Writing Women Back into History Through Plays

"Statera Voices" is an op-ed series featured on the Statera Blog dedicated to reclaiming dominant cultural narratives as a means towards intersectional gender balance in the arts and beyond. "Statera Voices" is where we tell our stories, expand our histories, and celebrate each other.

Today's offering comes to us from songwriter, playwright, director, and actor Shellen Lubin. Shellen will present a breakout session at Statera’s upcoming National Conference called "365 Women a Year: a Playwriting Project".


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Writing Women Back into History Through Plays

BY SHELLEN LUBIN

The woman’s perspective onstage? Even when we think we’re getting a woman’s story--Antigone, Lysistrata, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, Scarlett O’Hara-- we are too often getting a man’s perspective on what that woman’s perspective might have been. 

Even that is rare. Most often, women are considered the supporting figures in men’s stories--the mothers, muses, lovers, wives. The stories are rarely theirs. So trying to find the woman’s perspective in theatre--in plays, in theatrical history--whether based on true people or purely fiction--women’s thoughts and feelings about their own lives, about living life--is not an easy task.

Plays are stories. And just like most stories, looking at them through a different lens, from a different perspective, through a different character’s eyes, at a different moment in our own lives, we may draw different conclusions.

Many years ago, I wrote a play that was based on the bible story about Jacob contracting with Laban for his daughter Rachel’s hand in marriage only to be stuck with the older daughter, Leah. But in my play the leading character was Leah, and the story is told primarily through her eyes, looking at her life as the unappreciated daughter and sister become the unwanted bride.

However, in that play, I managed to leave out Zilpah and Bilhah, their two hand-maidens who also slept with Jacob and mothered the human race. Laban gave his two daughters hand-maidens, who they then gave to their husband for sex? That means Zilpah and Bilhah were slaves. Non-whites, non-Jews, non-believers, wives, children, all are supporting figures in our history and our literature, theatrical and otherwise. 

 Art by Sarah Greenman

Art by Sarah Greenman

Jesslyn Eisenberg Chamblee began 365 Women a Year: a Playwriting Project, Facebook group dedicated to adding to the stories and changing the known history. So many of us jumped on board to write plays that were not chronologies or historic documentation, but vital, dramatic moments or phases in these women’s lives. The group is entirely self-selected, and the plays are not all written by women, (but it is primarily). Equally exciting is the fact that the writers are not just from the major theatre cities, but across the country and around the world. 

The first festival of such plays that I produced as readings was at The Lambs. It was a random group of New York City playwrights, again by self-selection. Most of the plays were terrific, but not all, and I learned a powerful lesson: if I was going to put my time, energy, and passion into putting these plays before an audience, I was going to have to have a curation process.

Next go round, I did just that. For Edith O’Hara’s 100th Birthday in 2016, Susan Merson, then Artistic Director of the 13th Street Theatre (which O’Hara founded), worked with me to produce an entire weekend there of 365 Women a Year plays entitled In Her Name. The effect of the weekend on participants and audience alike was profound. Some of these women were unknown or barely known, but some were well-known women whose histories have been shared only in part. Seeing one play was illuminating, an individual aesthetic experience, but the effect of a whole day of such pieces was intense, a deeply felt collective awareness of how much we don’t know about our own history, how much has been hidden and deliberately left out--our stories, our perspectives, and, too, our voices as artists and as citizens.

This year, I produced another three-day festival of plays in March for SWAN Day and Women’s History Month, Untold Stories of Jewish Women at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: a Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Susan Merson and I put out a wider call for plays, and ending up working with 30 playwrights, as many directors, and over 100 actors. It was a challenge and a huge amount of work, but it was an incredible experience for both participants and audience, these stories of Jewish women from the bible right through to the transgender Martine Rothblatt.

We must learn to shift perspective or we as a society--as a culture--will forever be stuck in the throes of power, lust, and the wants and desires of privileged white men--as much as any Greek, Russian, or Shakespearean tragic figure. This country and most of the Western World was built on the unpaid, underpaid, and stolen labor--stolen stories--stolen lives--of too many people, families, and communities. The Northern cities were built by slaves. By the Civil War the North may have had no slavery, but all our cities were built by slaves. The cost of the day-to-day lives and the lives themselves in the building of our gentry, our upper classes, our corporate bigwigs, our elites (those whose lives our history and culture still most revere and support) is still barely known, recognized, told, or valued. These are the stories that must be heard now, these are the perspectives that must be honored, and these are the voices I want to participate in bringing to life and to audiences. 

Women have historically lived their own kind of slavery, having once been the property of fathers and husbands, the acclaim and remuneration for their most humble toilings, their greatest discoveries, and their most magnificent efforts all given to others, claimed by others, freely taken or stolen by others, and still now only slowly evolving from that reality.

As a a white Jewish woman from an upper middle class family? I have lived a life of privilege and indulgence, on the one hand, and deprivation and lack of recognition on the other. Sometimes my head spins from the confusing reality of it all.

But nothing can be changed until it is faced. It is only in our recognition of how we are both privileged and deprived that we can find empathy for all others who have suffered from much greater neglect, deprivation, and prohibition.

At this time of year, the beginning of the school year, the harvest, Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur, it is an especially good time to remember that the lessons come from everywhere, that our personal bible is every story which has held meaning and value for us as well as every one in which we play a role, whether a lead or a supporting character. So it is good to be attentive, as Rabbi Yisrael Salenter was the night he saw a shoemaker working late into the night and asked him why he worked so hard when it was so very late and the candle had burned so low. The reply? "As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend … shoes."

"As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend ..."

The candle is still burning.


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ABOUT SHELLEN

Shellen Lubin works professionally as a Songwriter, Playwright, Director, and Actor/Singer. Her songs have been featured on radio and cable TV, in Milos Forman’s first American film, Taking Off, in numerous cabaret acts including her own, and in a one-hour special on WBAI-FM, Shellen Lubin - Songwriter/Singer. Her plays have been produced and workshopped at Manhattan Class Company, the Public Theatre, Pacific Resident Theatre, West Coast Ensemble, and more. Shellen has directed across the country, and is the resident director for the Bistro Awards. She also teaches and coaches actors, singers, and writers both privately and as a guest artist. As the Artistic Director of Untold Stories of Jewish Women, she helmed a three-day theatre festival at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in March 2018. She serves as the 1st Vice President of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition and chair of the Women Playwrights Initiative for the National Theatre Conference. Her reflections on artistry and life have been featured in five cover pieces for Back Stage Publications (archived on her website) and are read weekly in her Monday Morning Quotes think-pieces (www.mondaymorningquotes.com). Proud member of DG, SDC, AEA, and the League of Professional Theatre Women. Full bio, resume’, pictures and more: www.shellenlubin.com