A Historic Season of Firsts
A roundtable discussion with the 22/23 Taper playwrights
The writers of the 2022/2023 Season at the Mark Taper Forum convened to discuss their roles and work in a monumental season—the first in which each play was written by a woman-identifying, transgender, or nonbinary artist.
The panel was moderated by ANDREA AMBAM, a politically engaged storyteller, playwright, and actress who is also the host of the entertainment company Level Forward’s podcast, More To Talk About, which unpacks the deeper themes in new work created by artists who are pushing the boundaries of entertainment.
The season starts with JANE WAGNER’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Written in 1985, this one-woman show originally performed by Wagner’s wife, Lily Tomlin, shocked and excited audiences with its feminist perspectives and opinions. The show has been revitalized for a new generation and changing conversations around the housing crisis and feminism, starring Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 tackles a multitude of identities and political perspectives. Smith interviewed 320 people across Los Angeles about their experiences during the Los Angeles Riots thirty years ago. She is credited as one of the pioneers of documentary theatre, a theatre making process that builds upon real subjects and interviews for dialogue and characterizations. When the production premiered at the Taper in 1993, she took on each character herself. But now, it has been reimagined for cast of five.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner LYNN NOTTAGE is also well versed in documentary storytelling. Nottage began interviewing subjects in Redding, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cities in the nation, in 2011 for her 2015 play, Sweat, which then played at the Taper in 2018. Nottage said she is building off of her interview work in Redding for her play this season, Clyde’s, which follows a group of formerly incarcerated kitchen workers as they reach for their dreams.
JOEY and FAITH SOLOWAY and MJ KAUFMAN are the first transgender and nonbinary creators to have work produced at the Taper as well. A Transparent Musical is based off of the hit Amazon Prime Original TV show Transparent, which debuted in 2014, breaking ground for new opportunities for transgender and nonbinary stories and starting conversations around transgender representation on stage and screen.
LARISSA FASTHORSE will not only be the first Native woman, but the first Native person to ever have a play produced at the Taper, with her World premiere of Fake It Until You Make It. This play is a satirical look at what it means to be who you want to be, when it is not who you are. Check out just some of the insight these writers provided to audiences at the roundtable event.
On Representative Firsts
This is stolen land and yet no Native person has been allowed on these stages, that we know of... It just reminds me how incredibly far behind American theatre is...in representation of Indigenous peoples. I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I am still first all the time. I still feel like I have to be perfect at everything because if I’m not, they’re not going to hire another [Native American woman] because I’m the first one and...I’m going to screw everyone else up. I’m always fighting for my community and finding the next people and making sure that we’re recognizing that I stand on the shoulders of so many others. There’s that constant of trying to represent everyone when you’re the first and only. It’s exhausting. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be a white, male writer. I’ve never been given that opportunity to just write and not worry about what it does or who I’m representing. I just can’t imagine how freeing that would be.
I love what you said, Larissa, about, “[the] first that we know of,” [because] I think about that all the time with trans things because we actually have so many trans ancestors who didn’t know [they] were trans, who were in the closet or had other names for how they expressed their gender identity, or never had the language or framework to realize their true selves...There are so many talented trans writers out there—so why am I the only one here? And it’s because of this desire to tokenize...the industry wants one person to represent everyone and it always tips toward the least intersectional [identity]—I’m white, I come from a certain amount of class privilege, I got to go to the Yale School of Drama, all of these things I think are part of why I’ve been able to be the first [and] only trans writer in a number of spaces.
On the Politics of Identity
I’m happy to talk about this moment. There’s a writer named Olivia Lang and she says, “fascism loves a binary.” And so in [A Transparent Musical], we’re going back to Berlin right before Hitler rose to power...Magnus Hirschfeld was defining trans science, they knew all this stuff that we’re trying to get people to say—there’s more than two genders, there’s such a thing as both—this was known in 1930s Berlin.
I think there’s so much similarity in what’s happening today. Fascism is the right word.
It’s my hope that...with all of us writing from a trans perspective...I really want people to be shifted in their belief in...whatever people believe about trans people and to not only make a play that says we’re real, but for Faith to be writing songs that people are going to be singing on the way home. It is the reason why I get up in the morning, Jane, the belief that we can make art that addresses this idea of fascism.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH
You said, Joey, that fascism likes that which is binary—it also likes us to be divided into different camps...When I wrote Twilight...I got a call from two Korean American graduate students at USC and they said, “We know you’re going to get it wrong,” referring to how I suppose, as a Black woman, I would represent what happened in the Korean American community. And here’s the important part—they said, “We want to help you.” And they took me around Los Angeles where I couldn’t possibly have gone, places I didn’t even know about, they translated for me—there’s no way I could have that part of the story. Jane, you may remember this, it was something I came across when doing research for a project. Lily Tomlin on The Dick Cavett Show...and there was some male television star on the show talking about what he owned and he said he owned his wife, and Lily Tomlin said, “I have to leave the show” and she got up and walked off the set of national television. And Dick Cavett kept talking as though she had not done that.
I was devastated. You’re right, that’s the point. They didn’t honor her outrage at all. They didn’t understand. But we all saw...she was always proud of that. I was, too.
A cultural critic, Lili Loofbourow, says...what’s more dangerous to female artists and trans artists than the male gaze is the male glance. It reminds me of what you said, Anna, about [their reaction to] Lily’s outrage was that they were going to glance and return back. When women and trans people and anybody who’s outside finally gets their art made, we’re faced with a white, male, industrial critic world. We’re still having our work seen through the eyes of people who actually don’t feel comfortable sitting in our shoes for a couple of hours. It doesn’t feel good if you have privilege and you center yourself all day long, to not see yourself.
Where Do We Go From Here?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH
I’m 72. I’ve watched these landmark moments of cultural revision and they don’t last very long. How do we leverage this moment so that more people can participate?
How do we sustain this? How do we make sure that it’s not just one incredible landmark season that was so cool, and never been done before? And then not done again for years and years to come? We are activated as allies across identities that indirectly affect us all. Because all of us are in community with each other, whether we like it or not.
‘Men seasons’ have been the norm and we just accepted that things can be exclusively one way and haven’t thought to reimagine that things could be exclusively the other way. It’s a new precedent. It’s a new way to say that this is the norm—to have a season that does not include a man, that is all women,
that is all nonbinary, that is all trans, that is all Native, that is all Black. I can’t even begin to imagine what [this season] will mean to the audiences, of people who are not cis men to begin to...be able to see themselves...and not have to see themselves as an object to find themselves in the theatre. It’s just so exciting to be able to call it out and say it is a season of non-men. It’s so dangerous that we barely have a way to say it. But if this is a turning point, it will become something that is easier to say.