WWSF: How have you managed to stay in the theater? It’s a difficult life to lead. What has sustained you financially and artistically?
CAROLYN: Well, a lot of my jobs have revolved around theater in some way, but not entirely. I was also a Special Ed teacher, and I worked in at-risk programs. One of the things I’m most proud of in my life is that I started a teen theater in southern Oregon with Planned Parenthood, which lasted for 20 years. Thousands of kids came through that theater, and we performed for hundreds of thousands of people, and toured Oregon many times in a school bus performing at high schools. We were extremely controversial, and we were definitely the first group to ever bring up birth control in the Oregon public schools. We were also the first group to ever support gay teens publicly in Oregon. By the end, I actually got paid a salary, but for a long time it wasn’t the only thing I did. When I was young, I had a lot of energy. I managed to stay in theater by working two jobs for most of my life. I worked for something to make money, and I did theater. But, even though I’ve never been wealthy, I have very seldom worked on anything that didn’t break even. I feel really proud of that. I’ve also lived extremely cheaply. That’s my story.
Yet, I have gone through grave doubt many times in my life. I don’t own a home. I raised children, and I wish I had money to pass on to them. I have sometimes realized that practically everyone I worked with had more money than I did, and they were able to do theater partly because they didn’t have to work as much as I did. I’ve wondered sometimes how much of it is an addiction, and how much is just what I do.
But, I am also a firm believer in community. My community has often supported me financially and in other ways too. I have lived in houses that cost very little because people loved me as an artist. I’ve had landlords who didn’t care if I always could pay the rent on time when I was younger, because they appreciated my work. I’ve been a great beneficiary and a great contributor to artistic and progressive communities. I believe in that. But of course, it’s harder in the world now, than it was in the world when we were young, because we were part of a big movement. And it’s harder when you get older. Yet, nobody can tell the stories we’re telling, so we’ve got to do it. So that’s what I always come back to. I don’t have any doubts about our work. It’s hilarious, and it’s vital, and that’s what always keeps me going.
TERRY: I think it’s great that you told the story altogether like that. Don’t you think that’s an important story, Carolyn’s survival in theater? Mine is perhaps a more common story than hers. I had money from my family, so I was relatively free. Not when I was starting out, but when I was 40, I had a stipend so I didn’t have to have a job. And now, I have a little inheritance, and that is raising it to another level for our current project: we have a director, and a set designer, and a lighting designer, and a production stage manager, and we are just wallowing in all this care!
CAROLYN: It’s so incredible. We’ll be rehearsing something, and there’s somebody else in another part of the theater figuring out how to move a big piece of furniture. It brings tears to my eyes! But Terry, speak about how you keep going emotionally…
TERRY: Emotionally is really hard. I don’t want to say anything negative, but San Francisco is a tough theater town. It didn’t used to be. When we started out, going to theater was part of what people did. That doesn’t seem to be true anymore. It’s not that frequently that I meet somebody who goes to plays on their own, who’s not also actually doing theater in some way. That has changed since I came to San Francisco, in 1974. And that has been really hard.
In 2006, I had a crisis of faith. I had run for Congress – one of my slogans was “Baum for Peace” – and I did a musical play by the same title with my composer Scrumbly Koldewyn. We took the show to the New York Fringe festival, and it didn’t get very big audiences, and I couldn’t handle that. It wasn’t the first time that had happened, but somehow, I had kept going for a long time saying, “Okay, one more time, this is the one that’s going to make it. THIS IS THE ONE!” I didn’t start out that way. When I began performing, I was getting really big audiences, because we were creating a wave, and we were also riding a wave with the gay movement and the feminist movement. I don’t think I would have gotten into theater so deeply if the audiences hadn’t been there in the beginning.
CAROLYN: Well, I think you’re directly addressing the fact that there isn’t equity in theater, or movies. I don’t know the statistics, but I don’t think it’s getting any better. It’s just absurd. In Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossy Pants, there’s a moment that just seems so apocryphal to me. She talks about when she and Amy Poehler were out touring with Second City. The touring companies were always two women and four men. Amy and Tina, two of the most brilliant people in comedy, said to the directors (who were not bad guys), “Why don’t we send a company out with three men and three women?” And they replied, “We would love to, but there just aren’t enough parts for women!” These people write their own material! Tina was like, “Where do you start the discussion?” That to me is where we are. I mean, how do we even start? Like Terry said, when we first began looking for great plays by women that spoke to our lives, we couldn’t find them. My theater partner in Oregon for years was Dory Appel. She and I wanted to do a play on women’s friendships. And we decided that this time we wouldn’t write a play, we’d find the great scenes in existing plays that have women’s friendships. And there weren’t ANY. None. There were sisters. There were a few mothers and daughters. But we could not find ANY plays about women who were friends. Women are more than half the world! There should be more representation of women’s experience in theater. I think that’s the whole challenge.
TERRY: In 1988, I participated in a feminist book fair and conference in Amsterdam, and they had a panel on women’s playwrights. There were no Dutch women playwrights. They had to bring in this woman from Japan, whose work was not really theater, it was actually poetry. That was so shocking to me. This was an international conference. But the only countries that had a developed tradition in women’s play-writing at that point were English-speaking countries. That was it. It was United States, Canada, England, Australia.
Even before I was focused on feminist issues, when I was choosing plays, it just made sense to do plays with more big parts for women than men because there were far more good women to cast. It was like, “Well, duh! Why should I fight over these few men who are actors, when I have this incredible deep pool of women actresses?” So I have to say, I’ve always been very aware of the disparity and the discrimination in theater.
CAROLYN: I was the high school drama teacher and coach when I was doing teen theater. Like Terry was saying, there are an incredible number of girls who want to do it. But there are so many more parts for boys. It’s just ironic.
TERRY: My focus for years has been doing theater that is created by women. We have on our website, “Warning: Feminist Material”, to claim ourselves as feminists and assert that as a basis for radically changing the world and making it more nurturing, and more open to equality.
WWSF: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
CAROLYN: You! In this moment, I’m putting it all on you! I believe that feminism doesn’t have to be all-women, but that defeat of the patriarchal system is the only hope for the planet. If the planet’s going to survive, it’s got to turn towards women. I think pretty much everybody knows that now, even the people who are trying to put it down. I think we all have fear about the state of the world. But I feel like my hope for women will be validated, because I think that’s the only way out. I do feel that the women’s movement has saved my life, and I hope its ramifications continue to save the lives of many women. And men.
TERRY: I think there are so many wonderful young women. Even if they don’t acknowledge themselves as feminists, there are so many strong young women who are so much freer to be themselves than I was.
CAROLYN: I love that there are so many physical actresses, circus performers, vaudevillians, dancers… We were pre-Title IX. There weren’t sports for us. Now there are, and girls grow up playing sports. They have greater awareness of their bodies, and they bring that to their art. That is really hopeful, that many women today come in to the theater with that sense of themselves as a powerful physical force.
WWSF: Thank you! It’s been an honor talking with both of you.