An Interview with Marsha Norman
Written by Victoria Myers
November 19th, 2014
“I’ve become an activist, which was kind of a surprise to me. I thought it was going to be enough that I do it [write, succeed]; that my example would be enough. It’s not. I think that’s an important thing for women to realize—your modeling is good, but it’s not enough,” Marsha Norman tells us late in our interview with her. This is a fascinating statement coming from Marsha, especially at the end of a conversation about the depth and breadth of her work as both a writer and activist. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. She has had women say and do things on stage that audiences were not used to seeing—certainly not from a female writer. She is co-director of the playwriting program at Juilliard, arguably the preeminent playwrights’ training program in the country. She is co-founder and President of The Lilly Awards, which celebrates and advocates for women in theatre. She also wrote the book for The Bridges of Madison County, the only show on Broadway in the 2013-2014 season to have a script by a woman. During our interview, we mentioned that the show had a large fan base of women in their 20s who not only loved the show, but had written analyses and personal responses to it on blogging websites. She asked us if we could send her some of these pieces, and so we went on Tumblr and asked for people to send us their writing about the show. The response was overwhelming. It was like the end of Miracle on 34th Street when there are piles of children’s letters to Santa Claus saying, “I believe,” only this time it was young women’s letters to a writer. As one young woman put it, “I just wanted to say, ‘thank you.’” It might not quite be enough yet—we don’t have gender parity and women are not treated equally in the theatre—but we think it’s an awfully good and important message to acknowledge.
(i.) Trapped Girls
You’ve said you write about trapped girls. That seems like a good place to start this interview. How do you think that theme has evolved in your work?
I don’t think it evolved over time. I think it’s why I began to write. I saw myself as a trapped girl as a kid, although I couldn’t have ever said that. As a kid, I’d write these messages on little pieces of paper, “Please come get me. I’m stuck here in this house and I don’t understand these people, and someone has to help me.” Then I’d hide them under the runners on the stairs. So, that was my first message to the outside world: “Come get me. Come help me. I’m trapped in this house.” Once I became conscious of, “Oh, I’m writing ‘trapped girl’ all the time,” then I could trace it back and see that it started very, very early. I was trapped in Kentucky where it was beautiful and the food is fantastic, but there weren’t any other writers around. There weren’t writers for the theatre and there definitely weren’t women writers for the theatre anywhere. So, trapped girl was who I was as a kid—trapped in this Evangelical household full of violence—but I was helped by a series of extraordinary women. One was my great aunt. I had teachers all through school who said, “You’ve got it. You have to do something. You’re bound for bigger things. You can, as Arlie [in Getting Out] says, make something of yourself.” So, to those women I’m permanently grateful. I mean, I kept being found by these women and pulled up. When I got to New York City, Mary Rodgers picked me up—talk about a good person to pick you up, show you around, introduce you to people, and let people know you were there and that you mattered. So, in a real sense, everything that I’m doing now in terms of The Lillys and the Dramatist Guild and the teaching at Juilliard, for me, it’s all payback. It’s all, “Okay, those women threw out lifelines to me, and I’m throwing out lifelines to other women wherever they are.” And I’m really grateful for the opportunity to do that.
And trapped girls are certainly a through-line of your work.
When I wrote Getting Out, which is the first of the trapped girl stories, I’d worked at a state mental hospital right out of college. I had a philosophy degree and, consequently, couldn’t do anything. So I ended up at this state mental hospital teaching kids. In that experience there was this girl, who became Arlie in the play, and she was the most violent person I had ever seen, and she was dangerous to everybody. I was interested in her because she had no sense of consequences. It didn’t matter what you did to her, because it had already been done to her. It was instructive. This girl, who had no fear of consequences, was completely free to be as violent as she could be. And of course, there’s another side of that, which is if you have no fear of consequences, you are free to do whatever you want in terms of life: writing, studying, traveling, screwing up. And I think that women are taught to be afraid. And it’s important to me to help in this fear project—let’s learn not to be so afraid, because that’s a problem. Years later, when I knew that I wanted to write a play and I had to find out if I could write a play or not, I was talking to Jon Jory at Actors Theatre of Louisville and he said, “If you’re looking for a good subject for a play, go back ten years in your life and think about a time when you were afraid—really physically afraid—and write about that.” Instantly Arlie popped into my mind and I thought, “I was afraid then.” By that time, she was in prison for murder. So I decided to write about her—about someone who couldn’t get out—so the play became Getting Out and what happens to Arlene, the grown up, domesticated version of Arlie, once she’s not able to escape. So she’s really trapped. Federal prison is really trapped. And I knew this girl had been in solitary confinement for a long time, and in retrospect, I felt I had been in solitary for a long time. So the trapped girl issue is simple for me—it’s a clear, visible image. So that’s where Getting Out came from. ‘Night Mother came from the same place. Jessie feels, “I’m trapped here. I’m trapped in this body that’s sick, I’m trapped in this personality that upsets people, I’m trapped with you Mama—I love you, but I’m trapped with you.” One of the messages of the play is that you can love somebody and still feel trapped by them. That play came not only from my experience with people I loved that had killed themselves, but also from my understanding that people could get into a place where they could see no other exit—it’s not no exit it’s no other exit—and this is the exit they take because it’s a solution to a problem they can’t solve any other way. And then, after I wrote ‘Night Mother, a thing happens when you win the Pulitzer Prize, and you get a certain level of acclaim where you realize that you’re at the end of a certain level of exploration, and you have to make a shift. So, you know, musicals were easy for me. I grew up at the piano, I went to school on a musical scholarship, and it was something that I had always wanted to do. So I was able to start doing musicals, but again, the musical choices I made were all trapped girls: The Secret Garden was a trapped girl, The Color Purple was a trapped girl, The Bridges of Madison Country was a trapped girl. King Kong is a trapped girl and that’s what’s coming next.
From the beginning of your career you’ve written a lot of women that are multi-faceted and go to some dark places. Were any of them ever scary to write?
Yes. When I was working on Getting Out, I’d work mostly at my desk and then I’d get stuck and I’d wander around—I’d leave, I’d walk, I’d shop—and then I found that late in the afternoon I would finally be unable to protect myself any longer. The defenses I had in the morning like, “I can’t write that. That’s too hard, I’m not going to do that,” I would have exhausted that defensive mechanism by five o’clock, and I would just have to lie down on the floor and be like, “I give up. What is it? What is she feeling? What’s happened?” And, when you lie down on the floor in a complete sense of just giving over and releasing any sort of personal protection you have over yourself and your material, it’s just like, “Okay. Okay.” And then you can get it. You can hear it. In a sense, you hear Arlene in your head; you hear her memories, you hear the characters telling you what they’re feeling and what secrets they’ve kept from you. And it’s true that over the course of writing the play you develop a relationship with the characters. At first it’s very congenial, you enjoy them, you think, “Okay, I’m going to go make a case for you to the world, I’m going to give you a voice.” Then, by the end, you’re at a relationship with them where if they don’t trust you, they’re not going to tell you the thing you most need in order to finish their story. So it’s hard. ‘Night Mother was insanely hard to write. ‘Night Mother was a situation where I really knew the Jessie part pretty well. But Mama is another question altogether. She’s in a heavyweight prizefight for the life of her daughter, but she doesn’t know what to try. But because she’s Mama and she’s unafraid, she produces as good an effort as you could possible do—she works as hard as you could possibly work to save a life. So at the end, when she loses Jessie, Mama is not overcome with guilt—she may be overcome with pain, but she’s not guilty. I had trouble writing the Mama parts, and when I would get stuck, I’d get on a bus in the city, because buses are filled with Mamas. I’d go to the bus and I’d have a particular Jessie statement in my mind, and I’d ask this question. Then I would listen to see what the women on the bus would say. You can do this. You can look at someone and ask them a question in your mind and see what their answer would be.
When you started writing, the canon was mostly from a male point of view. So, when going to these dark places with female characters, did you ever have a moment of going, “Will an audience be receptive to these words coming out of a woman’s mouth?” Were any of them ever scary to write for that reason?
I have carried with me my whole career this understanding that 70% of the tickets are bought by women and, in general, 70% of the audience is women. So I trust that those women know what I’m talking about—they know what the characters are saying. So no, I’m not afraid of that at all. I think they welcome discovering that they’re not alone. We need women to know that they’re not alone and that they’re in a world of strong, brave women, and that they’re strong and brave themselves. And that’s a claim that I think women need to make. So I like saying to the women in the audience, “Here’s one of us on the stage. You can like her or not, but you’ll recognize her. And if you recognize her, then we’re good.” And I think that’s really the reason my work has succeeded and I’ve had the good fortune that I have, because women in the audience have voted yes for me.
Another theme that comes up in your work is religion. How much of a role does religious influence play in your work?
Well, as much as I was trapped in an Evangelical hotspot, one of the great things about it is I heard the stories of the Bible all the time. Those stories about the struggle between good and evil and why do-good people suffer—those questions that the Bible asks over and over again—are questions that are still relevant to me. I’m not concerned with is there a God or isn’t there a God, but I’m concerned with the trials people face and how they get through them. I know about people medicating themselves with religion. I also know about using religion to persecute—I mean six million women died in the Spanish Inquisition. Six million women died—do we talk about that? No. We should talk about it. So, religion is a wild and fierce force. In response to this moment when people confront the unknown—like, “Is this it?”—and some people want there to be meaning and to be more and want some love from above. They want union. I think the Church offers union, which people are desperate for. I mean all of these industries sell union. The cosmetics industry sells union like crazy like, “You use this and you’ll get someone to be with you.” And that’s what religion does too, only in a more permanent way: say Jesus or God will be with you. Those are all seductive ideas. As humans we love cause and effect. If there’s an effect, we want there to be a cause, and religion provides that. Now, people have done a lot of good in the name of religion, and people have done terrible, terrible things in the name of religion. For a long time I was angry at religion. I’m not angry now, but it’s something I’ve thought about for a long time and I still think about. I see it as a force that if it were used for good—if we could operate out of a loving God who wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves—then that would be fantastic. But that’s not the only way that religion is interpreted. For a long time I was a student of Buddhism, and thought that was a way through—to peace and calm and concentration on other people. And ultimately, I realized there’s this terrible discrimination against women in the Buddhist world and I thought, “Well, I’m not welcomed there, so goodbye.” So now I think I worship friendship, and I worship work for good causes. I feel like I have a holy relationship with my children and with my work and with the future. I have a lot of faith in that, if I teach enough days at Juilliard, things will be better, and if the Lillys do enough, then good things will be better. It’s a personal faith and very specific, but there it is.
Speaking of trying to make a difference, the UN commissioned you to write a play, right?
The UN commissioned me to write a play about trafficking and violence against women worldwide. And to do that, they sent a documentary team around the world—I didn’t go on that trip, but one of my students went and took notes—and while they were gone I went to the UN every Tuesday and read and talked to people and met people who have written books. Then I wrote the play. It’s going to start in February at the UN. The structure is a television studio, and it’s about a documentary on trafficking and violence against women worldwide. The main character is an anchorman telling this story about this trip they did, and trying to understand where this violence comes from. Why women? What did women do? That documentary goes way off the rails and ends in a jungle, and the anchorman has this nearly dead girl in his arms, and she’s eleven, and he’s watched her story as we’ve been hearing this documentary. He finally went after this one girl to save. But the information that’s in there is staggering. Information isn’t what’s meant to stick, but what’s meant to stick is this call to men to go help these women, because you can’t take the beating and stop the beating at the same time. And that’s trapped girl if ever. What the UN said to me was that they realized that for all the work they were doing, they’d failed to get their message out in the US. I mean there are one million children in sexual slavery in India alone. And the lives are deemed to be of no significance. Even in the Garden of Eden, Eve is deemed to be of no significance. She’s there to help Adam.
A brief excerpt from Marsha’s upcoming play for the United Nations:
And why don’t the girls just run away?
Because they believe their families will suffer if they do. Plus they don’t have their passports or any money, and they’ve been moved to a place where they don’t speak the language. And if they did escape, too many people seeing a beat up starved, drug addicted girl, would assume she’s some kind of slut, rather than the victim of a crime.
In America, during slave times, how many slaves, men and women, actually ran away?
I don’t know. What does that have to do with this?
Just the terrible fact that throughout history, once you are enslaved, you are likely to stay that way. There is a shame that settles over enslaved people. They begin to believe it is what they deserve. This is particularly true of domestic violence and workplace abuse.
But back to our girls. Some of them do escape.
Yes, with the help of NGOs and faith based groups, and sometimes private individuals go into the brothels or bars, and find the girls and help them get out. And of course, a lot of girls die, so that’s a kind of escape too.
But then the traffickers just bring in new girls.
That’s right. The incentives for the trafficker are simply too great. Girls are easy to get across borders, and easy to control. But here’s the real thing. If you sell 50 kilos of heroin, you get the money, but the heroin in gone. But if you sell 50 kilos of girl, you get the money, and in an hour or so, you get the girl back, to sell over and over again all night long. Occasionally the girl gets arrested, but nobody ever asks if she’s been trafficked. And even if they did, the girl would lie, because she has no idea if the police will protect her. Which they won’t, as a rule. So you simply go pay her bail, get her back, brutalize her, give her drugs and put her back to work. Girls have become easily obtainable objects for traffickers to capture and sell and sell again. As a criminal business model, it has no equal.
It’s come up a lot in interviews that work by women is talked about differently than work by men. What do you think about that? Have you found that to be true?
A former writer for The New York Times once said to me that the plays of mine that people liked were the ones where the girls had guns. It’s the clearest picture of why people like certain work by women but not other work by women, or why the work of women is often viewed as, “Well, these are internal events and we need an external event.” I remember fighting that battle really hard in the early days when people would say, “Well, where’s the event of this play?” And that’s why this male critic was saying that people like the plays where women have guns—guns meaning agency, power, threat, and also this piece of male equipment—what he meant was, “I can relate to someone with a gun.” Now, this doesn’t mean that we should all put guns in our characters’ hands, but it means that my work has been seen as work about women with power that they learn to use, whether for their own escape or survival. I mean my plays were about that—a fight for survival.
That’s not something male writers have to think about.
If there were suddenly a law that said every play was going to be written by Pat Smith—we won’t know what gender Pat Smith is, we won’t know how old, and we can’t take photos of Pat Smith—we’ll just have plays by Pat Smith and people will have to look at things a whole other way. People will have to do things not because it’s a Stoppard play, but because it’s a play that interests them and that they find compelling. The plays will be seen as the plays, and it won’t be a personality cult. Work by women makes so much money. It makes more money than the work of men on a per-play basis. I mean, look at Wicked. Look at The Lion King. These are massive commercial successes, and yet they seem to be overlooked when artistic directors say, “I don’t really think our audience would relate to this show by a woman.” Well, would they like Wicked or The Lion King? Yes. It’s simply a matter, in our generation, of changing the gaze of the artistic directors. If it’s a play by Jenny Swift, then people come in like, “Well, Jenny—that’s a diminutive, so she’s young and cute.” Whereas, you go into a play by Jerry Swift and it’s Jerry Swift; you don’t make any assumptions about if he’s cute or young. I do think that needs to be changed. At the Lillys we’re working hard to achieve gender parity, and I think once we achieve gender parity nationwide, then that’s the first step to breaking down this, “the audience wants to see plays by men” thing. That’s just not true.
Right, it’s just a perception. It’s interesting too that people tend to make excuses when a woman’s work succeeds; they treat it as an exception, not the rule, or that it must be luck. Or it’s like that Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote where they asked her how many women she thought should be on the Supreme Court and she said nine, because how many Supreme Courts have been all men and we never questioned it? So, why would people find it impossible to believe that nine of the best legal minds in the country were women? Well, why would people not believe that in one season the shows most deserving to be on Broadway could all be written by women?
Exactly. I think that the sooner we’re able to get parity and stop having to say, “We need more women,” we’ll know we’ve made progress. What has to happen is women have to help women, and women have to recruit men to help women. Men are ready to jump in and help, but they have to be asked. It’s great to see women on the Boards of theatres saying, “I notice that our season is lacking in women.” Someone who is giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the theatre and makes a comment like that, that’s going to matter. And there are people like Stacey Mindich, who have made it a real point of determination to produce women on Broadway. That’s the mission right now: to create a structure where women are promoted as soon as they’re ready to be promoted, and to encourage them to get ready. It’s like, “Come on, we have a seat for you. Come and sit in it.”
(v.) Play Development
We also wanted to talk to you about new play development.
I don’t have anything good to say to you about new play development. It should stop. Theatres, if they read a play they like, they should produce it. There is discouragement far and wide among emerging playwrights that theatres will raise money for development, but not for productions. And playwrights learn from production. They don’t learn a thing from development. No playwright ever wanted to write more because of development. I think commissions are a terrible waste of money. What you should do, if you believe in a writer and have some money, is you should just give the money to the writer and say, “This isn’t a commission. This is so you have some freedom to write the play you want to write.” Plays can only be written at leisure. If we have a group of writers under thirty who are all temping all day, then we’re not going to get any plays from them. The development process, as we currently know it, is so destructive for young writers. It’s a bait and switch. It lures them with this idea that the play could be under consideration, but the play is only being workshopped or read or developed because that’s what the theatre raised money to do. They didn’t raise money to produce plays by new writers. And most of the plays coming to those theatres don’t need any more development—they’ve been through Juilliard or Yale or Brown—they’re ready to be produced. I’m fiercely opposed to what theatres have done with this development process.
Do you think there’s something about the culture of development that’s particularly harmful to women? For example, maybe it’s teaching them to be compliant, rather than teaching them to advocate for themselves? People learn to say the right thing to the literary managers instead of saying, “This is my play and you can like it or not.”
Exactly. Right. I think women, in particular, have a problem with being grateful. Women need to stop being grateful that someone wants to do a reading of their play. If someone wants to do a reading of your play, ask, “Do you have a place in your season for your play? If you have a space for this season, I’d be happy to come there, but I’m not going to do any work on this play until I’m in rehearsal.” Those sentences need to come out of peoples’ mouths instead of what you just described, which is people get there and feel they have to be grateful, and then they feel like they have to listen. When people are interested in plays, they should commit to doing them so people can see them and so the plays can get spoken about. The only thing that moves a play forward is production, and anything short of that is basically destructive. It’s like, we see all of these pictures of people who have had too much plastic surgery, and it’s like, “How to destroy your face with plastic surgery.” That’s what happens to plays in development; they get to looking nothing like themselves.
(vi.) The Bridges of Madison County
One of the things we’ve noticed is that people have trouble viewing women’s stories as big stories; they think of them as being about the plot, not about the themes. So we wanted to talk to you about musicals, because musical are big.
Yes, and most musicals are about women. If you look at the great musicals, they are about women. One of the reasons they’re about women is that musicals have the ability to express emotion—that’s where the songs come from– and women have emotion. And women’s emotional lives are good subjects for musicals. I mean King Kong—is King Kong about King Kong? Well, it’s kind of about the girl who comes to some type of understanding with this creature—this other. Women are great at dealing with the other. So I think the answer to all of that is yes.
I really liked The Bridges of Madison County and I wanted to talk about it. The show had a really devoted audience of girls in their twenties who really were connecting with Francesca and really engaging with the material.
That’s great. And not anything we heard. When you have a big musical up, you have to protect yourself from knowing what people are saying, since so much of what people are saying can be deadly—you can be hurt. As humans, we have this ability to really remember the bad things. I think that’s a cave days thing—it’s really important to remember where that tiger hangs out and stay away from there, but it’s not so important to remember where that field of daisies is. I can still quote you terrible things people have said about me in reviews all the way back to the beginning of my career, but can I give you a single good sentence? No.
What I found really interesting was how these young women were engaged with the show. They were really thinking about it and putting it in dialogue with their own lives and other narratives. We, at The Interval, think that’s really important. Yet it was never talked about. The PR people never engaged with that demographic—where were the PR people for that?
“Where are the PR people” is a really good question about the show. I think this show failed to find an audience primarily because the PR people sold it based on an image that people thought they’d already experienced. They thought, “I saw it with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Why would I see this show?” And, of course, we had made an entirely different show. We created a whole town—I created the dad, the kids, the neighbors, the whole town—but we didn’t have a way to tell the audience, “Come see Our Town with music and an affair.”
And that you’d totally switched the protagonist and made it into a story about a woman.
Right, let’s see what it is to be an immigrant in America. Let’s see what the friendship is between [two] women that lasts over a lifetime.
Whenever we talk about sexism, we talk about artistic directors and literary managers. One angle that gets talked about a lot less—if ever—is the marketing, PR, and the press. There’s a lot of sexism there too. How much do you think that plays into how women are treated?
In the ad for A Delicate Balance, there’s a photo of Glenn Close, and right across her face runs this strip of black, and I just looked at it and thought, “Are you kidding me?” We’ve completely eliminated who this woman is. You can’t identify who this woman is from that picture. That image was devastating to me. Not only is it awful for the play, but it’s awful in terms of an image—that we can just black out this woman. I found that so offensive. I think marketing people need to remember that 70% of the tickets are bought by women. And women need to understand that if plays are presenting an image that doesn’t include them, they shouldn’t go. There were plenty of shows that did very well this year that didn’t include women, or they did include them but they were objects, and that’s not okay with me. We need the markets to realize, “I’m a marketer, but I’m a woman, and I’m not going to go for this.” And advertising people the same way. If the woman is the front of the story, let’s put her in the front of the picture.
Well, and the marketers, PR people, and so on are never held accountable. We pay attention to how women are talked about in theatre media and it’s not good. Like at the Tonys last year, when people interviewed the actresses, the words “diva” or “catfight” were used five times for every time a word like “talent” or “hard-working” was used.
The other thing like that is when people will review—and the Lillys are going to commission a study on this—every time you read a review of a play by a woman that uses the word “Lifetime television.” Lifetime is the most poisonous word to plant in a review of a play by a woman; it’s condescending and dismissive. That’s not what Lifetime itself intends to do, but when it’s used to describe a play, it’s used to dismiss it, and it communicates to the reader, “Oh, okay, I don’t want to see that.” And those men need to be called on that and instructed that it’s not okay.
It’s shocking how little that happens.
Right. And in race relations there are words that can’t be used, but in talking about gender no one has got a bad list of those words.
So here’s a theory. It might be crazy. We’ll see. It seems like, in the last twenty years, we have playwrights becoming more educated because of MFA programs. At the same time, on Broadway, we have the opposite happening. A lot of the people working in marketing and PR and the people crafting the image of shows and the images of Broadway are not coming from intellectual or analytical thinking backgrounds. It seems like this is not only a problem for Broadway, but a big problem for women.
One of the things that has been traditionally in practice is that playwrights arriving on Broadway have approval on the director and the cast, but we don’t have any approval on the marketing campaign. We don’t have any approval of the ads. We have no transparency to the producing and financials of the show. The producers have all the transparency all the way back to the financing of the ads and picking the theatre. Now, in so many cases lately, shows have gone under because the producers failed to raise all the money and they chose an ad agency that didn’t know what the show was about and didn’t place ads in the right places. Like how many people are watching commercials on television? Almost none. And writers don’t have the ability—and I don’t know if we understand how important it is—to go and ask, “Did you raise the whole ten million dollars and where it is?” And there’s a problem with having producers who aren’t as expert in their job as you are in yours. And this is why writers have to get increasingly vigilant on checking on what producers are doing, from marketing to ad buys to the group sales to everything. Now, this is exhausting because what you’re trying to do is get your show ready. But to believe that if you get your show ready and that’s enough, that is false, and the road to ruin. You can no longer just be responsible for the writing of your show.
We asked Kelli O’Hara to submit a question for you. This is Kelli’s question: “If you could choose one thing concerning being a working mother and go back and change it, what would it be?”
My view of being a working mother in the theatre was that they came with me wherever I went. I feel like I spent a lot of years having them with me, in my experience, in order to not be away from them, but I’m not sure it was actually good for them. But I don’t know the final answer. I think we have to wait and see how they raise their children and if they go the same way, of you have your children at your work. I think that’s the thing that as a working mother I was most proud of—that they were with me in my work and I was with them at supper. I think that what I would change is to have more time that I spent with them when I wasn’t working. We did a lot of traveling. They’ve been all over the world. There was a period of time where we did cruises everywhere because that was easy, since they’re of different ages and different interests and I knew they weren’t going to get lost. And it was good. Those are the things I’m most happy about doing because we were all on these great adventures. I wish I’d had a month every single year to just be with them in another part of the world. So that’s a thing that I think I could change. I would have traveled three times as much as we did, because what I know now is there’s a clock on that—it ends at eighteen. I’m reading this really terrific book called Brain Rules—I read a lot of neuroscience—and the book says that the human brain evolved to solve problems in an unstable environment while on the move. Once you take that in, it makes a lot in your life clear. It’s why sometimes you just have to get out and walk. So I feel like those moments when you’re traveling—when you’re in an unstable environment, on the move—that’s when your brain can really wake up and think, “This is what I’m supposed to do.” So that’s what I wish. That I had had more free time to travel with them.
And the Lillys are working on a program to help writers who are also mothers, right?
The Lillys are developing a new project to make all of the summer writing colonies family friendly. At the moment, none of them are. If you have children and you get into Sundance, that’s a problem. You have to be away from your children, or you have to find the money to take them out there and put them in a hotel. If Sundance gives you any money, it’s all going to childcare and you’ll never see your kids because you’ll be working at Sundance. So this is a real problem for women right now, if in the middle of their writing careers—when they also have their children—they’re excluded from the primary summer writing showcases because, unless you have a theatre that is your champion, then your best bet is placement in one of these summer colonies.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
That’s easy. My grandfather was a fantastic storyteller. He grew up in New Mexico and lived with us for the last ten years of his life. Since my mother was a religious fanatic, we didn’t have a television and we didn’t see movies—there was no entertainment. So, every night after dinner, Granddaddy would tell these stories about growing up in New Mexico, and the stories were all about the same thing, which is how the good guy gets out of the mess created by the bad guys. And they’re all about a physical environment. Our favorite was this one about this terrifying night he spent escaping from this coyote when he came back to this cook shack by himself. The part that I loved about the story, and most stories that I think are valuable to tell, is that it’s a search for home story. I’m getting ready to write a book about story, and over and over again the stories that move us the most are these search stories. An audience will watch a search story about anything because that search is what we’re all on, whether it’s home, love, security, safety, adventure—it’s all home—home is the big story. I’m really fortunate to have him [my Granddaddy], and I am who I am because of him—I’m descended from him.
When did you first feel like a grown up?
There was a moment when I decided I’d rather be told no—no, you can’t write plays—than never know the answer to the question that I’d had my whole life, which was I’d always felt I belonged in the theatre and I knew I wanted to write plays. But the moment I actually decided to try it and make the leap, I thought, “If I don’t try it, I’ll never know. So I have to try it.” So, for me, that was the big moment where I felt responsible for myself and capable of making big decisions about my life. Like, “Okay, I’m in charge of this now.”
The Lillys have a lot of exciting things coming up. Would you mind telling us about them?
The Lilly Awards began as promoting and celebrating women in the theatre at these awards that we have every year. We’ve grown quickly, thanks to this wonderful Board we have and the wonderful support we’ve had, into an organization that can accomplish other things as well. So we’re starting an initiative to make the summer writing colonies family friendly. And we’re doing readings of The Kilroy plays—we’re going to do those this winter. We’re going to start a mentoring program, in collaboration with the Dramatis Guild and the SDC, to get young women writers and directors a mentor who is already highly advanced. Susan Stroman has just written about this and said that we have to do more mentoring, and the young people are ready to watch—there are things you can only learn by watching. So that’s a thing we’re really eager to do. The other thing the Lillys are doing is starting to create a pledge that all theatres will have to sign, stating that no one in their theatre will have to choose between their safety and their job. We know of several situations where women have felt threatened and abused and been asked to leave the play while the person who did the abusing is still there. That’s not okay with us. So those two initiatives, the mentoring and the safety, are crucial. What I hope that the Lillys will ultimately be able to do is connect with women in the arts everywhere.
We started by saying you write about trapped girls. What or who is your ideal of a non-trapped girl?
Women who have gotten out of the traps that are everywhere. Women who have done so much with their own tools. There are so many. There are extraordinary women working everywhere.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
One of the things I said at the Lillys is that people need to play on the girls’ team. What I mean by that is that men are raised to play on teams—they’re good at it and they help each other—and women have not learned from early on to play on teams. We all have to be on a team mode. This means going to see plays by women, telling artistic directors that you want to see more plays by women, saying “I’ll be on your board, but only if…” We really have to get in a demand situation and we have to do it ourselves. We have to help other women. We have to make sure that when someone says, “Can you recommend someone for this?” it’s a woman. There is a team spirit that needs to operate until it gets fair. It’s not fair now, and until it gets fair, we have to play for the girls. And that’s all girls—people who didn’t think they could be on a team. And I think if we do this, there are so many of us, there’s no reason we can’t win. When I started out, I thought this would be over by now, and now I’m almost done and it’s not over.