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WOMEN IN THE THEATER: THEATER HISTORY DOES NOT RECORD THE NAME

Theater history does not record the name of the Greek performer who created the title role in the very first production of Euripides' "Medea." But we know at least this much about the actor.

He was a he.Never mind that the play is based on one of the most intriguing women in Greek mythology, the woman who is credited with helping Jason (you know, as in "Jason and the Argonauts") escape with the famed Golden Fleece by chopping her own brother into bits so her father would stop chasing them long enough to pick up the pieces. And forget that later, in a fit of jealousy, she killed the two sons she had with Jason and was banished when she tried to kill her next husband's son.

When the Greeks waxed dramatic, there were no women wielding wax. Female roles were played by boys or smooth-faced young men. In some societies, women weren't even allowed to watch dramatic presentations, much less participate in them.

Even in Shakespeare's day, acting was considered man's work. Which means it was a man who first tried to scrub Lady Macbeth's blasted spot out. It was a man who, as Desdemona, drove Othello into his first murderous rage. And when that light broke through yonder window, it was in the east, but Juliet was a man.

And pity the poor youth who was first cast as Rosalind in "As You Like It." Not only did he have to figure out how to play a woman; he also had to figure out how to play a woman who pretends to be a man.

Of course, such devices were common in a world where women were encouraged to keep their thoughts and expressions - artistic and otherwise - to themselves. But as the perceived value of women in society has increased, so has their impact on the theater.

"Women have brought a kind of balance to drama," said Nancy Borgenicht, a Utah actress and one of the driving forces behind the Salt Lake Acting Company. "Theater is such a collaborative art form. In any production or company there are so many people involved - actors, directors, writers, technicians - and there has to be a lot of give and take.

"If you're only drawing from the experiences, feelings and perceptions of half the population - whether that be men or women - you're probably not going to have the balance you're looking for, and your art will reflect that lack of balance."

By the late 1800s a number of great actresses had established national reputations, including Utah's own Maude Adams.

But it wasn't until recently that women have been able to establish themselves as playwrights, directors and theater company managers. Sure, there have been exceptions - women like Maude May Babcock and Lila Eccles Brimhall were powerful forces in Utah theater, and Lillian Hellman had some impact nationally. For the most part, however, women have been limited to acting out their theatrical fantasies - not making them happen.

Until now.

"Today is one of the best possible times for women in the theater," said noted Utah playwright Aden Ross.

Added Borgenicht: "There are women here in Utah who are able to make a living in the theater. That's absolutely new - you didn't even see that five years ago."

"It's all part of the larger social issue," Ross continued. "The growth of the woman's place in the world has meant a growth in her place in the theater."

Which is not to say that women have finally arrived on equal footing with men in the art. Take a look at the current list of Tony nominees, for example. Only one of the Best Play nominees - Wendy Wasserstein's "Heidi Chronicles" - was written by a woman. And if you're searching for a female among the nominees for best direction of a play or a musical, forget it.

"We still have a ways to go," Borgenicht acknowledged. "I mean, look at us. As hard as the Salt Lake Acting Company tries to support new women playwrights, we're still only doing one play by a woman next season. It's not that we're not trying. It's just that it's still so new, and there just aren't that many great plays by women playwrights out there."

Ross thinks part of the problem has to do with the subjects women playwrights are choosing to write about.

"This first flush of women writers have had a tendency to write about women and women's issues," she said. "That really irritates me. Women bring to the theater exactly what men bring to the theater. Women can write about men just as well as men can write about women. Good writing is either androgynous or asexual. It has to do with emotions and feelings and talent. It doesn't have a thing to do with gender. At least, it shouldn't.

"A great writer can get inside any character, male or female," she continued. "And until more of our women writers discover that they're able to do that, we'll continue to have women writing to, for and about women - and not really having a lot of universal impact."

And as far as directing is concerned, Borgenicht insists that it's just taken women performers a while to catch up. "Directing has always been a man's world," she said. "I'd been acting for 14 years before I ever tried directing. The idea of women moving from acting to directing or writing or even managing a theater company is pretty new."

But it won't take long for talented women to get the hang of it. Many already have, and the results have been impressive.

"We're right on the brink of some exciting things for women in the theater," Borgenicht said. "The opportunities are there and the experiences are happening right now. The real impact of all that probably isn't going to be immediate. But there is going to be impact, and it's going to be profound."