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Features Published 18 September 2017

Some Women Playwrights

Rufus, Rupert, Edward... take note. Exeunt's writers have compiled a list of just some of the many great female playwrights that London's theatres should be staging.
Exeunt Staff

'Trouble in Mind', the story of actor and playwright Alice Childress. (Pictured: Jonathan Cullen and Tanya Moodie)

“My dear, we simply can’t stage your play.” [photo: ‘Trouble in Mind’, written by trailblazing playwright Alice Childress. Pictured: Jonathan Cullen and Tanya Moodie]

To look at the number of female playwrights staged at London’s leading new writing theatres, you might imagine that there aren’t many around. Indeed, when challenged on the gender imbalance at his theatre, Hampstead Theatre’s artistic director Edward Hall has argued “it’s because we don’t have the plays”. So we asked Exeunt’s writers to help out by suggesting some of their favourite female writers. Edward (and Rufus, and Rupert, and David…) we hope you’re paying attention. We’re barely scraping the surface.

Annie Baker
Okay, so Annie Baker’s wondrous homage to cinema, The Flick was staged at the NT last year – but in the Dorfman, which is where work by female playwrights disproportionately seems to end up, away from the theatre’s two bigger venues, the Olivier and the Lyttleton. She makes work that has a kind of epic, sprawling naturalness: awkward moments, faltering attempts at connection, endless silences. It deserves to take up more space. (Alice Saville)

Alice Birch
The RSC’s Midsummer Mischief brought us the first outing of Alice Birch’s extraordinary Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., the angriest of four plays that carved out a space for women’s writing within an institution that hasn’t always got far enough past the dead white man at its centre. Accompanying the ‘Roaring Girls’ season of plays featuring outspoken early modern women, these four specially commissioned plays also included new work by Abi Zakarian, Timberlake Wertenbaker and E. V. Crowe. Aside from the four plays being brilliant on their own terms, it demonstrated what can be achieved when a major organisation sets aside proper time to commission and support new work from both young and established authors. (Peter Kirwan)

Marina Carr
Well of course the Irish woman is going to say Marina Carr. I’d been studying theatre for two years when I first discovered her work and it was the first time I understood on a deeply chemical level what a great play was, for me. She is a builder of worlds, a cultivator of rich theatrical landscapes, she combines ferocity and femininity in a way that cut to the quick of me when I found her. I return to Woman and Scarecrow time and time again when I feel like I’ve lost my love of theatre. She’s also an example of a mid-career female playwright who is constantly pushing herself, her form and her craft without the support often afforded to her male counterparts, like Conor McPherson and Enda Walsh. People often reminisce mistily about the romantic Midlands plays she wrote in her twenties when the work she’s creating now is just as dynamic, brave and daring, if not more so. (Gillian Greer)

Pamela Carter
A lot of writers seek out received wisdom, give it grand speeches and call them profound. Carter’s intelligence won’t allow that. She seeks out the difficult and makes it more difficult. Because of this, watching one of her plays can make you squirm, want to look away, unsure how you’re supposed to feel about it. She paints with words for those words to be spoken on stage and the images they conjure remain imprinted on your mind long after you leave the auditorium. (William Drew)

Elizabeth Cary
The Tragedy of Mariam (1613) by Elizabeth Cary was the first original play (rather than a translation) by a woman to be published in England. The play explores the consequences of female speech and speaking out against tyranny, and contains some brilliantly poetic lines. Having written my undergraduate dissertation on Elizabethan representations of the tongue, forcing on The Tragedy of Mariam, I will take on anyone who says this play wasn’t intended to be performed. (Hannah Greenstreet)

Anupama Chandrasekhar
She’s the National Theate’s first International Writer in Residence so hopefully it won’t be long before we see a new play from her. From Chennai, Chandrasekhar is a wonderfully considered and delicate writer and the world she writes about is one that we rarely see on stage: one balanced precariously between technological globalism and traditional, conservative values. What she is brilliant at is using stories to distil these huge issues down to a relatable humanist level. (William Drew)

Kefi Chadwick
In the last couple of years I’ve been impressed by new writing on social issues by women at Nottingham Playhouse: Jane Upton (All the Little Lights) and Kefi Chadwick (Any Means Necessary) are doing extraordinary work capturing working-class women’s voices, their plays spinning contemporary hot-button issues into heartbreaking laments for the disenfranchised and forgotten. (Peter Kirwan)

Alice Childress
It would be genuinely exciting if the recent revival of Trouble in Mind (now moving to Print Room, at the Coronet) created the momentum for staging Alice Childress’ (1916-1994) works. Never mind that her insights on race are still depressingly relevant, writing that good doesn’t date. Her work has a generosity and honesty some of today’s more polemical pieces would profit from. (Lucian Waugh)

Mia Chung
American playwright Mia Chung is the wordsmith behind You for Me for You, the border-crossing drama of two North Korean sisters hoping to make it past the Chinese border. One does – the other tumbles down a well in an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque turn; both encounter startling, strange new worlds and the complexities of what language conveys and what it sometimes cannot communicate. You for Me for You had its UK premiere at the Royal Court in 2015; I watched a workshopped version of it in 2010 when Mia was completing the play at Brown University’s MFA programme in Playwriting that, already, utterly gripped me. (Corrie Tan)

Larissa FastHorse
I saw a reading of Native American playwright FastHorse’s play What Would Crazy Horse Do in 2015: a politically explosive play about the last members of a tribe potentially joining up with a modernized version of the KKK. I’ve been waiting for a production ever since (it just had its world premiere in 2017 in Kansas). Smart, funny, and dark as hell. It may not be the story we want to see but it’s a story that we may need to hear. I’m eager to see more by her. (Nicole Serratore)

Lara Foot
South Africa’s Baxter Theatre’s showcase of six plays at the Edinburgh Fringe this year served as a reminder of, among other things, the superb talents of Lara Foot (read the text of her TED talk here). Director of the company based at the University of Cape Town, Foot’s plays are firmly rooted in South Africa. Yet their core is so fundamentally human that an in-depth familiarity with the history, culture and politics of the country isn’t required by the audience. She did the triple at Edinburgh with performances of Karoo Moose, Tshepang: The Third Testament and The Inconvenience of Wings. Of these, Karoo Moose drip-fed its way into my brain for weeks after watching it. There’s enough sorrow in the work to make me cry, but my overriding feeling a month later is simply this: it’s beautiful.

British theatre ADs, the dialling code for Cape Town is +27 21. You’re welcome. (Rosemary Waugh)

Augusta Gregory
The most we’ve seen of Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) recently was when she appeared on badges by #WakingTheFeminists, a campaign for gender balance in Irish theatre. Gregory is an obvious symbol for that cause; as a founder of the Abbey Theatre, she was one of the country’s most vital producers. Re-evaluating her work as a playwright has been a slower task. Gregory’s near-40 plays were written in the years before and after Ireland’s independence from Britain, an imaginably nationalist period when plays with virtuous peasants were popular. Today it would be impossible to take seriously the labourers of Spreading the News (1904) and Hyacinth Halvey (1906). That’s not to say a contemporary production couldn’t make something of those farces’ misunderstandings and confused identities in this post-truth world. The Gaol Gate (1906) could be adapted to any country that’s known republican militarism. Set outside a prison, it shows the arrival of a man’s mother and wife to await his fate. Gregory says as much in this one-act that other dramatists do in a lifetime. As Ireland continues into its centenary of Independence, it would be exciting to see Gregory’s mythology plays – Kincora (1905), Dervorgilla (1907) and Grania (1912) – dressed in Game of Thrones-style garbs. Irish nationalism will be an unavoidable subject these next few years, and Gregory knew how to question the symbols we’ve inherited. (Chris McCormack)

Danai Gurira
She’s been nominated for a Tony so she’s not exactly under-appreciated but it’s telling that her plays haven’t been staged anywhere bigger than the Gate in the UK (though serious kudos to the Gate for programming them). Both her 2009 play Eclipsed, set during the Liberian Civil war, and her 2012 play The Convert, set in 1890s Rhodesia remain vivid in my memory. Gurira writes rich, ambitious, multi-character pieces and has a way of combining the most harrowing of situations and settings with a deep entrenched humanity. She gives voice and agency to women silenced by circumstance and history and even her secondary characters have a depth and complexity to them. All this and she plays a total badass in The Walking Dead. (Natasha Tripney)

Lorraine Hansberry
Okay, Raisin in the Sun is done occasionally here and, when it is, I feel like there’s a whole new generation of Hansberry fans created. It’s one of the great social realist plays. It’s also probably the greatest debut play EVER. I mean come on. Ibsen, Chekhov, Miller…they were all writing these minor works that everyone now pretends don’t exist but along comes Hansberry and knocks it out the park with this. It’s an absolute gem. I’ve never seen The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window but I think it would be fascinating. It was poorly received when it first came out but had a very well received production at the Goodman last year. What about it, NT, Donmar, Hampstead? (William Drew)

Cynthia Hopkins
Don’t where she has gone. I saw The Truth: A Tragedy in Edinburgh many years ago and it was unlike anything I had ever seen. Hugely intimate and autobiographical while using image and sound with a languid confidence that seems to infiltrate your dreams. (William Drew)

Sarah Kosar
What many of the responses to Victoria Sadler’s blog, most of them by female playwrights, pointed out, is that there is a particular problem with commissioning women writers; they get stuck in the ’emerging’ phase (and the label ’emerging’ can often be a hindrance rather than a help), whilst their male contemporaries graduate to ‘mid-career’. This means that, because fewer women playwrights are programmed in mainstream rather than fringe theatres, people are less likely to know about them. I saw two of Sarah Kosar’s plays in the space of about two weeks: Mumburger at the Old Red Lion and Human Suit at Yard First Drafts. She has a distinctive, surrealist style of writing that is unafraid of exploring female bodily functions that might be considered grotesque: farting, belching, pooing. I wasn’t wild about Mumburger but I loved the absurd comedy and theatricality of Human Suit – it needs to be programmed, not least so I can see what a director does with all the cactuses! (Hannah Greenstreet)

Suzan Lori Parks
Parks is playful, eccentric and ambitious. Her work is irreverent, grotesque. She sets herself ludicrous challenges like writing a play a day for a year. She keeps setting herself up to fall flat on her face but she keeps going. She doesn’t change. She doesn’t compromise. She’s basically a rock star. Why aren’t her plays being done in the UK? Don’t ask me. I don’t have a theatre. (William Drew)

Natasha Marshall
Half Breed, Natasha Marshall’s one-woman show about growing up mixed race in rural England, was one of my Edinburgh fringe highlights. It ripples with spoken-word rhythms, comic characters, and devastatingly keen observations of racism. Good news – you can catch it till September 30th at the Soho Theatre, where the play originated on Soho Writers’ Lab. Incidentally, there are loads of amazing women writers coming out of Soho Writers’ Lab at the moment, including Theresa Ikoko, whose play Girls is at HighTide, Millie Thomas, Nina Segal, and Rita Kalnejais. (Hannah Greenstreet)

Rose Mbowa
This year marks the 30th anniversary since Rose Mbowa’s ‘Mother Uganda and her Children’ was first staged. Mbowa, a Ugandan writer, performer and activist, studied at Makerere University for her undergrad before doing an MA at Leeds University in theatre. I came across her wikipedia page by accident earlier this year, and have not yet read any of her works, but there is something deeply appealing to me about the prospect of even a rehearsed reading by a theatremaker whose practice seems to have been a true marriage of her political beliefs and campaigning for social justice. In a climate where ‘socially engaged work’ and community participation can be a mask for some half-hearted, if not cynical attempts to work beyond one’s artistic world, Mbowa’s stance as a campaigner and artist feels like one worth re-examining. (Salome Wagaine)

Anais Mitchell
Okay, not a playwright as such but Hadestown was the most wonderfully epic and theatrical album and concert and now there is a hit stage version in New York and it HAS to come here. It is both timelessly beautiful and painfully current. (William Drew)

Ruth Mitchell
If there was any natural justice then a lot of money and resources would be thrown at Ruth Mitchell. Her 2014 solo show, Homeward Bound remains one of my favourite pieces of theatre. Clever, funny, and moving – Mitchell spun gold out of the lives and dreams of her family – her handling of ‘feel good’ material without sacrificing integrity deserves a much larger audience. Mitchell’s willingness to depict relationships entirely without cynicism, and her commitment to the lives of ordinary women, actually makes hers a quietly radical voice. I check her website every few months in the hope that a revival of Coffee with Vera will be staged, this an historically-informed solo-show about the Ladies Guild of Plymouth Synagogue. If that alone doesn’t convince you to check out her work, you deserve the purgatory of yet another Alan Ayckbourn revival. (Lucian Waugh)

Chino Odimba
Programming work by female playwrights isn’t just about new writing (although that’s crucial too). It’s also about involving women in our endless re-stagings of the classics. Chino Odima’s reworking of Euripides’ Medea for the Bristol Old Vic in May 2017 radically updated the story so that the ancient text bled freely into a modern parallel narrative. Performed by an excellent all-female cast, Odimba’s creation was a thundering rewrite that celebrated the original by exploring our perpetual fascination with the character of Medea.

Her latest project is a modern re-setting of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist centred on the contemporary refugee crisis, designed for a teenage audience (dates include Soho Theatre from 2 – 4 October). After that, could some more please? (Rosemary Waugh)

Bea Roberts
Infinity Pool; A Modern Re-Telling of Madame Bovary is one of the only plays I’ve ever seen that ‘does the internet’ on stage in a real, convincing, emotive way, filtered through Flaubert’s novel. And it’s also a play that’s unafraid and unashamed of female ordinariness, too, of insecurities and hen parties and working as a PA and all that huge mass of human experience that’s sometimes considered beneath theatre’s notice. Roberts gets commissions from small regional theatres, which is great – but maybe it’s time her work got a significant London run, too. (Alice Saville)

Emily Schwend
I’ve seen two of Schwend’s plays– one being a darkly comic feminist ghost story (The Other Thing) and the other a tale of poverty and survival by a woman barely making ends meet (Utility). She’s brought female characters to the stage I want to see more of. There’s nothing formulaic about the way she writes. She’s creating nuanced portraits and we need to pay attention to appreciate the care in her words and her work. (Nicole Serratore)

Djanet Sears
Sears remains a personal favourite of mine. Her Harlem Duet, a breathtaking jazz-inflected spin on Othello jumping between different time periods and voices, is a beautiful, poetic and desperate play that I can’t wait for someone to revive. (Peter Kirwan)

Ntozake Shange
How many plays get namechecked in award-winning TV shows? Plays from the 1970s? Ever heard Pinter, Miller or Orton mentioned? No you haven’t. Because they’re not. Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, which was a huge Broadway hit between 1975 and 1977, on the other hand is mentioned in both Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Donald Glover’s Atlanta. It’s a reminder that a piece of work that might be considered experimental can have mass, commercial appeal and enduring cultural resonance to the point where it becomes a reference point. The writing is astonishing. It is jagged. She writes like feeling as feeling comes, not as feelings are articulated after being carefully weighed up and filtered through. There’s a density that is the concentration of poetry, yes, but it also has an accessibility that recalls great song lyrics. I mean listen to this (the penultimate line being culturally appropriate by a white male character in Atlanta):

“I brought you what joy I found. And I found joy. And then there’s that woman who hurt you. And who you left three or four times. And then you went back after you put my heart in the bottom of your shoe. You just walked back to where you hurt and I didn’t have nothing. So I went to where somebody had something for me, but none of them were you. I got a real dead loving here for you now, ’cause I don’t know anymore how to avoid my own face wet with my tears because I had convinced myself that colored girls have no right to sorrow. I lived for you. I know I did it for myself, but I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand being sorry and colored at the same time. It’s so redundant in the modern world.”

It has everything: deeply political, deeply personal, visceral, resonant. Even out of context, it packs a killer punch. (William Drew)

Jackie Sibblies Drury
A recent recipient of the lucrative and prestigious 2015 Windham-Campbell Literary Prize, the Brooklyn-based playwright’s breakout play was We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 – which, along with its deliberate mouthful of a title, cleverly unpicks a forgotten genocide through the rehearsal process of staging a play. Its actors wrestle with the macroscopic scale of death and destruction, and what catharsis and the viscera of performing trauma really means. Jackie’s work often examines memory and personal history, and is always magnificently politically provocative. (Corrie Tan)

Biljana Srbljanović
A Serbian playwright whose works have been translated and produced extensively all over continental Europe and in the United States over the last twenty years. Often featuring an episodic form, her plays are metaphorically rich, suitable for small casts and often widely available in an English translation – so there is no good practical excuse for the lack of their productions. She is a recipient of multiple accolades and the Ernst Toller Award, and her work as a pedagogue has inspired and nurtured a significant new wave of female playwrights in the Balkans. (Duška Radosavljević)

Anne Washburn
I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the fiercely experimental American playwright Anne Washburn and worrying that the undeservedly hostile response to Mr Burns (staged in a shining production at the Almeida: criticisms mainly came from people who’d never seen The Simpsons) has scared the London theatre scene off from staging her work for good. And wondering if women playwrights are allowed fewer second chances, too. She’s a writer who sorely deserves one. (Alice Saville)

Bess Wohl
Wohl has written a not quiet silent play, Small Mouth Sounds, which is set at a silent retreat and leans on the actors to maintain silence in part (it begins a tour here in the US soon–a very rare feat for an Off-Broadway play) I fell hard for this play and it’s open-hearted love of people trying and failing in so many things. Wohl also wrote the book of the musical Pretty Filthy, based on interviews with performers in the porn industry. After seeing both shows which I loved, I read her earlier play American Hero, an absurd story about sandwich shop workers struggling to survive in the ever-changing American economy. There’s nothing tying Wohl to any one genre or style. She writes fulsome characters, funny scenarios, and brings small gestures to the fore. She finds humor in our ridiculous humanity and I’m keen to see what else she’s got in store for us. (Nicole Serratore)

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine