In the Lab: Women Playwrights Changing Theatre Through Science Plays

by | March 9, 2013
filed under Feminism

Natacha Roi in the world premiere production of Emilie by Lauren Gunderson

Natacha Roi in the world premiere production of Emilie by Lauren Gunderson at South Coast Repertory

by Jonathan Alexandratos

As you read this, a revolution is changing the art of playwrighting. At its heart? Science plays. Its vanguard? Women playwrights.

A director whose work I greatly admire told me that, when you’re in the center of this movement, it feels more like evolution than revolution. I couldn’t agree more. Yet, whenever I discuss women changing the look and sound of 21st Century drama through science plays at conferences or lectures, tragically few seem to have heard the news. That’s okay, though; we’re all here to learn, and we all take good notes.

So, in the hopes of broadening the discussion, I’d like to recognize the women playwrights at the heart of this shift and highlight how their work is reshaping the form and content of modern theatre. All of the women I will discuss have used the science play to alter the way plays are written and/or seen.

The term “science play” refers to any play that aims to use theatre to discuss aspects of science. It is not science fiction, in that most science plays are not speculative – they refer to verified, though perhaps not certain, events. The fact that these plays usually contain some aspect of experiment puts them in a unique position to abandon theatrical tradition. They might, for instance, break certain dramatic rules because  experimentation is already a prominent theme in the plot. If the story features an experiment, why not allow the form to test boundaries, too?

And this is precisely the reason women playwrights in particular are revolutionizing the way we write plays: they have spectacularly married experiments in plot with experimental form to constantly challenge the traditions of playwrighting.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll list a selection of women playwrights, below, and brief notes on how their science plays have changed the craft. For the sake of convenience, I’ll go in alphabetical order. This list is nowhere near comprehensive.



As I mentioned before, the women leading the charge to change theatre are far more than these five. Further, men writers, too, are remolding the craft of playwrighting through science plays. The message, here, is that while this theatrical revolution is not a boys’ or girls’ club, the work of its women contributors needs to be recognized, specifically, because: (1) the number of produced, women playwrights is overshadowed, disproportionally, by men, (2) women have been told, time and again, that men have a higher scientific ability than they do, and such nonsense needs to be refuted at every turn, and (3) this is a phenomenon where, in many cases, women are the first to take the risk of changing tradition, and that deserves recognition.

I will not attempt to “explain” why so many women have created this revolution out of the science play – to do so could only ever amount to speculation – but I will simply end by saying that women are at the forefront of this movement. Writers: take advantage of the permission they give us. Audiences and producers: embrace their genius, and help close the gender gap in theatre.

(photo via South Coast Repertory)

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