The Lady Director's Dilemma

September 7, 2015 / by Sarah Elizabeth Wansley, Fall Fellow


     The Fall Directing Fellows are deep in the throws of choosing one-acts for our fall showcase, Directorfest. In theory, the opportunity to read a bunch of short plays and find The One should be a joyous assignment. In reality, however, Directorfest comes with a number of specific parameters that make the search feel less like falling in love with a play and more like shopping for furniture at IKEA (this one is too short, this one too long, this one too Swedish, etc.). The plays have to be between 20 and 30 minutes (an unusual form) and have 2-4 characters.  The plays have to somehow represent what we want to showcase about ourselves as directors and yet they also have to go from page to stage in less than two weeks.

     I was shocked, then, to find myself falling in love at first sight WITH THE FIRST PLAY I READ. I promise this is not laziness. I have read many a 30-minute play since then that have only confirmed my choice. The play is called OUT AT SEA and it’s by a Polish writer from the 1960’s, Slawomir Mrozek. I was first introduced to Mrozek’s full-length play TANGO in graduate school and remembered finding the absurd humor and political edge of his work amazingly contemporary. As I rifled through the library for books of short plays (Chekhov, Stoppard and Brecht were also in the pile, along with a swath of new plays sent to me by friends and colleagues), Mrozek’s collection of shorts just happened to be on top. I was hooked by page 2. There really is a 2-page test. My fellow fellows and I all agree – when you’re looking to find a play, the first two pages are like the first date (ok, the metaphor is getting old….I’ll let it go).

     In OUT AT SEA, three men are stranded on a raft in the ocean (no explanation given – they are in full suits). They have decided they need to sacrifice one of the three for food. After considering tyranny, they decide democracy is the way to go and set about setting up an election (for who will NOT be eaten). Absurd hijinks ensue -at one point a postman swims up to deliver a letter…and then swims back away. The play’s searing critique of election politics and the way politics intersect with class and privilege could not be a more relevant topic for this December.  And it’s really funny.

     There is just one problem. Three men. As written, the play actually consists of 5 male characters, but I quickly figured that I could double the two smaller roles and make those characters (postman, butler) female without upsetting the dramaturgy of the play. The three main characters, however, remain unbendingly male. Since personal identity plays such a large role in election politics, it is simply unbelievable that gender would not be addressed if one or two of the three were female. I briefly considered casting all three as women, but creating a piece about three women and election politics in the year Hilary is running would end up making a statement that just isn’t in the play.

     And so, here I am. In a situation I have found myself many a time as a female director who loves classic plays. Should I have only considered lady writers? Should I have limited myself to plays with strong female characters? Do I just hope that my two female compatriots (Estefania and Annie) take up the slack of gender parity? Is it our responsibility as female directors to look out for gender parity in way our male counterparts do not have to? I know many of my friends who are artists of color face a similar dilemma as regards race. Luckily, OUT AT SEA is flexible in terms of ethnicity and I’m looking forward to finding a diverse cast. I cannot hide the fact, however, that I am considering directing another play by a dead white man.

    The question remains: when you are a member of a group that is underrepresented in the theater, are you uniquely accountable for fighting that inequality? I want to say no. That we all share that responsibility and that it’s OK to sometimes choose plays by dead white men because you fell in love with the piece. But if I’m not conscious of gender parity as a young female artist, who will be?