Horror is usually teenage-boy turf, but playwright Lauren Yee puts young women in the spotlight in “Hookman.’’ The hope is that her blood-soaked comedy-drama will also be a small step toward closing theater’s gender gap.
“Hookman,’’ beginning performances Friday at the Boston Center for the Arts, adapts that old campfire tale about a sinister figure with a hook for a hand menacing teenagers in their cars. It’s the first production of the XX Playlab, a collaboration of the BCA and Company One to workshop one play each season by a female playwright, taking it from rough draft to a full staging.
Creation of the program was fueled by studies showing that plays written by women make up fewer than 20 percent of plays produced. A 2010 speech by playwright Theresa Rebeck assailing that “abysmal’’ statistic and hurdles faced by women in the business was also widely discussed in the theater community.
“I think it’s a serious issue nationwide, a very serious issue, and it’s not just about women playwrights,’’ says Ilana Brownstein, who joined Company One this season as director of new play development and worked with Yee as dramaturg. “For eons and eons, the people who got to decide what was good drama were primarily white men, so what happens is you get a homogenization of what you’re going to see. In the last 20 years I think we’ve done a lot better in this country, but we’ve become more aware of where the gaps are.’’
San Francisco native Yee, 26, is a student in the master of fine arts program at the University of California-San Diego. Her work has earned her a list of fellowships and awards along with a few productions.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have work that is embraced regardless of ethnicity or gender,’’ she says. “My hope is that female playwrights can be taken as seriously as male playwrights. This play also puts female actors in the forefront.’’
In “Hookman,’’ University of Connecticut freshman Lexi (played by Erin Butcher) is home in California for Thanksgiving when she and her friend Jess go for an In-N-Out Burger one night. And, hey, what’s that funny scraping sound?
The lives of the characters are grounded in mundane realities of Facebook and texting. But Hookman, a shadowy slasher-movie figure, keeps turning up in the corner of Lexi’s vision.
“It’s about Lexi’s experience, this horrible thing that happens to her, and her inability to process that,’’ says Brownstein, who from 2002 to 2008 was literary manager at the Huntington Theatre Company, where she directed the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program. “What we don’t know as an audience member necessarily as we join up with the play is what the real truth is.’’
“It was just a really smart play that had a fun mix of this kind of pop-culture element with some really smart and deep stuff going on that wasn’t fully realized in the draft, but you could see it was there,’’ says the BCA’s John J. King, who manages the XX Playlab and is house manager for the BCA’s Plaza Theatres.
Yee says the play benefited from the development program, including public readings in October and January: “The first draft was something that I wrote very quickly without knowing how the scenes would stick together . . . and in the process with Company One, I got to check in with an audience every couple months.’’
The hope for XX Playlab, King says, is that its productions will not only draw attention to the obstacles facing female dramatists but also show that plays by women can attract an audience.
“In a long-term way, it’s been much harder for female playwrights to establish a career,’’ he says. “You have 70 percent female playwrights coming out of grad programs but only 18 percent of plays being professionally produced are by women. That’s a huge gap.’’
“Boston is in some ways the outlier in this,’’ he says, noting the prominence of local playwrights Lydia Diamond, whose “Stick Fly’’ recently ran on Broadway, and Kirsten Greenidge, whose “The Luck of the Irish’’ opens at the Huntington Theatre Company next month. Still, King says, “for each one of those mid-career female playwrights who’s hitting a really great spot right now,’’ there’s one who “hasn’t had a major production in the past couple of years.’’
Although the partnership is not formally renewed for another year yet, Company One and the BCA are already looking at some candidates for next year’s XX Playlab, Brownstein says, and this time are committed to picking a local playwright.
Yee won’t make next week’s opening; it’s her graduation weekend in California. But she’ll come in the week after. And she has one more production to see: a workshop of “Hookman’’ is set for April in San Diego.
Summer at the Harbor
Young Jean Lee’s “Church,’’ a Christian service shaped into avant-garde theater, will make its New England premiere this summer as part of the Harbor Stage Company’s inaugural, three-play season in Wellfleet. The season will open in June with Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,’’ adapted and directed by the company’s artistic director, Robert Kropf. “Church’’ is next in the lineup, followed by David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones,’’ one of his quartet of Vietnam War dramas, which won the 1972 Tony Award for best play.
Harbor Stage Company, a fledgling troupe made up of former Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater stalwarts, plans to take over the waterfront space that was WHAT’s longtime seasonal home.
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.