Jennifer Blackmer | Female Problems

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Today's post comes from Jennifer Blackmer, alumna of our 2012-13 Ingram New Works Project. You can learn more about Jennifer and her work on her website, but we do want to congratulate Jennifer on being named the 2015 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre Emerging American playwright! Here is Jennifer's take on being a FEMALE playwright, Rapture, Blister, Burn, and more.

"I definitely agree, that stuff's empowering, but I don't identify as a feminist." -Avery from Rapture, Blister, Burn

A couple of months ago, I attended the Dramatist Guild’s national conference in San Diego. The conference's second plenary session featured the official release of The Count– a joint research project conducted by the DG and the Lily Awards that confirmed what most of us females who write plays already know: despite slight improvements, the theatre industry is still desperately removed from the dream of gender parity. According to the study, which surveyed 2,508 American productions between 2011 and 2014, 22 percent of the plays produced were written by women. Marsha Norman delivered my favorite zinger of the afternoon: “If life worked the way theater does, then four out of five things heard in an entire life would be said by men. That’s a grim prospect given how much valuable information comes from women."

This comment, as well as many others, was met with cheers. Discussions about The Count's implications permeated the rest of the conference, and women in every room, in every session, seemed connected with a tangible camaraderie. Feeling empowered, I returned to my life as a playwright--

Wait. Let me try that again.

Feeling empowered, I returned to my life as a FEMALE playwright.

What's the difference, you ask? The modifier; it's always there, hovering in the margins, subjecting itself to my stories and my characters. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE being a woman, I LOVE telling women's stories, and there are so many of them that gender parity is not merely a good goal to have, it's essential if we are to achieve any understanding of the world we humans inhabit. But I am fascinated by how one word can function as an automatic, all-purpose filter, through which the worlds and characters I create are judged as "plausible," "truthful" or "real."

During my time as an Ingram New Works playwright, I wrote a play called Unraveled, which is loosely based on events in my life. My experience as an Ingram writer was nothing short of transcendent– that program, including the work I accomplished and the friends I made in Nashville, has remained one of the most vigorous and rewarding experiences I've had to date. Following my Ingram year, I was lucky to have Unraveled snapped up by Theatre Unbound, a wonderful women's theatre group in the Twin Cities who was willing to risk everything on a brand-new, untested play. The production was lovely, but I was puzzled by one of the reviews. (I know, I know... playwrights aren't supposed to read reviews, but when you're "emerging" you have little else, and... well... I'll admit it. I like good reviews. Who doesn't? But I digress.)

In this review (which said some really nice things overall), Joy, Unraveled's protagonist, was singled out as "unsympathetic," “resentful” and "narcissistic.”

Okay, I thought. Sure. She is. Totally.

And?

But there was no "and." The play was dismissed as problematic and unbalanced BECAUSE the lead role, a female, was unsympathetic, resentful and narcissistic. There was no mention of the fact that, at the end the play, Joy was NO LONGER unsympathetic, resentful and narcissistic. She learned and she grew and she changed, something protagonists often do, and her evolution was clear in the production. But this particular audience member reacted to the not-so-nice things that Joy said and did at the beginning and the climax of the play, and her ability to engage with the story stopped at that point. Her understanding of Joy, a hard-nosed, selfish, career-driven academic, was filtered through a generic idea of who a woman should be– caring and nurturing and giving, they shouldn't say "fuck" or try to compete with men on men's terms, even if the rules have been historically, unapologetically set by men. For this one audience member, who was empowered to write about the show, an uncomfortable dynamic rendered the entire play problematic.

In Rapture, Blister, Burn we meet some similarly problematic women: funny, deep, conflicted, complex women. They do the unexpected, they rage, they laugh and they cry, they make selfish choices and we flinch at them... and that's OKAY! Catherine is an outspoken academic who easily dominates a room (narcissistic?) Gwen is a stay-at-home mom who dreams of something other than her kids (selfish, resentful?) The contradictions in this story are deep and very real which, for me, makes this play a feast for the mind and heart. It's also funny as hell; we can, and should, laugh at the fact that women STILL don't know what we want, despite the fact that the entire world tells us that we should have figured it out a long time ago… and again, that’s OKAY!

Women are gloriously problematic. Plays that feature them shouldn't automatically be dismissed, or subjected to a different set of standards. Willy Loman is narcissistic, and Hamlet is a resentful jerk—and we both love and hate them for it. Those plays are driven by imperfect beings, and females onstage should be granted the same humanity. As we continue working toward parity and evolving our understanding of women writers, our understanding of women characters should evolve, too.

So here's to the women. Problematic women. Bawdy, dirty, conflicted and complex women. Struggling women, selfish women, women who crave learning, women who don’t know what they want, women with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Political women, opinionated and soap-boxy women. Frustrated and emotional women, rational and icy-cold women. Women with deep thoughts, women who cry at the drop of a hat, women who want and need and laugh a little too loudly and defiantly.

Human women.

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