ironically, I suppose, Epic's new enterprise does its own separation, focusing on women with children under 10. But we are a small company trying to make a few ripples in the ocean. And I do think parenthood is an experiential lens that is distinct and specific while chronological age, as history has proven, is not.

    Anyway... I babble. But thank you for sharing your thoughts on this!


    Zak Berkman
    Executive Director of Artistic Programming
    Epic Theatre Ensemble

  3. May I link to this on my own blog? I won -- not a Wasserstein, but a Helen Merrill -- award in 2000, and it changed my life utterly. These emerging playwright awards are so imporant, and unfortunately, we are still in the dark ages where we need special awards designated for women because otherwise, the women get overlooked. Wendy herself was a tireless advocate for young women's voices. She'd be outraged at this year's commotion.

  4. Elyzabeth Gregory WilderNovember 14, 2010 at 11:36 AM

    I love that you mention the challenges of childcare. I have a 6 week old and a show in preproduction for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I am going to miss callbacks in New York partly because of childcare issues. I am struggling to find reliable childcare while I'm in rehearsals out of town and away from my support system. I have asked for a quiet place to nurse while we are in rehearsals. It's a whole new set of issues that I've never had to deal with and which adds to the challenge of being a female playwright. - Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

  5. Thank you, Kirsten, I believe in women playwrights from age ten to a hundred and ten! I would love to know who are those people who made up that committee? The audacity as a group to shoot down the dreams of these young playwrights should be punishable. They should all be replaced for that action.
    Yvette Ganier

  6. What a beautiful post, Kirsten. The intersection of prime baby-having years with prime professional-growth years is a huge and usually invisible problem for women in the theater. I know that I don't even mention my kids to anyone I deal with professionally until I know that they are safe - ie won't assume I can't do my work because I'm a mother. I hadn't thought about the Wasserstein age ceiling in terms of parenting until your post. Seems so arbitrary to assume that if you haven't made something great by the time you're 32 (and I'm not saying I agree that there wasn't anything great out there by a writer under 32), you've aged out of needing the encouragement and support to truly discover your voice.
    Thanks for your thoughtful addition to the conversation.

  7. I personally know a lot of women writers who didn't have the opportunity to focus on their work until their children were much older. Women, particularly, often don't come into their own until later. You are absolutely correct that these development programs are aimed at people who don't have to worry about childcare. That's mostly men.

    D.W. Gregory

  8. Thank you Kristen.

    I didn't even start writing plays until I was over 35! My second play won the 2009 Helen Hayes Award and was published in American Theatre, but I can't be considered for this award or get into Juilliard or any number of things simply because I did other things before evolving into a writer.

    I am also a mother. I have twin toddlers, one of whom has a rare lung disease, which means he can't fly and I can't leave him without serious planning and juggling. Yet it was this illness and everything it changed in my life, that drove me back to writing and rediscovering what being an artist is all about.

    Thank you for your post

    Stefanie Zadravec

  9. Thank you for these words and for addressing this outrageous news. As a performer, writer and teacher, I am astonished at the committees decision. I work with 20 year-old female playwrights every day who are ready to raise hell in the American Theatre. I wish for them resources and opportunities distributed with sounder mind than this year's Wasserstein.

  10. Thanks for this wonderful post, Kirsten. It hit home for me on many fronts. My daughter was three when I was finally able to get away to a two-week writing retreat/development gig. It was the first time I had that much uninterrupted time to write since she was born and I have to admit I was in heaven, until I got home and discovered two bald spots on the side of her head where she had twisted her hair to the point of disintegration in my absence. My husband travels all the time for his work, but she has never done that in his absence. I freely admit to my own form of arrested development, but 32 is more than arbitrary, it's baseless. It seems the more instantaneous we expect our communication, the faster we expect humans to do everything, including creating art or developing as an artist. Thanks again for your thoughts. Truly inspiring!

  11. Thank you for your beautiful, generous and honest soul, Kirsten. xo, allison

  12. Great post! As someone who found a way to really write long after 32 (not because of childbearing; really, I can't fully know why), I appreciate your pov.

  13. Jeannine,
    I completely agree with your comment about the seeming heightened expectation for people to develop into "successful (whatever that means) artists at a "young" (whatever that means) age. I'm 25 now, and I already feel pressure--especially being a woman--to figure out my artistic voice and say something before I miss the chance for people to listen.

    Thanks for this conversation. I'm inspired to continue figuring it out. I'll be checking out the work of those playwrights who were overlooked.

  14. Thank you so much for your post. My play Running: AMOK actually addresses this very issue regarding professional creative women who are driven nuts (literally) in a society where having a baby and being a creative are not compatible for reasons totally unrelated to the baby and creative field itself. The ironic part is one reviewer of my play had the audacity to suggest that this is not an issue that would really affect a successful creative. Many folks who have not experienced this-- male and female-- are so out of touch.