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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Let's Hear it for the Ladies: 10 Great Playwrights Who Happen to be Women

Greetings ladies and gentlemen.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I would like to welcome you to Theater is a Sport, where I talk about all things theatre-related. 

I am a playwright, actor, director, and drama teacher.  One of the classes I teach is an introduction to playwriting class.  This year, each semester, my class has been entirely made up of female students, which has been an incredible experience for me.  They have all worked on (or are currently working on) very interesting pieces, and they are all a joy to have as students. 

Unfortunately, when you look at a list of great plays or great playwrights, all too often, if you're like me, you notice a distinct absence of women writers listed.  Does this mean that there are no great female playwrights out there? 

Absolutely not.  In fact, some of the most exciting work in American theatre being written today is being written by female playwrights.

I decided to compile a list of some playwrights I admire to share with my female students, and I will share it with you all now.  However, these fiercely talented women should not only be known as "women playwrights".  They are, in actuality, great playwrights, who just happen to be women.  I will share a little bit about them, and you can decide for yourself after reading or seeing their work if you like them the same way I do.  This list is in no particular order, they just happen to be how I list them.
Oh, and to be clear--- this is certainly not a "definitive" or "complete" list.  I've tried to pick some diverse playwrights for my students, and, are all playwrights whose work I am very familiar with, and love.  Please feel free to share your favorite great playwrights who happen to be women in the comments section below.

(By the way--- I feel it is almost sad that I have to write an post like this... I do so, to prove to my female playwriting students that there are many greats who have come before them... they tend to only ever hear of male playwrights.  Let's all try to change that.)

LILLIAN HELLMAN, American (1905-1984).  Notable works:  The Children's Hour, Little Foxes, "Toys in the Attic"  Lillian Hellman was also a writer of screenplays and memoir.  She was nominated for an Academy Award for the adaptation of her play Little Foxes (which happens to be my personal favorite of hers)  In the 1950s, she was called to testify for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and would only speak for herself and not mention anyone else's name.  Good for her.

TINA HOWE (1937-), known for her plays Painting Churches, "Coastal Disturbances", "Pride's Crossing".  She is an experimental playwright, exploring absurdism is realistic settings.  She won an Obie in 1983, and has been nominated for both a Tony award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.  She also has created translations of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano and The Lesson.

CARYL CHURCHILL (1938-), an English playwright, known for her non-naturalistic and feminist themes, and experimenting with dance-theater.  Some of her notable works are Cloud Nine, Top Girls, and my personal favorite of hers, The Skriker, a really cool and dark play about a fairy,and demons. 

WENDY WASSERSTEIN (1950-2006), a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, where she was good friends with Christopher Durang.  She won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her play The Heidi Chronicles, and is also known for her play The Sisters Rosensweig.  I am very fond of a 10-minute play she wrote called Tender Offer.  Sadly, her life was cut short by lymphoma.

PAULA VOGEL (1951), one of my favorite playwrights of all time.  Paula Vogel attacks some very dark themes, such as incest and AIDS, but she does so in a very creative and accessible fashion.  She won an Obie award n 1992 for her play The Baltimore Waltz (which I had the pleasure to act in when I was in college), and she won a much deserved Pulitzer Prize for her excellent play, How I Learned to Drive.

SUZAN LORI-PARKS (1963-), won a Pulitzer for her play Topdog/Underdog.  She has also been awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Grant for her work.  As well as her plays, she also wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee's film Girl 6, as well as an adaptation of Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.  My favorite of her plays is Venus, about Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman exhibited as Hottentot Venus, due to her large backside. 

BETH HENLEY (1952-) is known for her plays about women and family issues in the American South.  Her play Crimes of the Heart won the Pulitzer Prize and received a Tony nomination.  She is also known for her plays Miss Firecracker Contest, and Am I Blue?

MARSHA NORMAN (1947-) achieved tremendous success with her play 'night, Mother, which won the Pulitzer Prize.  She also wrote the Book and Lyrics for a musical adaptation of The Secret Garden, which won a Tony for Best Book in 1991.  She also wrote a play called Loving Daniel Boone, which starred my playwriting professor Gladden Schrock as the title character. 

YASMINA REZA (1959 or 1960-), a French playwright best known for her works Art and God of Carnage, a play that is bitingly funny and chilling at the same time.  It won Yasmina Reza the Tony Award for Best Play in 2009.

KAREN HARTMAN was a guest professor at Bennington when I was a student there.  She has received support for her work frm the Rockefeller Foundation, the N.E.A., and was awarded a New Dramatist Residency.  She is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, and has written some amazing plays such as Leah's Train, ALICE:  Tales of a Curious Girl, and an amazing modern adaptation of Troy Women, which I absolutely love to pieces. 

Okay, there is just a small sampling of playwrights who happen to women, and who are definitely writers worth reading and becoming a fan of. 

Thanks for reading my blog post.  You can learn more about me by checking out,,, and and searching for Bobby Keniston.  You can find a list of my plays and even read free samples. 

ALSO--- I've started a new experimental blog, where I am writing a short story every day for a year. Each story will be between 100-250 words.  I call it Micro Fiction Experiment or Bobby Keniston's Short Shorts.  Feel free to drop by and check it out.  You can get there by CLICKING HERE!

Until next time, remember that not all playwrights are men, and that theater is more than an artform and a craft:  it is also a sport.


  1. Aphra Behn! I worked on a production of "The Lucky Chance" years ago, and I rather enjoyed it. It brings up interesting points of feminism that are still relevant today.

    1. Thanks for responding! I have never heard of it. I'll have to look it up!
      Thanks again!

  2. Some big names you MUST get to know: Katori Hall, Lynn Nottage, Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl, Marina Carr, Maria Irene Fornes. Also And regarding the previous post: Aphra Behn (1640-89) marks the beginning of professional female writers in the English language. Yes! Read her! Also of interest: Susanna Centlivre, Susan Glaspell, Edna Ferber. Not nearly an exhaustive list (Anna Deavere Smith? Marie Jones? Up-and-comers like Laura Jacqmin? Sarah Gubbins?), but it's a start.

  3. Replies
    1. Good call! Naomi Wallace is brilliant! Thank you.

  4. Quiarra Alegria Hudes, Lynn Nottage, Lauren Gunderson, Shiela Callaghan, Lady Augusta Gregory, Mae West, Theresa Rebeck, Adrianne Kennedy, Lorraine Hansberry, Alyce Childress, Lillian Hellman, Ntzoke Shane, Ifa Byezza, Carson McCullers, Lisa Kron, Beth Henley, Anna Devere Smith, Diana Son, Sara Kane, Annie Baker, Deal Orlandersmith, Margaret Cavvendaugh, Wendy Wasserstein, Mary Pix, Sophie Treadwell, Meagan Terry, Lynn Diamond, Agatha Christie, Rachel Carothers.... and so many, many more!