Since the beginning of live theater, women have gotten a raw deal. For an embarrassingly long time, from the ancient Greek to the English Renaissance period, women couldn't even take the stage to play women. Cross-dressing men took those roles — a tradition that continues today in Japanese Kabuki theater.
Recent studies have suggested that despite its myriad punctures, a theatrical glass ceiling remains intact. A study in U.K.'s The Guardian that exhaustively surveyed the 2012-13 English theater season found a persistent two-to-one male-to-female ratio, from the actors onstage to the playwrights commissioned to the executives in charge. Narrowing its focus strictly to playwriting, the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative found in a 2011 study that just one in five plays produced on Los Angeles-area stages was written by a woman. Similar numbers appeared two years earlier in a town hall discussion at the playwriting hub New Dramatists in New York.
South Florida is hardly immune from this bias. The local disparity led to the creation of the Women's Theatre Project in 2004, and even this company recently broke tradition by producing its first play written by a man. Thankfully, the Theatre at Arts Garage has stepped in to fill what feels like an increasing void for female writers. The company's third season, commencing in November, will feature only the work of women.
"There's been a conversation around the country for some time now about the lack of opportunities for women playwrights," says Lou Tyrrell, artistic director at the theater. "So I thought it was time to, in our own small way, help to contribute to that conversation. And it was very easy, as it always is to me, to find three wonderful plays by gifted playwrights who happen to be women."
The season opens with The How and the Why (running November 7 to 30), a two-character drama about two evolutionary biologists — one seasoned, the other emerging — who we soon realize are an estranged mother and daughter. It's penned by Sarah Treem, whose credits include such acclaimed television series as House of Cards and In Treatment.
"Of the three plays, it really addresses the issue of how challenging it is to be a professional woman in the workplace," Tyrrell says. "The issues inherent in the play have to do with the obstacles they face in the world of scientists. This play reflects [Treem's] incredible intelligence and nuanced character work and her singular storytelling; also, it provides an opportunity for two extraordinary actresses to exercise the virtuosity that I know they will bring to the project."
Next up will be I and You (January 16 to February 8), the second Arts Garage production of a Lauren Gunderson play, following 2012's Exit, Pursued by a Bear. It's another two-character drama, this one crossing racial as well as gender lines, about two high schoolers — one of whom is terminally ill — forced to collaborate on a project about Walt Whitman. The play has been praised for the naturalism of its dialogue and for its mystical twist ending.
"I wanted to write a small play that's really a big play," Gunderson says. "And I think we never really change from the people we are in high school. So writing a play about high schoolers that are dealing with adult issues lets me really write about all of us. It's a play about teens, for everyone."
The season closes with a world premiere, Allison Gregory's Uncertain Terms (March 6 to 29), which has earned high marks from its readings and workshop productions. The five-character family drama concerns a situation inspired by the playwright's next-door neighbor: a hermetic older man who had been the live-in companion of a recently deceased woman whose descendants now want to sell the property.
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"I took that exact situation and made up the dynamics and conflicts within the family and outside the family, and the house itself had become a character to me," Gregory says. In the process of writing, "I was just pulling things out of the air and putting them in my play... and it was really fun and liberating and frustrating and challenging, because I really didn't know where I was going with it. It was a lesson in riding the wild tiger."
If the titles of the three plays — The How and the Why, I and You, Uncertain Terms — all seem to have an existential bent, that's certainly fine with Tyrrell. In fact, he probably prefers it that way.
"These writers are asking the big questions," he says. "They wrap those big questions in stories that, while each one is totally unique, are just as engaging one to the other. Ultimately our audience will experience a range of styles and stories that will make for a very rewarding theater season."
Arts Garage, 180 NE First St., Delray Beach. Call 561-450-6357, or visit artsgarage.org.