Girl Power at the Playhouse

Nearly 30 percent of Playhouse premieres were written or co-created by women, significantly more than the 22-percent figure researched by the Lilly Awards and the Dramatists Guild for shows by women produced by American theaters during seasons between 20

click to enlarge Lauren Gunderson and Karen Zacarías
Lauren Gunderson and Karen Zacarías

The Cincinnati Playhouse has premiered new plays since its earliest days, the first in 1962, just two years after its founding. With upcoming productions of Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens and Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, the theater’s total has more than doubled in two decades. (These are the 71st and 72nd works premiered.) 

Nearly 30 percent of Playhouse premieres were written or co-created by women, significantly more than the 22-percent figure researched by the Lilly Awards and the Dramatists Guild for shows by women produced by American theaters during seasons between 2011 and 2014.

Artistic director Blake Robison expands the Playhouse’s record this season in which half the shows are by women. In fact, Zacarías and Gunderson’s premieres overlap for two weeks in February, with Native Gardens on the Marx Stage (it opens Jan. 28 after a weekend of previews) and The Revolutionists in the Shelterhouse (opening Feb. 11). That’s a first.

Zacarías, 46, and Gunderson, 33, represent a new generation of playwrights. In recent conversations, they acknowledged the shortage of women’s voices in American theater, but in spite of that, their careers have blossomed. 

Zacarías, who is Latina, says minority issues have shaped her writing. “I’m a writer of color and a woman,” she says. “I’ve avoided being pigeonholed: I’ve written musicals, plays for children, comedies and dramas. All my plays have feminist perspectives, including pregnant characters, probably more than any other playwright.”

She challenges the notion that women’s issues don’t generate drama. “A female point of view has a lot to offer,” she says. The Book Club Play, Zacarías’ Playhouse hit in 2013, had a female protagonist. Native Gardens, one of five plays by Zacarías debuting this season across the United States, features two strong women in a story about neighbors feuding over opposing gardening styles. Tania is a doctoral candidate and Latina who is pregnant; Virginia (Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba) is an upright member of a conservative community.

Their conflict unfolds with considerable humor. “I love dialogue and action,” Zacarías says, “and comedy is a good way to build and release tension. It lets audiences get closer to something they might not ordinarily want to talk about.”

Humor is Gunderson’s preferred territory, too. She has written successfully in several veins — stories about women in history, often with a feminist slant, farcical works with threads of Shakespeare (Know Theatre staged her Toil and Trouble, tinged with echoes of Macbeth, in the summer of 2013) and a few naturalistic scripts, including I and You, currently onstage in New York City. (A major award winner in 2014, that play has already had 20 productions across the U.S.)

The Revolutionists, Gunderson’s Playhouse premiere, offers feminist history with some comic elements. She became fascinated with obscure 18th-century playwright Olympe de Gouges, who was beheaded during the French Revolution. Her play imagines de Gouges with three other notorious women from the era: assassin Charlotte Corday, Queen Marie Antoinette and Marianne Angelle, an amalgam of nameless but rebellious women of color in that time. They’re imprisoned together, awaiting execution by guillotine, but they’re plotting to change the world.

“This play deals with some very serious history, but it does so by laughing at the bad guys, which comedy is best at,” Gunderson says. She hopes it reminds audiences of the many sides of human experience, pointing out that women played an important role in the French Revolution, although they are largely forgotten today.

“Much like the Arab Spring and events in today’s Muslim world, women are saying, ‘ISIS doesn’t speak for me.’” Gunderson says. “Great things happen when women are given a voice or take it for themselves.”

“The difference between history books and plays is that plays are about humans and hearts,” she adds. “That’s what we miss without female heroes. Just like men, they can be smart and flawed, showing a whole range of human experience."

“Women have been written out of the history books,” says Eleanor Holdridge, who’s directing The Revolutionists. “Lauren wants to write them back in. Too long have they been denied a voice.”  Thanks to the Playhouse, Zacarías’ and Gunderson’s voices will be heard this winter, loud and clear.


CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]


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