Poet, Playwright, Workshop Facilitator
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Our Voices Blog

How I Flunked the Bechdel Test But Found Happiness in Automatic Writing by Ann Marie Shea

Kara Emily Krantz in “Drop In”

Kara Emily Krantz in “Drop In”

This is the third blog in this series featuring Our Voices 12 playwrights writing about the plays they presented on September 30, 2018 in the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, Wellesley College. This week, playwright Ann Marie Shea writes about presenting a scene from her new play, Drop In.


Recently I came across "the Bechdel Test," a challenge articulated by playwright Alison Bechdel. The test is based on three criteria:

(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who

(2) who talk to each other, about

(3) something besides a man 

OK, sister Bechdel, said I, I'll take the challenge. Without having much of an idea where I was headed, I put the keyboard on autopilot and silenced my inner critic, stepping aside to let two female characters (check) talk to each other (check again) about --oops--one of them hogged the conversation with minutia about her late husband's passing.  I let a MAN get into the scene. Oh, well.  I got two out of three, a score that unfortunately placed me somewhere in the D+ range.

But, however clumsy the start, I found the characters started writing a situation that produced real conflict.  Danielle, a librarian in her mid-thirties, has just moved across the country to start a new life.  Her new neighbor, Emmie, cannot stop being "helpful," no matter how much Danielle is determined to protect her privacy.  

Ellen Colton & Kara Emily Krantz

Ellen Colton & Kara Emily Krantz

I was blessed at the 2018 Our Voices Festival to have the talents of two superb actresses reading the roles. Kara Emily Krantz, whom I am proud to introduce as my former student, read Danielle, no doubt drawing on her own personal experience, as she is rebuilding her life and her house, after a former boyfriend burned it. (I could not make this up.) Kara has just completed her MFA in playwrighting, so watch out for her--I expect a play about boundary violations is already started in her fertile mind.  The role of Emmie was read by the unstoppable Ellen Colton, who managed to turn what I had thought were quirky remarks into full-blown gag lines.  At this early stage of composition, I have to consider that this piece may not be the suspense thriller I had envisioned, but rather a comic take on stalking.  (Is there anything funny about stalking?)

Stalking?  How did we get there? Be patient; I haven't written that part yet.  What I have written and what was read at Our Voices XII is a series of short scenes where Danielle is attempting to maintain her new relative anonymity, and Emmie is persistently prying to glean (and manage) all she can about Danielle's biography, shopping habits, interior décor, etc.

EMMIE

(Entering in full stride)
Whew! I was beginning to get worried! I looked in earlier, and I what was I to think when I

didn’t see you up and about? How were your calls?

DANIELLE

(Following, dazed)

My calls?

EMMIE

You said you had to make a lot of calls last night.

DANIELLE

Oh yes. Those calls. Fine. Just fine. So you use a speakerphone?

DANIELLE

A what?

EMMIE
You used both hands to put up those shelves in the living room, and then organizing all those

books. I didn’t see you using a phone all that much.

DANIELLE

You saw—WHAT?

EMMIE

You really should get solid curtains for all these windows—anyone can see right through the whole house with these sheers that Mrs. Sheridan left—of course she was an old woman, and who would care, but someone like you—well, you never know about peeping toms.

Ellen Colton & Kara Emily Krantz

Ellen Colton & Kara Emily Krantz

In the pipeline are flashback scenes from Danielle's previous existence in California.  Her experimentation with on-line dating blew up in her face, resulting in a match with a controlling, sociopathic IT wizard who quickly insinuated himself into her future plans, her public persona, her bank accounts and other sensitive areas.  Danielle attempted to shake him by moving to the East Coast, finding a new job and buying a new house.  However, her stalker (did I say he was IT savvy?) has managed to find her and shows up at the new site, enlisting the ever-helpful Emmie is his re-invigorated courtship of the terrified Danielle.

This manner of writing--characters first, then find a plot--is a departure for this Aristotelian-bound Recovering English Major.  My training and disposition lead me to rely on a beginning/middle/end statement as a starting point.  It remains to be seen if I can whip this amorphous mess of incident and character into anything resembling a plot.  I also am up in the air about tone, having heard the roars of laughter from the audience at Ellen Colton's superbly comic rendering of certain lines.  Can stalking be treated comedically?  Can I write a serious thriller that happens to have comic elements?  And, oh, that title has to go.  I'll worry about that tomorrow.

There is obviously a lot of work ahead.  But the reading before a live--and lively--audience at Our Voices provided a valuable test run of this work in progress.  The savvy respondents proved that this initial version can capture the attention and concern of an audience.  This creature has legs after all; it just needs more nurturing to move beyond baby steps. 

Ann Marie Shea  Photo Credit: Kara Emily Krantz

Ann Marie Shea

Photo Credit: Kara Emily Krantz

Ann Marie Shea is an actor/director/playwright, whose original plays have been produced at Torrent Theatre (NYC) Southeastern Regional Technical High School, Boston Theatre Marathon, Shakespeare and Company, Worcester Children’s Theatre, Boston Actors’ Theatre, Redfeather Theatre, Turtle Lane Theatre, Newburyport’s Firehouse Center for the Arts, and at Barrington Stage’s “10 x 10” festivals. She performs her one-woman play, Madame Secretary, Frances Perkins, at venues throughout New England.