Interview: The Kilroys Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler: Striving For Gender Parity

By: Jun. 21, 2016
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Leah Nanako Winkler

"Men can throw tantrums and still be respected. If a female playwright fights for her art she can be labeled 'aggressive,' 'crazy' or 'difficult.' Sometimes I think the prototype of a 'lady playwright' is thin, white and soft spoken. If you voice an opinion when you're a female playwright that is considered controversial you become labeled 'angry.' If you're a man, you're 'strong.'"

That's just one of the privileges playwright Leah Nanako Winkler spots that separates her from male colleagues.

Whether it's art, politics, athletics or just everyday living, the same glass ceilings carry over from one endeavor to the next. Even in this high-profile season that saw Broadway's first musical created by a team of women (WAITRESS) and first play written by a woman, directed by another woman, and possessing an all-woman cast (ECLIPSED), the percentage of off-stage women theatre artists employed is still far from that of their male colleagues.

America has no shortage of quality work by women playwrights, but the excuse often used for the lack of gender parity in what is being produced is that nobody knows where to find them.

The why The Kilroys, a collective of women playwrights named for the iconic graffiti tag "Kilroy Was Here" that was left by America's WWII soldiers, playfully letting their presence be known, began releasing The List, a collection of easily attainable plays written by women that have been judged to be of high quality by theatre professionals.

The following criteria is used:

Theater professionals who have read or seen at least 40 plays in the previous year are invited to nominate themselves as respondents. Each industry respondent may recommend 3-5 plays, representing the best work they have encountered in the past 12 months.

A nominated play must be unproduced or have had only a single professional production.

A nominated play must be by an author who identifies as female or trans.

Plays on a previous year's List are not eligible.

The Kilroys at Wallis Annenberg Center for
the Performing Arts (Photo: Elisabeth Caren?)

Surprisingly, the first two Lists contained the names of several notable playwrights with major regional and New York productions. The 2014 edition contained 46 plays, including Madeleine George's Pulitzer Prize Finalist THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE, Dominique Morisseau's SKELETON CREW, Martyna Majok's IRONBOUND and Paula Vogel's DON JUAN COMES HOME FROM IRAQ. Last year's List contained 53 plays, including Fernanda Coppel's KING LIZ, Lynn Nottage's SWEAT and Lucy Thurber's THE INSURGENTS.

Winkler first found out about The Kilroys when two of her plays, DEATH FOR SYDNEY BLACK (described on her website as "a dark comedy about six teenage girls navigating the treacherous landscape of Northeast Valley High") and DIVERSITY AWARENESS PICNIC (University employees partake in a mandatory diversity awareness activity) received honorable mentions. Last year her play KENTUCKY - a dark comedy about a New York woman who, after being estranged from her Kentucky family, visits home to be the maid of honor in her newly born-again Christian little sister's wedding - made it to the main List. She found out via email.

"It was super kind and unexpected and extremely encouraging. I remember thinking 'Wow- all these playwrights I admire banded together and did something amazing and impactful. How often does that happen?' There was a definite upsurge in interest of my work. As soon as The List came out I was flooded with emails from industry and students; even teachers wanting to include the plays in their curriculum. Being on The List has helped my career in invaluable ways. I also got an agent after trying for nine years and I think being on The List definitely helped."

This past April's production of KENTUCKY at Ensemble Studio Theatre, a world premiere by Page 73 Productions ("It was the first full-length of mine that was produced in New York City by someone other than me.") was already in the works when the play gained a place on The List, but the honor greatly increased interest.

"Having that credit was hugely validating. It's a play with sixteen diverse characters, multiple locations and a talking cat. Not exactly a safe bet. So the fact that it was on The List meant we weren't alone in thinking that the work should have a life. It also got other people excited about the play and many, many theatres, schools and committees from across the country started requesting the script."

Like her play's main character, Winkler was raised in Kentucky. She was born in Japan, where she was a child model ("That in itself is a weird art form.") and then her family moved to America. Theatre wasn't a part of her upbringing. She grew up reading a lot of manga, a style of Japanese graphic novels, which helped her understand how dialogue could be used to tell stories.

"I was obsessed with basketball up until high school, like every other person in Kentucky, and I thought I'd be a jock through senior year. But everything changed when a friend forced me to take a drama elective with her. I quickly became a theatre geek and as it turns out, loving theatre kept me out of a lot of trouble. I didn't drink or smoke and was very tunnel-vision focused on learning as much as I could about the art form."

While funding for arts education in American public schools is frequently an afterthought, Winkler's high school theatre education was quite advanced.

Satomi Blair and Curran Connor in KENTUCKY
(Photo: Jody Christopherson)

"I was talking to one of my old high school drama teachers the other day and it's just crazy how great of an education I got at a public school located sort of in the middle of the low-income housing. They were teaching us Anouilh and Brecht and The Empty Theatre when we were like fifteen. And the school was super diverse both racially and economically so I got to work with so many different types of kids who all felt like they belonged. My drama teacher always said, 'Theatre is a space to do unsafe things,' and I really felt that and clung on to it."

"In the fourth grade I wrote this short story and all of my teachers accused me of plagiarism because it was good and I was underestimated. That's when I knew I was probably a writer. I kept notebooks and notebooks of writing. I wrote weird sketches and acted them out with my cousin and recorded them into a tape recorder. I memorized every monologue I could and recited them to myself in my bedroom, studying the rhythms and the cadence of Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder and Carol Churchill. I wrote songs on the guitar. I started writing text for theatre when I was 18 or so, when I started devising experimental pieces. At 21 I wrote and directed my first play and it was produced by a tiny experimental theatre in Indianapolis for the fringe festival there. I kept writing and directing my own work for years after that. I don't direct now, but if I didn't direct first I don't think I would have realized I am actually a playwright."

Soon after she moved to New York, "to be with a boy who had gotten into Juilliard for music. We broke up later, of course!"

"I didn't have any money so I donated my eggs for $4,500, bought a MacBook, a Greyhound ticket and moved in with a friend in Bed-Stuy in a three bedroom apartment that we ended up sharing with five people."

"I think the very first thing I did here was "tiny theatre" at the Ontological Theater where I wrote and collaborated with some of the New York Neofuturists in 2007. After that I started a theatre company with some friends and we did shows at venues like The Brick, Incubator Arts, Dixon Place, 3LD; basically any place that would let us.

Immersing herself into the theatre community meant getting involved with "amazing groups that support emerging playwrights" such as New Georges, terraNOVA Collective, Page 73 and Women's Project.

But after five years of writing plays and getting them produced, she didn't think seriously of playwriting as a career until getting involved with Youngblood at the Ensemble Studio Theatre.

"I didn't know the ins and outs of a playwright's professional life in terms of development, agents and getting produced. I had essentially been functioning as a producer and administrator in addition to a writer and was burning out pretty fast. When I joined Youngblood, I was presented with all these resources like free space, actors and an opportunity to present work to an audience. I didn't have to beg or bribe and my voice grew exponentially. I was also in the group with incredible powerhouse writers of my generation like Clare Barron, Chiara Atik, Martyna Majok, Jen Silverman, Olivia Dufault, Alex Borinsky, Charly Evon Simpson, Mariah MacCarthy, Patrick Link Zhu Yi and many, many more whose careers I saw flourish, and I realized I wanted a career as well."

Leah Nanako Winkler
(Photo: Emma Pratte)

She praises Page 73 and Ensemble Studio Theatre for never making her "feel like a 'female' artist" when premiering KENTUCKY.

"They also not only allowed but encouraged me to bring on my friend Morgan Gould, an under 30 female director for the project, which rarely happens. This is the type of support I had always dreamed of."

"When you are a woman and you see an all-male season, you automatically take note. You can't not. As a woman of color I notice every time there is an all-white season. It's just something that you can never un-see. I think The Kilroys and The List have really changed the visibility of the works women create in a huge way. I think it's genius because people can't really say they don't know any plays written by women anymore."

"There are many talented male playwrights out there who can write amazing female characters but there are also many, many male playwrights who continue to write one-dimensional dumb-dumbs who only exist in the play to support the male driven story-line. We need more fully fleshed female characters who seem like human beings. In order for this to happen theatre seasons cannot continue to have just one designated slot for the 'Lady Playwright' or 'Playwright of Color' and call it a day. There are many different types of women in the world. We have eclectic voices that represent different ages, races and economic statures just like men. We should be represented in this way."

"I think wider representation would inevitably lead to more female protagonists who are smart, complicated, hilarious, nuanced and different from each other play to play. Such characters that could bring fresh perspectives and shatter misconceptions."

While Broadway doesn't have to be considered the zenith of American theatre, commercially it is. Statistics show every year that women are the primary purchasers of Broadway tickets, and yet the under-representation of women playwrights is abundantly clear. When asked for her thoughts on why that might be so, Winkler responds, "We all love seeing ourselves reflected on the stage. So, if the gatekeepers and producers are male, they are going to relate to the male-centric story and want to invest. Or, I don't know, maybe it's just sexism. There really isn't an excuse anymore, is there?"

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