Whatever you do, don’t call award-winning playwright Tammy Ryan’s recent productions a “sudden success.” Ryan appreciates the notice, but when people praise her as if she’s just won the lottery, she thinks, “Really? I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years!” In that time, Ryan has produced 15 full-length plays and 1 libretto. Her newest play, Molly's Hammer, made its world premiere last month at the The Repertory Theater of St. Louis.
Last month also saw the production of Ryan’s play Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods by the Portland Stage Company. Lost Boys won the American Theater Critics Association's Francesca Primus Prize in 2012 and was produced here by Pittsburgh Playhouse.
When she first started out, Ryan, a longtime Pittsburgher with an MFA in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon University, found herself trying to write plays and get those plays produced outside of Pittsburgh, all while raising two small children. She describes her first staged production, Pig, as a “black comedy with sick humor, about a dysfunctional, working-class, Irish-American family in Queens.” Pig’s main character is a man, a veteran of the first Gulf War. After having her first child, Ryan’s plays began to reflect women’s lived experiences and were more women-centered. “And when I told my then-agent that I was pregnant with my second child,” she says, “he gave me a look and then dropped me soon after.”
Ryan says she internalized the negative reviews of “Pig” and her other early work. “I felt the criticism was because I’m a woman, because my women characters weren’t particularly likeable, and because the plays weren’t happy plays.”
But this was in the 1990s. Today, Ryan notes, the problem of the male gaze and a predominance of white male playwrights is being talked about and challenged. According to The Count, the Dramatist Guild of America’s annual study of who is being produced in American theater, only about 20% of plays produced in 2015 were written by women. Of those, less than 4% were written by women of color. “We have to listen to each other and balance the picture of who tells the stories in our culture,” Ryan says. “And younger theater artists are demanding change.”
Ryan has drawn her own inspiration from a diverse group of playwrights including Caryl Churchill, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, and Sam Shepard. Like these playwrights, Ryan has kept going through bad reviews, demands of family, and other obstacles. “Plays get produced because of relationships,” Ryan says. “None of it is fair. Theater isn’t fair. It’s not a democracy. But you have to put that aside and persevere. Mark Clayton Southers started his own theater company, and he doesn’t just produce his own work, but others’ as well. Again, perseverance. Cream rises.”
Ryan says her breakthrough happened when she was “adopted” by the Pittsburgh Playhouse. “They committed to me, not to a single play. Before that, I felt isolated, and my time to write was limited because of my kids. There was a desire to quit. But it became a matter of survival. I said, ‘I have to focus on raising these girls and writing the next play. I can’t keep going to New York trying to get a reading. What I can do is write the next play.’”
Ryan’s daughters are now 14 and 23. And, since 2009, she has written a play a year, and to date, all have been produced. Ryan credits generous grants and fellowships from the Heinz Endowments, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, The Pittsburgh Foundation, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for allowing her time to write and develop her work.
In the wake of the successful runs of Molly’s Hammer and Lost Boy…,Ryan has three new plays in mind to write. But she’s also doing something she’s never felt she had the luxury to do: Just pause. “I have a quote from Lorraine Hansberry on my desk,” Ryan says. “‘Never be afraid to sit a while and think.’ And that’s what I’m doing.”
Deesha Philyaw is a writer and a mama. She believes in seeing color, talking about race, and using the Oxford comma.
Photo credit: Martha Rial.