(Warnock’s article appeared in GO magazine, October 8, 2009; it was edited by Kat Long.)
Dyke Drama: The Enduring Power of Lesbian Theater
Lillian Hellman’s controversial 1934 play The Children’s Hour—about two female teachers at a private girls’ school and the lesbian rumor that destroys their reputations—concluded with one of the lead characters committing suicide. Though shocking, this ending was not surprising to audiences: it was common for the handful of lesbian characters in mainstream plays throughout most of the 20th century.
Accordingly, lesbian playwrights, actors and audiences found few positive portrayals of themselves on stage. It was not until the 1960s that a community of lesbian theater artists were able to write and produce work that explored feminism and gender roles, a scene that coincided with movements to further the civil rights of African-Americans, women and gays. Rather than wait for mainstream theater to catch up with the times, radical female playwrights and actors created what they wanted to see on stage.
Innovation in lesbian theater accelerated in tandem with another movement—the New York art scene of the 1980s, in which several of today’s most prominent lesbian theater artists got their start. Despite the culture war mentality of the 1990s and the recession of the 2000s, lesbian theater continues to thrive on creativity and fearlessness.
IT CAME FROM DOWNTOWN
The social revolutions of the 1960s extended from college campuses to the theater, encouraging an off-off-Broadway scene amenable to new works. Smaller venues and independent companies began producing radical plays about gender, feminism and sexuality, among other formerly taboo topics, bringing forth the first wave of important lesbian playwrights.
Megan Terry, called by some the mother of American feminist drama, wrote Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie (1966), the first rock musical as well as the first drama about the Vietnam conflict. She won an Obie for Best Play in 1970 with Approaching Simone: A Drama in Two Acts. Her 1974 work Babes in the Bighouse: A Documentary Fantasy Musical About Life Inside a Women's Prison further explored sexuality, feminism and the degradation of women.
Cuban-born playwright Maria Irene Fornes, winner of the New York Innovative Theatre’s Lifetime Achievement Award, began her career with Tango Palace in 1963, then won 13 Obies throughout the 1970s. Fornes remains an integral figure in American theater as a playwright and teacher.
Jane Chambers’ 1980 drama Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, featured in the first Gay American Arts Festival in New York, drew both criticism and praise in the mainstream media for depicting the lives of a circle of lesbian friends at a summer retreat. (Spoiler alert: A lesbian still died at the end.)
The 1980s might be considered the golden age of lesbian theater: groundbreaking playwrights worked in the vibrant milieu of downtown Manhattan’s art scene. They performed in unconventional venues and on the street in addition to theaters. Collective theater companies and venues emerged to produce the new lesbian plays, and a distinctive downtown aesthetic grew among artists and venues that differentiated them from their traditional uptown counterparts.
In New York, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver (who, along with Deb Margolin, formed their company Split Britches) founded the WOW Café Theater as a lesbian theater festival in 1980, then made the company a permanent collective. Performance spaces like WOW gave lesbian artists the chance to develop new theatrical styles and address issues that weren’t often seen uptown, and as a result, WOW became an incubator for most of the major names in lesbian (and American) theater in the 1980s.
Visit The Other Side of Silence: http://www.tosos2.org/
Visit WOW Cafe: http://www.wowcafe.org/