A Woman's World: Family or a Career – Why Do Women In Theatre Have to Choose? Marsha Norman Weighs In

News   A Woman's World: Family or a Career – Why Do Women In Theatre Have to Choose? Marsha Norman Weighs In
 
In the latest installment of Playbill's new series focusing on women in theatre, award-winning playwright Marsha Norman shares her ideas on ways to make the playwriting industry more equitable to women — especially working mothers.

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It was during a meeting with colleagues when Marsha Norman became so enraged that she left the room and walked from the office to 74th Street and Broadway without stopping.

The award-winning playwright was withdrawing from a collaboration with colleagues in the industry when she had told them she hoped to be involved conversationally in the production, and one man's response was, "Well, at least you'll get to say whether your stuff gets us hard or not."

Such an experience is not a new one for Norman, a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner for 'night, Mother, her first Broadway production that premiered in 1983 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Hull-Warriner and the Drama Desk Award. Norman's theatrical works also include the book and lyrics for the musical The Secret Garden and the books for The Color Purple and The Bridges of Madison County.

Marsha Norman
Marsha Norman Photo by Michelle Tse

Norman is also one of the founders of the Lilly Awards, along with Julia Jordan and Theresa Rebeck. Started in 2010 to honor the work of women in American theatre, the awards are named for Lillian Hellman, a pioneering American playwright who famously said, "You need to write like the devil and act like one when necessary." Read the Playbill.com feature "Antoinette Perry, Lorraine Hansberry and More! 11 Game-Changing Women in Theatre You Should Know" here.

The Lilly Awards were founded at a time at a time when few plays by women are being produced. The activist group The Kilroys, which was formed in June 2014 to address the issue, released a list of plays by women that they recommend for production. The spring 2015 Broadway season features two plays by women: The Heidi Chronicles and Airline Highway, by Lisa D'Amour, as well as several musicals: Fun Home, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori; Doctor Zhivago, with music by Lucy Simon, lyrics by Amy Powers and Michael Korie and a book by Michael Weller; It Shoulda Been You, with a book by Brian Hargrove, music by Barbara Anselmi and lyrics by Jill Abramovitz, Brian Hargrove, Carla Rose Fisher, Michael Cooper, Ernie Lijoi and Will Randall; and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's Gigi, which features a revised book by Heidi Thomas.

Read Playbill.com's interview with Tesori and Kron about bringing an unapologetic lesbian protagonist to Broadway here.

The previous season featured two dramas by women, and both were revivals: Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell; and A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, as well as the new musical The Bridges of Madison County, which featured a book by Norman alongside Jason Robert Brown's music and lyrics. Additionally, Lynn Ahrens contributed lyrics to the musical Rocky with her frequent writing partner Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the music.

"What we really have to do is get into the control center — how the choices are made — and make it clear and obvious and happily accepted that the work of women is breathtaking and needs to be done," Norman said of the Lilly Award's efforts. "If you look at last year, all five Pulitzer finalists plus the winner [were] all women. And yet none of those plays had a Broadway production."

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in <i>The Bridges of Madison County</i>
Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County Photo by Joan Marcus

The lack of plays by women on Broadway can be credited to many different factors, Norman said, including habits that are ingrained in people holding leadership positions. Those habits include repeatedly working with the same people, as well as the belief that works by women do not make money. Norman quickly cited the blockbuster movie musical "Frozen" as well as the musicals Wicked and The Lion King and Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage as examples that refute that belief.

The professional and economic effect of a Broadway production on a play can be long-lasting, Norman said, especially on future productions at regional theatres throughout the country.

"Broadway is the place where you get that national stamp of approved theatre, so that it goes out and is then done by every regional over the next three years," she said. "Everybody in America will have a chance to see that play in a regional theatre in a fine production. It's fantastic for plays by women to have productions at New York institutional theatres, but it doesn't have the same afterlife power as a play done on Broadway. "A play done on Broadway is going to be done for the next three years and will ultimately enter the Norton anthology," she continued. "It has this powerful afterlife plus international tours, which means it enters the language, it enters the history."

Along with promoting the work of women, Norman said, the Lilly Awards are also focused on improving the working conditions of playwrights and enabling women in theatre to pursue their work in a more concentrated way.

"It's what Bob Anderson said so long ago: 'You can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living,'" Norman said. "Most extraordinary women writers end up teaching."

One of the challenges that Norman mentioned female writers face is the difficulty of raising a family while writing plays. That problem, she said, could be addressed by writing colonies hosting families rather than just writers.

"The load of bearing the child — that choice is impossible to have to make," she said. "If somebody said to you in advance, 'Do you want to have children or be a playwright [what would you say]?'... The demands are simply so much more difficult for women in those early childbearing years — year zero to the time they get to school. Those six years are impossible enough... This is not a choice people should have to make. Men don't have to make this choice, and women shouldn't have to make this choice either.

Marsha Norman
Marsha Norman Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"The summer colonies are the colonies that have these direct feeds to Broadway. If it's at the O'Neill this year, it's going to go to South Coast [Repertory] next year and will be on Broadway after that," she said. "That's a trade path. But because these colonies are not family friendly, women who have children are basically excluded from them for the middle 20 years of their career. If we could structure a new model for some family-friendly colonies, women wouldn't have to make this choice of 'It's my children or my work.' They could go to the colonies, take the kids — enjoy them, be with them and still get their work seen in the way that it's important for their future." The writing colonies are essential to playwright's careers, Norman added, due to the opportunities for exposure and networking.

"You can't just write a glorious play and go out in the street and yell, 'I've written a glorious play!' It has to be seen by the right people, in the right moment, surrounded by the right brain trust, represented by the right person. It's a very restrictive feed. What gets to Broadway comes through a very specific mechanism. And women, for various reasons, have not been able to get on that road that leads to Broadway.

"What you need if you're going to write at the level that you need to in order to get to Broadway is you need leisure," she continued. "You don't need some more commissions, you need leisure. You need time to walk around and think about nothing. You need time to sit outside, you need to be at rest in your body so that your mind can then take in and remember things and wonder about stuff. That's the part of the writing life that's very hard to finance."

Norman's next play will continue exploring the oppression of women. Commissioned by the United Nations, the play will address trafficking and violence worldwide. Lear deBessonet will direct the play, which is aiming for a production in the fall.

Anne Pitoniak and Kathy Bates in <i>'Night, Mother</i>
Anne Pitoniak and Kathy Bates in 'Night, Mother

"Why is there so much of it?" Norman asked of the subject. "Why is there this anger toward women so profound and so deadly? Why is it so widespread and vicious? Why do women soak this up and punish their own daughters, for example? What is it? Why do we hate girls? Surely we don't hate girls, but the evidence is that we do. We're at the very least making no attempt to protect them. There's nobody at the border. What are the border people doing? They're looking to see what you've got in your shoes. They're not looking to see if you're bringing a girl a third your age into the country who doesn't speak English and clearly you've just gone to Columbia and bought her. Where are the border guards for that? It's that kind of play."

While the "kind of plays" that Norman writes commonly feature strong female characters, a comment that she said described her work accurately was, "People like the plays of [mine] where the girls have guns.'"

"The significance of [the comment] is if you have written a play that is about an internal experience, if you have written a play that is about midwives, for example [there is] not likely to be a gun in that play," Norman said. "Somehow it's not going to be a play that's going to be well received based on just content alone. It doesn't have danger, it doesn't have threats, it doesn't have all the things that having a gun onstage implies." Norman said being told her work could "get men hard" was the one of worst insult she ever received, describing it as "outrageous but it's also outrageously demeaning and so small-making."

"Someone else from that office had to come get me or I don't know where I would have been right now," she remembered of her walk to 74th Street. "Canada or somewhere. That was after two years of working with these people night and day. Those things cut really deep. They let you know they're putting you in your place. They're letting you know that your whole point in life appears to be service to them. And that's so demoralizing you don't even know how to speak about it. It takes you a long time to recover... Part of what I'm doing now is to try to keep that from happening. I'm trying to say, 'You can't say that! You can't say anything like that! What is the matter with you?'"

Insults and guns aside, Norman said she will continue her work in promoting diverse voices and social justice and valuing diverse voices on and offstage.

"If people are for some reason restricted from raising their hand to speak, then we don't hear their stories and we don't know who they are. And we don't value their lives and we don't know what they're up against," Norman said. "We have to hear the stories of women at all ages of their lives in order to really present a picture of what it felt like to be alive in our time. That's what our job is as writers is to present that and create it. Our job as writers isn't to make as much money as we can. Our job is to create a record of this time. That's why if you leave out women and the stories of women, we failed at our mission. All of us. Men and women."

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

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