"The fellas get to work with their bare hands, while we have to don white gloves," Tina Howe declared at the "Women in Theatre: Mapping the Sources of Power" conference in November of 1997 celebrating the 20th anniversary of Women's Project. At the end of her speech, she tossed latex gloves out into the audience encouraging us to use them to handle whatever work we were driven to write. I am delighted to report that I caught one, which I kept. Little did I know that I would have the further delight to become one of Tina's students in 1999. Milan Stitt invited her to Carnegie Mellon to be the thesis advisor for my class of three women and one man. He wanted Tina because of her theatrical wisdom and because of how well she knew the landscape for daring women playwrights. She was instrumental in leading each of us to discover what our plays wanted to be. Tina and I remain friends and colleagues sharing the joys and frustrations of writing for the theater whilst being female.
I find there is a rather large contrast between Tina Howe's reputation for "white glove" plays and her actual creations. There is an impression of politeness, of elegance, of gentility. In fact, what delights me about Tina's work is how she takes an ordered world and by the climax has completely torn it asunder. Everyone and everything that enters a Howe play, exits transformed. From the initial order, an organic, necessary, and always painful process of excavation takes place at the deepest level of human need.
Tina titles her plays most often with verbs. These should be handled as warnings: inside there is non-stop action. There are acts of aggression, most often infused with love, but fueled by unbridled passion and need. Tina has no fear of making a mess, in fact, she rather likes it. There is shouting, lots of shouting. There is an abundant and necessary use of capital letters. People speak French and go mute. People lose tempers, patience, minds, yes, gloves, and hearts.
In each play I have either seen or read there is a powerful image that stays with me, in fact, never leaves. In Museum, that image is Tink Solheim's description of how when walking in the woods with Agnes Vaag "As she was combing the underbrush, I heard this soft kind of...licking noise...a slight kind of slurping....We reached a clearing...and then I saw...she was holding one of the little skeletons up to her mouth and...was licking it, nibbling on it." In Painting Churches, it is Mags' melted crayon masterpiece—"AFTER THREE MONTHS THAT RADIATOR WAS...SPECTACULAR! I MEAN, IT LOOKED LIKE SOME COLLOSAL FRUITCAKE, FIVE FEET TALL...!"—and the pain when her mother mistook her creation for the food Mags hadn't eaten. In Birth and After Birth, it's the mother coddling her four-year old played by a large, hairy man. In Chasing Manet (shown in photo), it is the bittersweet joy of the two old ladies sitting on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth II. In Coastal Disturbances, when Leo buries Holly in the sand to get her to admit her feelings for him. In Pride's Crossing, so many images, but I will pick the triumph of Mabel's croquet party and that glorious dive into the water at the end.
Tina's worlds are so full and rich and her characters so specific and complex, she allows me to see these images in detail far greater than the actual stage picture. Her images endure and urge me, as she did when she tossed the latex glove, to search for my own truths, make my own masterpieces and reach for my own impossible dreams.Published on March 26, 2010