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In Praise of Annie Baker and Other Female Playwrights Seen Increasingly in Houston's Theaters

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Last week the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced, and the award for drama went to playwright Annie Baker. The play that won Baker this year's coveted top prize is a drama called The Flick, a three-hour piece about the employees of a movie theater. When the play originally debuted last year at New York's Playwright's Horizon, it received mixed reviews. Baker is the type of playwright you either get or you don't. Her writing is funny when you don't think it should be and her characters are strange, to say the least. But that's what makes her work so interesting and has quickly propelled her to fame.

Houston theatergoers should recognize Baker's name. In 2012, Houston's Stark Naked Theatre produced her play Body Awareness, about a lesbian couple contending with a son on the autism spectrum and the derailment of their own relationship; the show received rave reviews, with the Houston Press' own D.L. Grover calling it "warm" and "perceptive." And in August of last year Horse Head Theatre Company produced Baker's odd but stirring tale of two stoners, The Aliens.

Kim Tobin-Lehl, Co-Executive Director of Stark Naked, who also co-starred in the company's production of Baker's play, was not surprised by the win. She has been a big fan of Baker's for a while now.

"When we first read Annie Baker the thing that struck us instantly was how her writing was so authentic and truthful about just the human experience," explains Tobin-Lehl.

In addition to their production of Body Awareness, Stark Naked has had its sights on Baker's breakout hit Circle Mirror Transformation, whose rights are currently held by the Alley Theatre.

Despite Baker's potentially polarizing view on humanity, Tobin says that you can't deny how real it is. Whether you like the play or not, Baker has created characters that we all have come across in our lives. And humanity can be really difficult to swallow.

Even more difficult to swallow may be how quickly Baker has shot to fame in the drama world. At the young age of 32, Baker has received more drama awards than some playwrights double her age. Body Awareness, her first play, was nominated for a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award. But it was the aforementioned Circle Mirror Transformation that got people's attention, winning her an Obie Award in 2010.

In addition to Baker taking home top honors, something else about this year's Pulitzer for drama struck me. All three of the nominated writers were women. This year's finalists in the Pulitzer drama category were The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, by Madeleine George, and the musical Fun Home, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, and music by Jeanine Tesori.

It got me wondering if we are seeing a lot more females writing for the stage or perhaps they have always been quietly pushing their way out from under the stronghold of their male counterparts? Traditionally, when you think "playwright," who comes to mind? Shaw? Albee? Maybe Stoppard or Mamet or LaBute if you are a real theater buff. Rarely does a woman's name make it into the mix. But the tide seems to be turning.

Houston theater lovers may have also noticed this trend. Theater companies in H-Town have been gravitating toward female playwrights of late. Stark Naked has produced several female playwrights in the past two years, including last year's regional premiere of Anna Greenfield's All Girls. Tobin-Lehl says that their upcoming season will also feature more female writers.

In February of this year the Alley Theatre produced the world premiere of Pulitzer nominee Theresa Rebeck's Fool, and in July, Main Street Theatre will present the regional premiere of Laura Marks' Bethany, which, along with Baker's The Flick, was a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Finalist.

Another theater company that has been featuring female playwrights for almost a decade is Mildred's Umbrella. Artistic Director Jennifer Decker says that at some point they had produced so many female playwrights they decided it was something they should incorporate into their mission.

"Maybe because I am female," says Decker, "I guess the things they focus on, the tendency to have female protagonists, and the way they word things just speak to me directly in a way in which I can relate."

Regionally, Mildred's has premiered the works of Marina Carr, Edna O'Brien, Naomi Wallace, and Dawn King.

Tobin agrees with the idea that she finds women writers have a way with characterization, but she also feels it has to do with the richness of their stories.

"...their plays are well rounded stories that deal with universal issues involving collectives of characters that reflect points of views from many different people in any given set of circumstances," Tobin explains. "But, basically what I am saying is that female playwrights are feeling less like they are writing 'women stories" and more like they are writing stories that encompass a larger collective - EVEN when they center around a woman or women."

But that does not mean that women playwrights are taking over the industry by any means. Research found that even in 2012, women wrote only 17 percent of all plays being produced. And, according to The Guardian, "US researcher Emily Glassberg Sands sent out identical scripts to theatres in the US in 2009, half with a male name and half with a female name, she found that those believed to have been written by women were rated significantly worse by artistic directors and literary managers than those written by men." Sexism is still very prevalent in the theater.

Decker agrees, "Women are still and always terribly underrepresented in the theatre, even though they are the majority of the talent available."

So while the tide may be turning, it's not turning fast enough. But for now, Annie Baker is hopefully celebrating her big win as a win not just for herself, but also for female playwrights everywhere.

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