On Stage

Marin Theatre Co. upends male dominance with new season, playwrights

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Margo Hall and Tiffany Tenille star in ‘Jazz’ at Marin Theatre Company. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

In a world where male playwrights outnumber women, especially in Broadway and off-Broadway theaters, the Marin Theatre Company’s upcoming season looks nothing short of revolutionary.

“American theater has taken some remarkably groundbreaking steps, and there are things we do faster and better than others,” says Jasson Minadakis, artistic director of the Mill Valley theater company. “But there are other areas in which American theater has shown up late to the table, if at all. And theater’s reluctant relationship—and almost nonexistent promotion of female playwrights—is one of those areas.”

MTC has long been a champion of playwrights who fall into categories often underrepresented on the American stage. So it shouldn’t be shocking that when the award-winning nonprofit recently announced its 2019–20 season, the six shows named include five by established and emerging female playwrights. After all, of the seven playwrights included in the company’s current season—including this week’s debut of Nambi E. Kelley’s “Jazz”—four of those playwrights are women. It’s a big deal, just don’t make too big a deal of it, says Minadakis.

“But for what it’s worth, [gender] is really not a conscious consideration in choosing our season,” says Minadakis. “We literally just went after the six best new plays we could find, the scripts that grabbed out interest and held it. Only after we looked at them all together did we realize that we had picked plays by five amazing American women and one Canadian man.”

The season begins Oct. 1 with Mary Katherine Nagle’s “Sovereignty,” an examination of the genocidal Trail of Tears, and its modern-day impact on one young Cherokee lawyer. The play had its world premiere earlier this year in Washington D.C.

After that comes the ferocious historical drama “Mother of the Maid” (Nov. 19), in which the mother of Joan of Arc confronts the many contradictions of her doomed daughter’s astonishing life. It was penned by Nicasio playwright-screenwriter Jane Anderson, who also wrote last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Wife.”

On Jan. 14, in association with San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions, it’ll be “Noura”, by Heather Raffo (“The 9 Parts of Desire”), the intimately crafted story of an Iraqi family celebrating Christmas (and their new American citizenship), and what happens when an unexpected guest arrives for the holidays. Then, beginning March 10, 2020, MTC presents the world premiere of Kate Cortesi’s “Love,” followed by Lynn Nottage’s mysterious “Mlima’s Tale” (opening April 28), about the hunting and trafficking of endangered animals as told by the spirit of an African elephant. The final show of the season will be “Botticelli in the Fire” by Jordan Tannahill, opening next June.

Minadakis points out that MTC’s upcoming season (with the exception of Cortesi’s “Love”) is almost entirely made up of the second or third productions of these plays. For a playwright, that’s almost as important, and perhaps even more so, than a world premiere, since when it comes to new works, many companies recognize the potential box office bragging rights that come from debuting a new show. In the case of Nagle, a renowned playwright who garnered tremendous praise for her work at some of America’s most prestigious companies, MTC’s production of “Sovereignty” will mark the first time a company has given any of her plays a second production.

“That’s crazy isn’t it?” says Minadakis. “And it’s just another example of how hard it is for the voices of female playwrights to be heard in this country.”

That’s a fact that Kate Cortesi, the Boston-based author of “Love,” has been contending with for years, despite what some would call a high degree of success. Originally from Washington D.C., Cortesi had a number of plays produced at festivals and college settings, and has amassed a good deal of attention along the way—including winning the esteemed Princess Grace award for her 2014 play “Great Kills.” MTC’s 2020 production of “Love” takes on workplace sexual harassment in the #MeToo era and will be her first professional production.

“I’m thrilled that MTC will be doing my play,” says Cortesi. “And I have to say I feel pretty psyched to be on that list, alongside such amazing company.”

Cortesi agrees that the female-dominated lineup is a notable, and still extremely rare, occurrence. “I’m thinking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quip when asked, ‘When there will be real equity on the Supreme Court?’, and she said ‘When there are nine female Supreme Court justices.’ Truly, we are so conditioned to all-male landscapes, that’s the sort of background and wallpaper of our lives, and when you change any part of that wallpaper, it’s extremely noticeable. It’s impossible to ignore, because it stands out. I do hope for a time when the wallpaper of American theater being frequently made out of women, instead of all men, just looks like wallpaper.”

Cortesi adds that when she looks around at the new plays exciting her at the moment, it’s hard to ignore the contributions from women.

“Women playwrights are kicking ass right now,” she says. “They are producing remarkable work, and they are leading. I think that centering is long overdue. It’s such a great time to go to the theater right now.”

Jane Anderson, who splits her time between Marin County and Los Angeles, shares Cortesi’s dream of a time when a season like MTC’s is business as usual.

“Won’t it be great when things like that don’t seem like some big leap forward, and just seem like another year at the theater?” she says.

Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid” was originally developed at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, and was revamped before last year’s run at NYC’s Public Theater, with Glenn Close in the title role.

“I’m really not interested in bumping-off male playwrights,” Anderson says. “There are so many wonderful men in the theater—artists, and directors, and actors, and designers—and I’ve been listening to a lot of scolding going on, men being scolded for dominating theater. But I tend to think the artists are the wrong people to be yelling at. I truly believe every artist is unique, regardless of what gender or color or orientation they are.”

Female playwrights, she says, are demanding basic equity and fairness. “I think the main request from us female playwrights, and playwrights of color and other playwrights who are in the minority, is that we get read and we get a fair shot,” she says. “Breaking through the American stage is such a complicated concept. It’s hard for everybody. I suppose in some ways, it will be a great day when it’s equally hard for men to break through as it is for women, instead of it being so very much harder for women. “And I think maybe, little by little, we’re beginning to move in that direction,” she says. “Companies like Marin Theatre Company are part of the solution. But we have a long way to go.”

By David Templeton

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