There’s a tendency for critics and audiences to dismiss so much of women’s writing as “chick lit.” That term, by the way, was coined by novelist Cris Mazza for a post-feminist anthology and meant to be ironic, though it was later co-opted to just mean any fluffy story about modern womanhood, a la Bridget Jones’ Diary. Some stories are fluff, so that’s fair enough. But some are smart, literary stories packaged in misleading book covers. And there’s also a societal bias that while stories with men as protagonists are for everybody, stories about or featuring women are only of interest to women.
In the world of playwriting, that same idea persists, but in surprising ways.
“There’s not a lack of women in playwriting,” says New York City-based playwright Deb Laufer. “There’s a lack of women in full production.”
This year, out of the 10 plays showing on Broadway, not one of them is written by a woman, though several off-Broadway plays are. One survey just focusing on Los Angeles found 20 percent of the productions were by women, and one for New York found 11 percent.
To address the issue, this year’s Missoula Colony—an annual gathering of playwrights, actors, producers and dramaturges hosted by the Montana Repertory Theatre—is focused entirely on women. Colony 19 features notable playwrights Laufer, Molly Rice and Julia Jordan, who will lead panels and try out readings of new works on Missoula audiences and in Colony workshops. Recognizable Missoula playwrights like Kate Morris and former locals like Larke Schuldberg will also be showcasing new, in-progress works.
Laufer is a great example of where stereotypes of “chick lit” break down. Her newest finished play, Informed Consent, is inspired by the recent court case between the Havasupai tribe and Arizona State University. Tribal members submitted their blood to find out why the tribe was succumbing to Type 2 diabetes, but the researchers took the blood and did other unauthorized studies.
“The consent document was wildly vague and so one of the things [the researchers] traced was geographical origins and found they originated in Eastern Asia,” Laufer says. “But the tribe’s creation myth is that they spring forth from the Grand Canyon and so it was devastating to them. I like to write about where religion and science rub up against each other, so it’s the perfect story for me.”
Another Laufer play, Leveling Up, is about a 20-something video gamer who lands a job with the government flying drones and the consequences that come after. And Sirens is about a man who wrote a song for his wife that became an international hit, but when they take a cruise for their 25th anniversary, he hears a beautiful song, jumps overboard and ends up on the Sirens’ island where he faces his mid-life crisis.
Laufer’s foray into playwriting came because of the Missoula Colony and the encouragement of Pulitzer-prize winning playwright, Juilliard drama teacher and Colony founder Marsha Norman. In 1997, Laufer was working as an actor in LA when she submitted a play to the second Colony on a whim and got in.
“I knew nothing about playwriting,” she says. “But Marsha, within a day, said, ‘You’re actually a playwright.’” Norman invited Laufer to study playwriting at Juilliard for a year, which she did. And Laufer has been working on plays ever since, including End Days, which was produced by Montana Rep in 2010. “It changed my life completely,” she says. “I will always be grateful to Marsha and the Missoula Colony.”
This year, the fourth time Laufer has attended the Colony, she’ll bring a work-in-progress that’s a little bit different from the science- and action-based stories she’s used to telling. The Three Sisters of Meehawken is a retelling of Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters. Considered Chekov’s most sensitive play, it tells the story of three sisters in a small Russian town who dream of a life in Moscow. Laufer’s version has three sisters trying to get to Manhattan from the small town of Meehawken, N.J. “It’s just a 15-minute ferry ride but they just can’t seem to get there,” she says. “It’s sort of about what makes a life a life, and the little things you can you do and strive for in your life and make it still meaningful.”
The play’s roles call for a range of women from 20 to 80 years old—partly an effort on Laufer’s part to support a diversity of women. Along with Norman and other playwrights at the Colony, the goal is to see where playwriting is failing women, and do something about it.
“If every theater in the country pledged to do one year of 50/50 production by men and women playwrights, they would find out that they had just as much success,” Laufer says. “It’s not something to complain about anymore. It’s just time to demand that the change happens.”
The eight-day Missoula Colony offers public readings, plus panels and workshops Sat., July 12, through Sun., July 19. Deb Laufer’s Three Sisters of Meehawken will be staged Sun., July 13, at 8 PM. $15 per staging/$100 all-access pass. Visit montanarep.org.