Speech given for the panel on "The Sources of Inspiration"
Being asked how my work has been fostered reminds me of something I was told about schools in China, where the coats button in back, to teach the children about community and inter-dependency: they have to button up each other's coats before going outside. There are many people who have buttoned my buttons for me.
A life in the theatre is a search for community, even for a family, the family we wish we'd grown up in. Thinking back on my own search for community, I realize the Yale School of Drama had its own sense of family, a little dysfunctional, but never mind.
While I was there I primarily learned from the writers, but I was given two pieces of advice from the faculty that have stayed with me. Interestingly enough, given Tina Howe's speech today, I was told by Leon Katz that when I write I should always take the white gloves off. I was thinking, that piece of advice would never be given to a man but maybe it wouldn't need to be given to a man because a male writer wouldn't wait for that kind of permission. I was writing these nice little plays and then, after I got this permission, that changed.
Lee Breuer, another teacher of mine, once complained to me that everybody at Yale was writing safe, little living room plays, but none of our characters ever went crazy or killed someone or killed themselves; so I decided to put all of that missing killing and craziness into one play that became The House of Yes.
When I went to the National Playwright's Conference, I was touched by the fact that there were people there of all ages, that it was indeed possible to have a life in the theatre. Everybody seemed to share a history I wasn't part of, but they were perfectly willing to welcome me into their world. At Yale, the writers were constantly trying to best each other, but the playwrights at the O'Neill taught me that it wasn't about beating each other. It was Us against the World. We would commiserate about critics, agents, any one who didn't get our stuff.
New Dramatists offered me a home my first lonely years in New York and because I taught playwriting there they even helped me to make a living. Mostly they offered a safe place to see my works in progress, because although many theatres offer you a reading for you to hear the play, it is really for them to hear the play, and if the reading doesn't go well, it is not likely that they will want to hear that particular play again.
Literary Managers have been my friend, time and again, but of course they don't always have the power to do your play. For me, it was a happy day when one of my favorite Literary Managers, Tim Sanford, became the Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons. And he could now, along with Julia Miles of the Women's Project, manifest their admiration in an actual production slot.
The word "production" is music to a playwright's ears, not reading, not staged reading, but production. One gets tired of hearing about one's own potential, or a script's promise. One wants somebody to believe in you and it, now.
Fortunately, I have had some believers. When the director David Petrarca and I started working together regularly, I felt the relief of the newly married, glad to be out of the dating scene, and glad not to have to start from scratch on every production.
Reading through what I have written, I realized how often my career has been fostered by men-teachers, Literary Managers, agents, critics, directors. This is undoubtedly because there are more men in a position to foster careers, and yet when I think of who has inspired me, I think of women.
I think of my mother, who spent years of her life taking us to the ballet, the theatre, the library. I think of my college professor who cast me in strong female roles before I believed those roles were right for me, and, of course, I think of women playwrights.
I first checked out A Raisin in the Sun on one of those trips to the library. I think of the many women whose work I've loved, including many of the women on this panel, so for me it is a banner day that I have been invited to sit at this table.