Women playwrights find an artistic home Off-Off-Broadway

Feature by Julie Halpern

Commercial theatre has never been a particularly hospitable environment for women playwrights. Fortunately, the situation is changing; but even today, about only 20 percent of mainstream playwrights are women. The Off-Off-Broadway scene is a different story, with many theatre companies producing the works of emerging women playwrights. Suzanne Bachner, Cynthia Moore, and Donna Stearns exemplify the new breed of successful young women who are helping to transform the off-off-Broadway landscape.

Suzanne Bachner is currently the playwright in residence at the John Montgomery Theater Company. Born in New York, Suzanne received her Bachelor's degree from Oberlin in Creative Writing and Women's Studies, and attended acting classes at the Actors Studio as a graduate student at the New School. Her writing encompasses many topics, from the autobiographical to social commentary.

Bachner enjoys the process-oriented atmosphere of JMTC and is an active participant in every aspect of each play's development. Dedicated to a collaborative ensemble environment, she believes in letting actors have a great deal of input, which she believes creates a freer and more relaxed environment for creativity to flourish. In fact, her last two plays, Icons Y2K and Icons and Outcasts, were developed specifically for the actors she works with.

Bachner's work is also becoming well known beyond New York City. Icons and Outcasts was recently performed at the Rhinebeck Center for Performing Arts, and she discovered that the relationships of her characters changed subtly when her play moved to such a large venue after the intimate confines of JMTC.

What Suzanne likes best about working Off-Off-Broadway is the chance to take risks, and the support she receives from her colleagues. She has been inspired by the openness, trust, and honesty she has found. She emphasizes that aspiring playwrights must keep "putting it out into the universe. Don't wait for the perfect venue ... create your own." She is currently developing a new project, yet unnamed, which has been workshoped but is still very much a work-in-progress.

Bachner prefers to develop her projects through workshops, rather than readings, believing the extra effort is worthwhile, because it gives her a much better idea of how a play is coming together and gives the actors more opportunities for character development.

Bachner has been busy helping JMTC move from their Chelsea space. In the future, they hope to work in a variety of venues, which will be chosen for their suitability to each individual production.

Cynthia Moore, who wrote the chilling new play Entitled, which had its premiere this season at the Pulse Theatre, emphasizes that she cannot act, and has no intention of doing so, but has a great appreciation for the acting talents of others. The 25-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow lookalike grew up outside Philadelphia and attended Penn State, where she majored in English Lit. Moore is attracted to playwriting because of the immediacy of the experience of seeing her work "come to life." Moore's writing is informed by her sensitivity to society's inequities. She is intent on calling attention to the problems that plague our society, and encourages us to examine them more closely.

Entitled is a cautionary tale of what can happen when people become so wealthy and out of touch that they lose their humanity. Moore is concerned with the psychological side of her characters and fearlessly explores every nuance, hoping to make her audiences uncomfortable enough that they examine their own lives and motives. Her first play, Carnivale, premiered at the Abingdon Theatre last winter and ran for five weeks. Carnivale exposes the dark and excessive side of New York nightlife and the hedonistic pursuit of consumerism. It also addresses attitudes toward women in our society and the unfortunate truth that we are often still valued most for our youth and physical attractiveness.

Moore's third play, Toil, will be produced this February at a yet-to-be-determined Off-Off-Broadway venue. Toil addresses the destructive aspects of life in the corporate culture. Moore is impressed with the availability of high-quality actors working Off-Off-Broadway, which is great news for actors looking for exciting new roles that challenge them dramatically and intellectually!

Donna Stearns, a native of Wildwood, Florida, has been writing for as long as she can remember, encouraged by her parents and teachers. Stearns began acting in high school, and since graduating from Florida State University in Tallahassee (with double majors in music theory and composition and minors in theater and German), she has also enjoyed a successful acting career, making her mark in regional and Off-Off Broadway theatre.

Her most recent play, Martin Luther King, Mercutio and Dreams, was written this summer, while Stearns was performing in Romeo and Juliet. Inspired by Mercutio's speeches, which personally resonated with Martin Luther King's writings, Donna's observations on the many sides of racism, as seen through the eyes of two very different African-Americans, make for thought-provoking theater. Mercutio... was presented on a double bill with G.B. Shaw's Don Juan in Hell at the J.E.T. Theatre, where she also played the role of Dona Ana. Her first play, The Letter, an autobiographical story based on her own adoption, was presented earlier this year at the Brooklyn Music School.

Donna is also attracting attention as a singer/songwriter. She recently received a Billboard Award for her CD First Dance, an R & B wedding duet, sung with Curtis King and available at Tower Records on the Upper West Side. Donna has been married for 13 months to actor/director Jason Kendall, with whom she has worked on several projects. Multi-talented Stearns is very grateful for her successes and calls the production of her plays "a dream come true."

Will these women make the transition from Off-Off-Broadway to more commercial theatres? All expressed a desire for further recognition but for now are relishing the freedom to take artistic risks in the nurturing environment Off-Off-Broadway provides.

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Copyright 1999 Julie Halpern