Marissa Skudlarek seeks new role models for a new year.
Last year I wrote about how theater has gone from being a disreputable profession to a fairly respectable one. (There is still some residual suspicion of anyone who has decided to devote their life to art instead of commerce, but now it is no longer assumed that all theater people are immoral rogues.) But that can lead to new problems. Because while I generally think the professionalization and respectability of theater is a good thing, artists still need some spark of wildness and daring if they are to make great art. Nowadays, when a “nice kid” who was raised to be an obedient people-pleaser decides to become an artist, it can take a great deal of time, effort, and struggle for her to shake off her dutiful habits and become confident and self-actualized.
I thought Gillian Jacobs’ essay published in Lenny Letter yesterday captured something about this very well, and this theme is also treated at length in one of the best books I read last year, the memoir How To Be a Heroine, or What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much by British playwright Samantha Ellis. I should note that Samantha is a friend of mine; we discovered one another’s blogs several years ago, we correspond occasionally, and I met her in person when I visited London in 2012. I bought her memoir as soon as it came out in the U.S. last year, and took it with me on my February 2015 trip to a literary-themed hotel on the Oregon coast, where I pretended my main goal was to write, but really it was to get my head on straight after a very difficult 2014. I didn’t write anything on that trip except for journaling, but I devoured Samantha’s memoir, and it helped me a lot: to know there are bookish, funny, thoughtful female playwrights out there who’ve gone through some of the same stuff I’ve had to deal with.
How To Be a Heroine is Samantha’s life story through the lens of books, specifically the female characters that she identified with or rebelled against. As the daughter of Iraqi Jewish immigrants to London, growing up in a fairly traditional and conservative community, she had to fight to make her own way in the world, rather than bowing to her parents’ expectations that she marry a “nice Jewish boy.” Literary heroines inspire her as she deals with growing up, health problems, love, work, and art. She also takes a second look at some of her favorite stories, realizing that she may have drawn the wrong lessons from certain books or chosen false idols. (The whole idea for this book came about when she realized she’d have been better off if her favorite Brontë heroine was Jane Eyre, not Cathy Earnshaw.)
I didn’t write a Theater Pub column about How to Be a Heroine at the time, maybe because I was still processing too many things about it and my life, maybe because I didn’t think it was theater-related enough. (Samantha’s focus is heroines of prose fiction, not of theater.) Nonetheless, the story is peppered with anecdotes of her early career as a playwright, and how the heroines of her plays often mirrored what she was going through at the time. I also feel like I’m a semi-autobiographical playwright – again, it was nice to know that I’m not alone!
Although I grew up in a much less conservative environment than Samantha did, I still related to her struggle to find her voice as an artist, to take charge of her writing career and reject some of the deferential good-girl traits that had stuck with her since childhood. In fact, one of the things that cemented Samantha’s and my friendship was when she liked a blog post I wrote about how male playwrights tend to be bad boys and female playwrights tend to be dutiful daughters. (I realize that I think about this problem in gendered terms, but young boys can be obedient people-pleasers too and if so, they must also undergo this kind of struggle. They just seem not to write memoirs about it as often as women do — we are at an odd moment where women are very much encouraged to tell their own stories and take charge of their own narratives, but it still feels odd or shameful for a man to publicly admit to having vulnerabilities and insecurities.)
This theme comes to the fore in Samantha’s chapter about her life in London in her twenties, after she graduated from Cambridge. She describes her early temp jobs and her transition into journalism, which she enjoyed at the time, but now regrets that “I did job after job that took me further away from [play]writing.” She quotes Pauline Kael’s chilling pronouncement that “a good-girl artist is a contradiction in terms.” Eventually, Samantha says, she found inspiration not in fiction but in a real-life heroine: Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the play A Taste of Honey while she was still in her teens. “[Delaney]’s rage and sense of purpose suddenly made me feel like I was doing everything all wrong… I was delving into archives instead of breaking new ground, writing about theater instead of making it.”
I felt indicted when I read those words last February. Reading them again, I still feel indicted.
I want to be bolder in 2016, and to continue to struggle against my good-girl, precocious-kid affectations. It won’t be easy, but I know I’m not the first person to have done this. There are heroines — real and fictional — to serve as guides along the way.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.