Updated: Mar 12, 2020
The Walls Have Ears-- and Voices
In “The Paper Hangers,” Emily Brauer Rogers' female protagonist draws inspiration from the unlikeliest of sources
By Joel Beers
A slamming door, not a woman’s words, is what the world heard at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” But nearly 150 years after Ibsen’s play introduced the revolutionary idea of a woman daring to leave her husband in hopes of finding her own voice, it’s going to take a lot more voices, women’s voices, for the theater to begin reflecting real equality.
Emily Brauer Rogers, whose play, “The Paper Hangers,” receives its world premiere production at STAGESTheatre March 7, knows that; it’s one reason she appreciated the organizers of the inaugural Page to Stage festival last year decided to theme the first one around women voices. In a time when some estimate that 60 percent of American theater audiences are women (closer to 70 percent on Broadway), women playwrights account for about 29 percent of the productions (though the numbers are getting better).
So the festival brain trust, along with producing partner Project LA Femme, thought why not make its first year one that encouraged women playwrights to submit unpublished work? A few would get their plays presented in a staged reading in front of an audience; and if it spurred more women to write a play, all the better right?
Rogers didn’t need the extra motivation to write. She’s had about a dozen collaborations, 10-minute, one-act or full length plays receive staged readings or full productions on stages ranging from Fullerton and Hollywood, to Chicago and London. And, while serving as artistic director for the long-gone but never forgotten Hunger Artists Theatre Company from 2006-2008, she began and produced an international playwrighting festival for five years.
Rogers knows new plays. And she knows there aren’t enough plays by women produced on American stages, nor enough opportunities to develop their work in front of audiences through readings and workshops.
She was all-in, and her play was one of five selected among the approximately 400 submitted.
“The Page to Stage Festival to me was an answer to correct some of the imbalance for female voices onstage,” Rogers said. “This festival was a way for OC theatres and audiences to get to know more female playwrights and voices.”
Rogers wrote “The Paper Hangers” in order to submit to the festival, but the idea had long percolated. Since first reading it, she’d been drawn to a short story written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” Gilman, a prolific fiction and nonfiction writer, was also a feminist who wanted nothing more for women to gain some measure of economic independence.
The story stuck with Rogers, as did the narrator, a woman whose individuality and imagination is stifled by the traditional patriarchal society embodied by her husband and her mother. And she knew she wanted to explore the conflict of the short story’s narrator within a more modern context.
The festival served as “the catalyst to complete,” the play, Rogers said, and it allowed her to pair literary inspiration with contemporary politics.
“I had been intrigued by ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ and after listening to a wide variety of Me Too stories and stories where women are ignored by doctors, I felt I had to write it,” Rogers said. “ In some ways, [that story is] also very much about women’s voices being silenced and how you cope when you’re not heard. Unfortunately, it’s still too relevant today even though the story’s over a hundred years old.”
In Perkins’ original tale, the woman’s husband has taken her to the countryside in hopes that the peace and quiet will soothe what appears to be a serious psychological malady. It’s the same in Rogers’ play, but one of the twists is that the psychological condition of the main character, Me, is triggered by a most physical of ways: she is suffering from postpartum depression, and along with withdrawing from her husband and her mother, she’s also wrestling with embracing the traditional roles of motherhood and domesticity.
But rather than restore her to the way they think Me should be, her family finds she grows only more erratic. What they don’t know is the reason: Me has developed a sort of repellant fascination with some gaudy yellow wallpaper in the upstairs room where she’s basically been confined. And not to give away spoilers, but let’s just say that if you’ve ever wondered what those walls would say if they really could talk…
Rogers sees a parallel between what Gilman wrote during a time when American women were struggling to articulate their voices, and today, when women still find it difficult to be heard due to an institutionalized societal structure built in part on traditional gender expectations.
“Me finds she has no voice as she experiences postpartum depression,” Rogers said. “She wants to have a say, but finds that she keeps living her life according to the expectations of others. And I find that this can often be the case for women, we find ourselves [so] eager to please, that we end up not having a voice of our own.”
In Rogers’ play, Me finally starts regaining her voice, although what that voice will say probably won’t sit well with those around her. Like Ibsen’s Nora, there’s the possibility that her understanding how to control and use her voice might portend a more revolutionary break than just one woman slipping free of convention; it could force people to realize those voices they haven’t been listening to have some really interesting things to say that could benefit everyone.
“At its core, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is about listening and the narrator in that short story finds that she isn’t listened to and that’s to both her and her family’s detriment,” Rogers said. “We all need to understand this because in some ways this story isn’t about men not understanding, it’s actually about the societal structures formed by patriarchy that don’t allow for other voices to be heard equally. If we have any hope of attempting to dismantle these we need everyone to understand these structures so that we can challenge them.”
And Rogers’ chosen battleground in that fight? The stage.
“The only way that we start changing the landscape of American Theatre is to participate and challenge the norms of who gets to tell the stories,” she said. “We can always use more unique voices.”
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
'The Paper Hangers'
Presented as part of a night of Two One Act Plays
STAGESTheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton
Mar. 7-21. Sat., 5 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. & 5:30 p.m.
(714) 525-4484, www.stagesoc.org