New books on women in theater

Theater

October 04, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Two new books about women in theater - one of local scope and the other national - have added to the somewhat sparse documentation in this area. Not surprisingly, both are written by women.

Maravene Loeschke's Lives in Art: Sixteen Women Who Changed Theatre in Baltimore (published by the author, 107 pages, $14.95) and Alexis Greene's Women Who Write Plays (Smith and Kraus, 543 pages, $19.95) are collections of interviews and profiles that give readers an up-close-and-personal view of their subjects.

Greene, a New York free-lance theater writer, explained by phone that the impetus for her book came in 1997. She was teaching a course on "Images of Women in Western Theater" at New York University and discovered that Kathleen Betsko's Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights was the only book on the subject, and it was a decade out of date.

Greene spent nearly two years interviewing 23 playwrights, editing the material and putting it in book form. Baltimore theatergoers will recognize many of the writers she selected - "a mixture of the familiar and the not-so-familiar" that covers a range of ages and ethnic backgrounds. Two former Marylanders, Kia Corthron and Paula Vogel, are among many Center Stage alums that also include Elizabeth Egloff, Eve Ensler, Beth Henley, Lisa Kron and Emily Mann. Others whose plays have been produced around town are Pearl Cleage, Constance Congdon and Cheryl West.

Kron, who performed her one-woman show 2.5 Minute Ride at Center Stage two seasons ago, is included in the only group interview, with the New York troupe Five Lesbian Brothers. "It was actually in some respects the hardest interview, but also the most fun-filled," Greene says of the free-wheeling conversation. "It was a real trip, and in a way it was good because the book needed something that was kind of light and funny and even a little bit silly."

In contrast, she describes the last interview in the book, with Wakako Yamauchi, a Japanese-American interned in an Arizona concentration camp during World War II, as "the most moving in a way, getting her to talk about that experience, which was so difficult."

Greene isn't teaching right now, but her book has already found its way into classrooms at the University of Texas in Austin and Marymount College in New York. Meanwhile, she is hard at work on her next book, which is also about a woman who made her mark in theater - the late off-Broadway producer Lucille Lortel.

Lives in Art will appeal primarily to local readers, but that's exactly what Loeschke, dean of Towson University's College of Fine Arts and Communication, had in mind. In fact, she chose to publish the book privately so that she could donate all the proceeds to "the theaters these women founded or developed or saved or cared for."

She was inspired to write Lives in Art about five years ago when she "became aware of how many women in this city started theaters, kept them going all through the century. ... As I checked with colleagues in other cities I began to get more feelings that this didn't happen everywhere."

Though she was unable to determine why this phenomenon occurred in Baltimore, she did discover a number of characteristics shared by the women, who range from Pumpkin Theatre founder Sister Kathleen Marie Engers to Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis, as well as a mother and daughter, Theatre Hopkins' Laurlene and Suzanne Pratt. (The only glaring omission is former Mechanic Theatre managing director Hope Quackenbush.)

"Nearly half of them had husbands or fathers who were ministers. Nearly half of them do not have children, and those that did have children at some point in their lives had very strained relationships with those children that sometimes later got mended, but not always. So there was a bit of sacrifice. These were workaholic women," she says.

The book's official publication date is Sunday, and the occasion will be marked by a book-signing and reception at 3 p.m. in Towson's Center for the Arts, at Osler and Cross Campus drives. More than half the women profiled are expected to attend. Coincidentally, the date is the birthday of the late Audrey Herman, founder of the Spotlighters Theatre and one of several subjects profiled posthumously. "Audrey is my biggest heartbreak," Loeschke says of the legend, who died 10 days before she was to have been interviewed.

Like Greene, Loeschke worked on her book for two years, and she set up the group photo for the back cover a year in advance. Perhaps the best testament to the vibrancy and longevity of Baltimore's theater women is an anecdote about that photo. "Three of them had to leave because they had rehearsals," she says, "and they were all in their 70s!"

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