The Future (of Seattle Theatre) is Female

Haysam Kadri, Arden Pala, Nadine Malouf, Nikita Tewani and Denmo Ibrahim in A Thousand Splendid Suns at American Conservatory Theater. Photo by Jim Cox

Female playwright-director teams are still a rarity nationwide, but this fall is full of women-led projects. Danielle Mohlman explores four plays coming to Seattle that showcase the talent, wit and power of women.

According to a nationwide study conducted by Theatre Communications Group, during the 2016–17 theatre season, only 26% of produced plays were written by female playwrights. This statistic is personal to me. I’m a female-identifying playwright working nationally. I’m a speck on that scale, but I do count. Which is why I’m a little ashamed to say I was actually excited to see this number. For several years, I’d been telling folks that female playwrights make up only 20% of produced plays. That six percent jump—that’s huge! 

I don’t have to tell you that 26% is an abysmal statistic. And this number doesn’t even include plays by genderqueer and non-binary folks, which only make up 0.004% of produced plays nationwide. 

But theatre companies across Seattle are doing their part to balance the scales and bring gender parity to their stages. I had the opportunity to speak with women championing other women—artists from Seattle Repertory Theatre, ArtsWest, Washington Ensemble Theatre and Seattle Public Theatre. These theatres are not only producing plays by female playwrights, they’re also enlisting female directors to take the reins. Females are strong as hell, y’all. 

Carey Perloff, director of A Thousand Splendid Suns at Seattle Repertory Theatre, fell in love with Khaled Hosseini’s novel—of the same name—as soon as she read it. She was directing Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, a play set in the Middle East, at the time and turned to Hosseini’s novel as a piece of research and inspiration. She found the novel so richly drawn, so captivating, that she wanted to see the story on stage—as soon as possible. Perloff, then the artistic director of A.C.T. in San Francisco, met with Hosseini, who lives in the Bay Area, and asked if he would consider allowing A.C.T. to adapt his novel for the stage. 

“For the most part, when we read news about Afghanistan it focuses on war and destruction,” Perloff said. “But A Thousand Splendid Suns is a gorgeous story of three generations of women over a twenty-five-year period, forging a very unlikely friendship and finding love—and even joy—in a whole new future, amidst political chaos.”

Once Hosseini agreed to the adaptation, Perloff set out to find the perfect playwright for the job. She was familiar with Ursula Rani Sarma’s writing through a play produced at A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory. Perloff was drawn to the poetry of Sarma’s playwriting. 

“She has a stunning visual sense and an ability to convey extreme emotion without excess,” Perloff said. Sarma had experience writing adaptations, which was important to Perloff. But more importantly, she had a connection to Afghanistan and the characters Hosseini had created. “She knew the part of the world that Khaled was writing about, so her lens was personal, intimate and true.” 

The play just finished a run at A.C.T. in San Francisco, part of a planned collaboration between A.C.T. and Seattle Repertory Theatre. 

“I have always found Seattle audiences to be adventurous, engaged and generous,” Perloff said. “I also know that Seattle audiences are excited about work from diverse cultures and multiple points of view. This is such an unusual piece in every way, both in terms of form and content, so it’s exciting to think of it playing in a city with such a strong theatre tradition and a really committed public.”

Perloff was quick to add that this isn’t a literal adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel. Rather, it’s a reimagining—utilizing all the tools of theatre at its disposal, including live scoring using found instruments like saws and bed springs to create the music of this world. 

“Seattle is in for a treat!” Perloff said. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns runs October 5 to November 10 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. 

Jason Bowen, Caroline Stefanie Clay and Shannon Dorsey in Skeleton Crew at Studio Theatre
Jason Bowen, Caroline Stefanie Clay and Shannon Dorsey in Skeleton Crew at Studio Theatre

Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, the final play in her three-play cycle “The Detroit Projects,” was the third most produced play in the United States last season. It’s also the play that ArtsWest has chosen to open their 2018–19 season—an ensemble drama about one of the last auto stamping plants in Detroit and the people who work there. 

Jay O’Leary, the play’s director, describes Skeleton Crew as a play about survival and having power over your own soul. 

Skeleton Crew explores how we persevere,” O’Leary said. “The humans within this play are very good at what they do. They are funny. They are smart. They are passionate. The key to surviving and thriving in life in general is how we fight. Do we fight with the soul in mind or do we fight with bitterness and ugliness within our hearts? These questions directly apply to our socio-political climate right now. The more ugliness we give, the more ugliness we receive.”

O’Leary added that not only are these characters dealing with how to survive a potential job loss, they’re also navigating morality and whether their definition of right and wrong can change when their hopes, dreams, even their next meal, are all in jeopardy. 

O’Leary discovered Morisseau’s plays at a point of frustration. 

“I was screaming about how desperately we need playwrights who are female-identifying artists of color,” O’Leary said. “My friend tossed over “The Detroit Projects” and I was immediately in awe of this woman’s power and poetry. Dominique Morisseau’s words sing and pulsate and thump their rhythms into the marrow of your bones. That’s how she builds up the humans of her scripted worlds—from the universal dust that creates the sack of blood and water which cradle our souls.”

She added that the people in Morisseau’s plays are so rarely seen depicted on stage and screen as fully fleshed out human beings, rather than grotesque stereotypes. 

“The fact that I, a young woman of color, get to direct this piece out here in very white Seattle means that the seats at the table are shifting,” O’Leary said. And she’s determined not only to take that seat, but to make the table bigger than it’s ever been. “Because who the hell wants to eat the same bland meal with the same exact people over and over again? I don’t, and neither do you.”

Skeleton Crew runs September 20 to October 14 at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery. 

Kevin Kelly, Cheyenne Barton and Kiki Abba from Everything You Touch at Washington Ensemble Theatre
Kevin Kelly, Cheyenne Barton and Kiki Abba from Everything You Touch at Washington Ensemble Theatre

Maggie Rogers discovered Sheila Callaghan’s playwriting her senior year of high school. She was auditioning for college acting programs and fell in love with a monologue from Tumor

“Sheila Callaghan’s work keeps popping up in my life as a constant reminder to take risks,” Rogers said. “Her work is exciting to me because she doesn’t apologize or write ‘pretty’ people. Her characters are raw, visceral and in your face.”

Years later, Rogers is directing the Northwest premiere of Everything You Touch at Washington Ensemble Theatre, her directing debut with the company. 

“What I love so much about this play is that it is a love letter to every person who thought they were not enough,” Rogers said. “It bluntly tackles body image, food shaming, anxiety and the horrors of going home, in a way that deeply resonates with my dark sense of humor.”

And she knows it’s a play that Seattle needs right now. 

“Seattle loves to pride itself on being politically correct, but I feel like fat shaming is the only widely accepted prejudice in the city, and the country for that matter,” Rogers said. “When I moved to Seattle I found that I was often the fattest person in the room and a hot commodity on the Tinder dating scene. Over the past three years I have grappled with being called fat—on public transit, by drunk dudes on Capitol Hill—and have investigated why it hurts so badly, even though I know a stranger’s opinion should not hold any weight.”

Samie Smith Detzer, Washington Ensemble Theatre’s artistic director, agrees that now is the perfect time to produce this play. 

“This play is particularly potent when you consider that we have only begun to scratch the surface of understanding the degree to which our society believes that our bodies do not personally belong to us,” Detzer said. “This play explores how we can own our bodies. Plus, it’s funny! And witty! And raunchy! And sweet!”

In addition to being a prolific playwright and writer and executive producer on Shameless, Sheila Callaghan is also a founding member of The Kilroys, a group of female-identifying playwrights and producers dedicated to achieving gender parity on stage. 

“The Kilroys have exposed a messed-up system that was essentially created to keep marginalized voices and identities out of the conversation,” Detzer said. “They took the idea that there are no great women or trans playwrights and completely struck it down. What an amazing gift they have given us, the ability to move on to the next important question: Why the f— aren’t these plays being produced?”

Everything You Touch runs September 21 to October 8 at 12th Avenue Arts. 

Cast of Fade at Primary Stages
Cast of Fade at Primary Stages

Washington Ensemble Theatre isn’t the only company in town working with a Kilroys founder. Tanya Saracho, perhaps best known as the showrunner of Vida, is also fighting for nationwide gender parity on stage. Her play Fade opens at Seattle Public Theatre this month. 

“The Kilroys are such a valuable resource for me,” said Director Pilar O’Connell. “The celebration of female and female-identifying playwrights and folks of color is incredibly important.” 

O’Connell first encountered Saracho’s work when she was in college. She was researching Latinx artists working nationally and stumbled upon Teatro Luna in Chicago, a theatre company Saracho co-founded with collaborator Coya Paz. O’Connell dug deeper, read-
ing every Saracho play she could find. 

“I was drawn to Fade because I was looking for a smart show that gave me a different perspective of the Latinx experience,” O’Connell said. “This play addresses the idea of classism within your own culture, and although it is a Latinx story, I think it’s universally relatable.”

O’Connell added that she loves Saracho’s style—witty and realistic with just a hint of film magic. It’s a combination that’s incredibly appealing to actors. 

Seattle Public Theatre’s co-artistic director, Annie Lareau, is looking forward to sharing this play with Seattle audiences.

“We were drawn to Fade because of the intersectional conversation it presents around class, culture and the price of ambition many women and women of color face in white and male dominated professions,” Lareau said. “Through this microcosm of a play, we see the larger struggles faced by women in the workplace—all while calling into question the world of television and how it perpetuates dangerous stereotypes and the responsibility we have for shifting them.”

Fade runs October 12 to November 4 at Seattle Public Theatre. 

This fall—and throughout the entire 2018–19 theatre season—make a commitment to see more plays by female and non-binary playwrights. Dig into The Kilroys list, reward theatres that demonstrate gender parity on their stages. Because who knows? You may be part of a national shift, one that will make today’s 26% feel like ancient history.