An interview with playwright Laura Schellhardt, whose new drama looks at women in the workplace. It premieres at Seattle Repertory Theatre beginning March 11, 2015.
You don’t expect to hear the late French playwright Jean Genet and top Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg mentioned in the same breath.
But it makes sense when the subject is “The Comparables,” a world premiere play by Laura Schellhardt opening Wednesday, March 11, at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Genet’s absurdist classic “The Maids” examines the shifting power dynamics between two ladies’ maids and their wealthy woman employer. It was an initial inspiration for “The Comparables,” according to Schellhardt, a Chicago-based dramatist who teaches at Northwestern University, and Seattle Rep artistic director Braden Abraham, who commissioned and directs her script.
by Laura Schellhardt. Through March 29. Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $16-$72 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
“At first Laura and I wanted to do an American version of ‘The Maids,’ ” explained Abraham last week. “But we approached the Genet estate and couldn’t get the rights.”
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With “The Maids” off the table, Schellhardt decided to craft an original piece, influenced by Genet as well as Sandberg’s 2013 book “Lean In,” a controversial best-seller that urges career women to overcome corporate gender bias by forcefully striving for the top.
“I like parts of the book, and find it contradictory at times,” commented Schellhardt, in Seattle this week for the “Comparables” opening. “I wanted to address the issue she raises of the double standard in the corporate world where powerful women are called bossy, and powerful men are called ambitious.”
In her dark comedy, a trio of professional women of different generations jockey for power in a highly competitive field. The most senior, Bette (played by Linda Gehringer) runs a high-end real estate agency. Her staff includes longtime associate Monica (Cheyenne Casebier); and Iris (Keiko Green), a young up-and-comer new to the agency.
“Bette has made a career of championing young women and female entrepreneurs, and helping them succeed. Monica is loyal and striving. Iris has a somewhat different view of ambition and success than the others.
“The play isn’t about the details of being a real estate agent,” stressed Schellhardt. “It’s about selling oneself … selling, selling, selling and being a woman and the face of an organization.”
There is some irony in a male theater executive directing a play about women’s challenges in the workplace. (A wide majority of large U.S. regional theaters are still headed by men.) This doesn’t faze Abraham, a longtime fan of Schellhardt’s work who staged her folksy-surreal mystery “The K of D, an urban legend” at the Rep in 2011.
“ I think it’s terrific Laura is asking such interesting questions,” he commented. “In a cutthroat world men always have a fear of failure. For women it’s much more complicated, because there’s so much pressure to do it all [have a career and family], and do it perfectly. And you have to look great doing it.
“Laura brings all that out, and makes it funny too. Her humor comes from a very truthful place that can also be unsettling.”
“The Comparables” has been developed over two years, with readings at the Rep, in California and Colorado. Abraham and actors Gehringer and Casebier have been aboard for all of them.
Schellhardt noted that during those workshops she was often asked “Why don’t we find out more about the personal lives of these characters?,” although in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” David Mamet’s searing study of male real estate agents, “There’s little talk about the men’s personal lives and nobody questions that.”
Adding more private details, she contends, would feed “this desire people have for female characters to be likable. I think that’s something that needs to change … Can you imagine a likable Iago? I’m not aiming to make these women likable. I’m aiming to make them human.”