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A CurtainUp Book Review
Women Who Write Plays
Interviews with American Dramatists
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
You always have to have a day job. I mean, Neil Simon and Wendy Wasserstein write screenplays. Probably the luckiest thing that can happen to a playwright is that your day job is other writing.
--- Diana Son in one of twenty-three interviews in which the question of earning one's living is a recurring issue.
Editor's Note: As I read Women Who Write Plays with a view to writing this review, a few questions of my own came to mind which I posed to editor Alexis Greene via e-mail. In terms of her methodology she said "I wanted each interview to begin differently, if at all possible, although I knew that at some point, preferably early on, I would ask the playwright to talk about her childhood, her parents, her personal world. A couple of playwrights told me from the beginning that they did not like to talk about personal things, by which I gathered they meant information about their personal lives — Naomi Wallace, Wendy Kesselman come to mind. But even they ended up referring to "personal" sides of their lives. It's hard not to when a writer is talking about her art. As is true of any project of this type."

Ms. Greene also reflected on some aspects of the interviews that she found particularly enlightening, gratifying — and disturbing: "I think what surprised me most as I did these interviews was that in so many cases these women echoed each other — -- felt similarly about their careers, about the American theatre, about writing. But each really did not know that her thoughts and feelings were shared by others. That astounded and troubled me, because it said that on some level these women were isolated from each other, and that's a tremendous loss to them all. I loved that several of the women talked about hair. Pearl Cleage, Tina Howe, Elizabeth Wong, Carmen Rivera —- each of them talk about hair in the context of a play and in relation to themselves. — Elyse Sommer "

Alexis Greene is one of those interviewers blessed with the gift of asking intelligent questions and then letting her subjects carry the ball. She inspires trust, not just because of her reputation as a respected theater critic, but because it is instantly clear that she has done her homework before having these conversations with, to borrow from Wendy Wasserstein, twenty-seven"uncommon women."

Since few readers are likely to come to these interviews with Ms. Greene's familiarity, I suppose I should begin with what is at once a caveat and a special plus. While the net cast includes some well-known playwrights like Pulizer Prize winner, Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), many of these playwrights' works will not be all that familiar to any but theater aficionados. Thus since many of these conversations are about specific plays, those who haven't seen or read the work being discussed may feel somewhat at sea. On the other hand, the discussions are of sufficient general interest to lessen that sense of exclusion — besides, most of the plays mentioned have been published and enjoy regional productions so if the book leads you to see and read some of these plays at a later date , this drawback might well be considered a plus.

The format of the book is simple and conducive to browsing. The interviews are arranged alphabetically by author (from Lynne Alvarez to Wakako Yamanchi). Each features a black and white photo plus a one-page biographical sketch that includes a list of published plays with a sentence about their content and gives the date and locale of the interviews. Interestingly while the dates of plays and interviews are included, the writers' birth dates are not. (According to Ms. Greene, some of the women were not forthcoming on thiss so, in the interest of consistency, she excluded this data throughout — something of a commentary on our youth oriented culture generally and women's persistent skittishness about revealing their age. As the interviews progressed, most of the women did reveal their ages).

The interviews themselves are done like a play script, alternating A.G. (Greene) questions with the interview subject's comments. As the experienced play reader soon learns to ignore the format of the speaker's name preceding dialogue, so you quickly get the sense of simply being a third party to a free-ranging dialogue.

While the questions differ from interview to interview, there are obviously some that serve as a unifying leitmotif. The result is a richly diverse group portrait, revealing a remarkable number of writers who began as poets and a not surprisingly large number who have not been able to make a living writing for the stage.

The free-ranging conversational style catches some fascinating comments on translation, different types of writing and, in one instance, the role of the dramaturg. To sum up, this is a valuable compendium. It's appeal is I suppose limited to theatrical students, and particularly women — Off and Off-Off-Broadway more than Broadway.

While I appreciate Ms. Greene's letting the interviews as well as the writers speak for themselves, I think a few explanatory editorial parenthetical notes would have been helpful; for example, the reference to Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw in the interview with The Five Lesbian Brothers. Also, while the book includes an appendix with a list of the subjects' published works, I think a paragraph excerpted from a play, perhaps at the top or bottom of each biography, would have given at least a flavor of each woman's writing style.

In a less cautious book publishing climate, one could count on an biannually updated editions of this invaluable compilations to add dramatists who were for one reason or another omitted. When I asked who she would like to have included, Ms. Greene mentioned Alice Tuan, Caridad Svich, Mary Zimmerman and Marsha Norman. To this reviewer, Susan Lori Parks and Rebecca Gilman also come to mind, as well as Melissa James Gibson whose [sic] (Our Review} came into the spotlight this season, after this book went to press. Having done a few reference books myself, however, I know that this is likely to have to serve for quite some time as the only book in which you'll find this many contemporary women playwrights having their say about their lives, their influences and their work.

Women Who Write Play
Interviews With American Dramatists with an introduction by Molly Smith
Editor: Alexis Greene
Black and white photos of playwrights interviewed: Lynne Alvarez, Pearl Cleage, Constance Congdon, Kia Corthron, Migdalia Cruz, Elizabeth Egloff, Eve Ensler, The Five Lesbian Brothers, Beth Henley, Tina Howe, Holly Hughes, Jakes-ann Jones, Wendy Kesselman, Emily Mann, Marlane Meyer, Cherrie Moraga, Carmen Rivera, Anna Deavere Smith, Diane Son, Paula Vogel, Naomi Wallace, Cheryl L. West, Elizabeth Wong, Wakako Yamauchi.
Publisher: Smith and Kraus
Trade Paperback, 544 pages, including Appendix of published plays by interviewees - $19.95
To purchase, follow link to CurtainUp Book Store
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