Photo by Christopher Gross/SCREverybody knows chicks talk more, and now there's a scientific explanation: the female jaw evolves differently in utero, allowing women to produce a greater number of sounds than men. It's possible that such a development is an evolutionary advantage: communication between mother and offspring is so vital women need a bigger mouth—uh, that is, a more accommodating jaw —in order to impart critically important information, like survival skills and the most effective way to bitch.
So if women are more linguistically flexible, why don't female writers dominate the most language-oriented and expressive of the performing arts: Theater? Theater is meant to be heard on the stage, not read on the page. The way words sound is just as important as the ideas they're designed to convey.
But like just about everything else in Western society, men matter. Blame it on misogyny, educational opportunity, or (as Marxists might have it) the theory that the voices allowed on the stage most closely reflect the sentiments of those in power. Whatever the case, theater has long been dominated by men.
Which is one reason this year's Pacific Playwrights Project, South Coast Repertory's (SCR) annual new-play festival, is so interesting. Maybe it's mere coincidence. Maybe it's a signal of a major cultural shift. But in the fourth project, female playwrights rule.
Seven of the 14 playwrights represented in this year's festival are women, including Amy Freed, whose The Beard of Avonis the festival's keynote play and its lone full-length production; Annie Weisman, whom festival director Jerry Patch calls one of the most exciting female playwrights in the country and whose play Hold Pleaseis part of SCR's 2001-2002 season; and two playwrights Patch praises for their eloquent and complex use of language, Lucinda Coxon (Nostalgia) and Hilary Bell (The Falls).Not to be overlooked are UCLA graduate Sheila Callaghan (Scab) and Joann Farias and Anne Garcia-Romero, two Latina playwrights who are part of the festival's ambitious, site-specific California Scenarios, five short plays set in the Noguchi sculpture garden and all centered on Latino life.
The men in this year's festival are no slackers either. There's Pulitzer Prize- and Academy Award-winning author Horton Foote (Getting Frankie Married—and Afterwards); Obie Award-winning playwright Kevin Heelan (Eye to Eye); emerging Latino playwrights Alejandro Morales (Sweaty Palms) and Jorge Ignacio Cortinas (Our Tight Embrace); and three other playwrights involved with California Scenarios: Luis Alfaro, Jose Cruz Gonzalez and Octavio Solis.
Patch says this year's emphasis on female playwrights was a random result—no more intended than the fact that this lineup is also composed of playwrights whom even dedicated theater audiences may not recognize. In years past, the festival has included some of America's most successful and well-known playwrights, including Richard Greenberg, Howard Korder, Donald Margulies and Nicky Silver. With the exception of Foote, no playwright in this year's festival has a matching pedigree.
But they all have great potential. And they all wrote very fine plays.
"These are the best plays that were submitted," Patch said. "That's not to mean that next year we won't have a Richard Greenberg or Donald Margulies, but it's refreshing to see—in a year when those playwrights didn't have anything for us—that we received so many good plays from fresh playwrights."
Patch is willing to go further, saying this year's class might be the finest in the festival's short history.
"As a group, this is the strongest lineup of plays we've had," said Patch, who, as SCR's dramaturge, has been as influential as anyone in shaping the theater's commitment to new plays over the past 20 years. "There is a whole group of young writers out there who have surfaced the past few years, all of whom can write very well. It's very exciting, and we'll see who stays [in the theater] and who winds up in Hollywood."
At a mere eight bucks, the seven staged readings in this year's festival are one of the best theater deals in the county. You might think a staged reading is a half-assed way to experience a play. You'd be wrong. There's art and science in a good staged reading, and the actors and directors SCR gets for its readings are the same people who create their full-length plays. A reading can occasionally be more powerful and eloquent than a full production—Patch cites Howard Korder's The Hollow Lands, a play that floored audiences in its two staged readings. But the playwright's rich use of language was ultimately overshadowed by the large scale of the full-length production.
While Patch is far too shrewd to play favorites, the two playwrights he seems most excited about this year are both women: Lucinda Coxon and Hilary Bell. Coxon, an English playwright little known in the United States, has one of the festival's two workshop productions (which feature costumes and sets but a rapidly accelerated rehearsal process; the first weekend, actors may even carry scripts or call for lines). Nostalgiaconcerns a famous writer of detective stories who travels to a South Wales farm and meets two brothers who claim to hear songs sung by mythical sirens.
But more interesting than the subject matter is Coxon's style. "She's a very artful writer who writes very densely," Patch said. "It's highly figurative, poetic and literary. In rhetoric, there is plain style, middle style and grand style; Lucinda writes in plain and middle style. It makes demands on performers and the audience because we don't tend to write like that in America."
Bell's play, The Falls, is set in turn-of-the-19th-century Australia, her homeland. By all accounts, it's a trippy play in the gender-bending fashion of Caryl Churchill. It features brothers who've become sisters, relics of the Missing Link, one of history's first psychoanalysts, and a mute and bearded six-year-old.
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"She writes in a very theatrical way that is also quite wonderful," Patch said. "The play takes so many risks, using turn-of-the-century melodrama as a base. But it's also about truth and lies and how we want to believe lies even in the face of evidence to the contrary. . . . There are also interior monologues that are sung and for which music has been composed, and gender politics. It's an involved, really adventuresome piece."
Adding her own touch to the elaborate tapestry is director Liz Diamond, who works at Yale University and whom SCR "has tried to get into the building for most of a decade," Patch said.
We'd have a lot more to write about this festival, including lots of stuff about California Scenarios, which is the one piece that will probably get the most publicity this year, but since these fingers are attached to a man, we've run out of things to say.
Pacific Playwrights Project at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555.California Scenarios: June 22-24 and June 29-July 1, 8 p.m. $10;Nostalgia: June 28-30 and July 1-2, 7:45 p.m. $18;The Falls: July 1, 11 a.m. $8. Call the theater for dates and times for the six other staged readings.