Gender & Stage Directions

On a long flight recently I had the pleasure of finally reading through my collection of Sarah Ruhl’s plays. Some  of you may be familiar with Ms. Ruhl, but for those who are not: Sarah Ruhl is an extremely important, lyrically genius playwright and I consider her to be a major inspiration for life, liberty, and the pursuit of my happiness. When I flipped through from The Clean House to Late: A Cowboy Song I noticed something peculiar. Ruhl, like many famous playwrights before her, writes lengthy prefaces to her plays which often prescribe the feel, look, and mood of production. I have mixed feelings about this particular practice – both hers and the larger theatrical tradition of the practice – but my reaction to her introduction for Late: A Cowboy Song surprised me. In her notes on the show’s physical world, Ruhl writes:

Transitions should be fluid, without blackouts.

At that, my liberal arts college educated, theatre degree toting, card carrying feminist mind rang out with, “Well, that’s a bit bossy.”

Bossy. That was the exact word my inner monologue spat out.

I immediately descended into a panic. Bossy? Did I really just think that? Did I really just think that about a playwright whom I fervently adore!? No. No! There is no way that I did that. I thought “pushy.” Is that better? The realization that I was trying to avoid, of course, was that I used the word “bossy” to describe this brilliant, successful artist who happens to be a woman.

Look at her! She just radiates brilliance.

Did the patriarchy crawl into my brain and die there?

My mind continued to race.

Who else writes lengthy stage directions? Tennessee Williams! I love him! I mean, in my acting edition of Orpheus Descending the first two full pages of text are straight descriptions of how the stage should be. Would I call him bossy? I wouldn’t. I like him too much. Or, does my respect for him go beyond that term because he is a man?

Who else? Shaw! Of course! I don’t really care for Shaw. He’s not bossy; he’s just the painter of dull oil paintings.

Aha! Strindberg! I despise Strindberg’s stage directions! That sexist pig! Though, would I call him bossy? I have and will call him a lot of things, but bossy isn’t one.

In short: what the hell was wrong with me?

Perhaps, I was especially sensitive to the word “bossy” because my play TAME. – as adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew – just started rehearsals. Now, for Shakespeare there is no need for the word “bossy” because there was an even more pointed term in his period with serious comic history: “shrew.” A shrew is literally a small mole-like mammal. In Elizabethan England, “shrew” was a common pejorative for difficult women, typically wives who nagged or teased or even cuckolded their husbands. Katherina, the central female character of the play, is known for her pushy and stubborn ways. Her assertion of her own independent desires, opinions, and choices makes her quite the difficult piece of livestock to sell. I think what gets stuck in my craw is that my inner narrative calling Sarah Ruhl bossy for asserting her artistic vision makes me no better than Katherina’s dismissive father, Signor Baptista or her manipulative husband, Petruchio.

A trick to tame your bossy playwright … I mean, bride.

How has the idea of “bossy” being a female descriptor – like “shrew” before it – become so pervasive that it was subtext for Sarah Ruhl’s play? Unfortunately, from Sheryl Sandberg to Jill Abramson it’s become pretty clear that even in America, even in 2014, even at the forefront of the so-called “liberal media,” we still don’t like women who tell us what to do and won’t apologize for it. Even, perhaps, in the socially free society of theatre practitioners and theatergoers.

The male playwrights who inspire me – Tony Kushner, Tom Stoppard, and Tennessee Williams, to name a few – are allowed, it seems, to be dictatorial as artists. They can  tell me exactly how the play should look, should feel, should sound, down to casting decisions and I will absorb it like a supplicant. But, when a female playwright does this – did I feel this way when I read Sarah Kane, Naomi Iizuka, Sophie Treadwell? – the gesture is ripe for criticism and question even as I barely skim the surface of this new theatrical landscape. Is this because I have been socialized to accept the general superiority of men in the worlds of the intellectual? Or, is it based in how women are socialized to relate to other women in their field? Ah, that is the question that really pinned me between my tray table and my airplane seat.

In the dark corners of my Id there was the childlike, female voice of jealousy. The hairs stood on the back of my neck and I took in the animalistic smell of competition. Intellectually, I knew that this was ridiculous: how could I ever compete with a woman with Sarah Ruhl’s natural ease with poetry and language, her clear talent. But, the part of me that is not allowed to assert herself whispered in my ear, “There can only be one.”

As I looked for Ruhl’s stage directions again I became even more distraught. Not only were her prefaces and stage directions poetically stunning, they could be bossier. I could see now how deeply I misjudged her language, but, hey, at least I was learning!

Despite my initial knee jerk reaction, I came to realize that there was awful lot of qualifying words like “perhaps,” “maybe,” ideally,” and “please.” A prime example is the closing stanza of stage directions for Part I of Late: A Cowboy Song:

A horse walks across the stage.

Red gets on the horse and rides off.

A real horse would be nice.

An abstract approximation of the horse will do.

End of Part I.

Intermission. Or not.

It struck me that a person with ultimate control would relinquish the opportunity to be all-powerful, in order to be kind and thoughtful. Of course, perhaps Ruhl is also subconsciously swayed by the persuasive power of the patriarchy, but I’d like to give her more credit than that. She is, after all, one of my favorite playwrights and a seriously smart lady to boot. I rather like to think that instead of dictating her vision to a reader or actor or designer or director she instead wields what might look like submissive language to have a conversation. She values, I would think, the collaboration inherent in theatre and, as such, makes consistent mention of musicians whom she has worked with and encourages you to get in touch if you’d like. In as delightfully a feminine way as can be, she invites consideration with her stage directions. She is your tour guide for your first trip to her plays; on the next round, you’ll get your turn to lead, but for now she is showing you her favorite secluded spots and introducing you to her fondest memories of the place.

Though Ruhl does give detailed and lengthy descriptions of what she imagines the play to be, it is informative and warm, not – God help me – bossy. Heads up, Williams, Shaw, and Strindberg: Sarah Ruhl has infused her feminine wiles in your old habits and now she’s made them distinctly her own. She’s made them better.

3 thoughts on “Gender & Stage Directions

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