It's another semi-sweaty afternoon in a Mark Taper Forum rehearsal room. Two actresses seated on hospital gurneys are running through the final scene of Lisa Loomer's "The Waiting Room," which opens at the Music Center theater this week. Two other actresses are waiting in the offstage area, hidden by screens.
The playwright is seated at a table. There are also stage managers and assistants nearby. Yet what's striking is that all of these people are women. In fact, of the 10 folks in the room, director David Schweizer is the only man.
A female-to-male ratio like this shouldn't be as remarkable as it is, but it's almost unheard of in a place like this. And while current rhetoric might suggest that Loomer, who is a Latina, stands out on the Taper writer roster because of her ethnic identity, it's really the fact that she's a woman that makes her presence so unusual.
This, after all, is the mainstream American regional theater, where for all the attention that's been paid in recent years to matters of ethnic diversity, little has been done about gender equality. In fact, the situation for female playwrights is no better now than it was a decade or more ago.
Case in point: "The Waiting Room" is the only play written by a woman that will be at the Taper this season or next. And while Los Angeles may see the occasional touring production of a work by a female writer--such as Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig," currently at the Doolittle--the Taper remains the city's most prominent producer of new works and thus highly influential.
Loomer's "The Waiting Room" is a much-needed exception to the norm. Developed and previously staged at the Taper's New Works festival, the script brings together three women from three different centuries and cultures in the waiting room of a contemporary doctor's office. It tackles such provocative issues as society's changing ideals of female beauty and the inadequacies of women's health care, albeit with humor.
"She deals in one play with a woman who has breast cancer from bad implants, a woman who can barely walk from her feet being bound and a woman who has been so severely corseted that all of her inner organs have been crushed," says Taper producing director Robert Egan, who shepherded the script into New Works. "And it's a comedy."
The mix of controversy with lightness is a Loomer trademark. "Lisa has the ability to merge a zany irreverent comedic sensibility with serious issues about being a woman in today's world," Egan says.
A playwright who's had works staged at such prestigious theaters as South Coast Repertory, the Kennedy Center, the Public Theater, the American Place Theater and more, Loomer has also penned film scripts, TV movies and miniseries and worked for TV producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's series "Hearts Afire" and the upcoming Bloodworth-Thomason show "Women of the House."
"Lisa is always on the cutting edge of social change and whatever is going on in the country, but never in any kind of politically correct way," says Bloodworth-Thomason. "She'll have a unique viewpoint. Her sense of humor is quirky. She's also very pro-female."
Yet even with the steady TV gig, from which she is on leave, Loomer returns to the stage. That's because the theater affords her a forum in which to address topical issues in a way that TV won't allow. "It's creative freedom," Loomer says. "You're only limited by your imagination."
As one of the few playwrights who does continue to work in the theater even with a healthy screenwriting career, Loomer's used to fielding skepticism. "Before they get to know me, people in television expect me to be serious and intellectual because I'm in theater," she says. "And people in theater are wary of my being a laugh whore."
N ew York's INTAR (International Art Relations) has long been one of the most fertile training grounds for Latino theater artists. It was there, in a lab led by playwright Maria Irene Fornes in 1985, that Loomer first began writing plays.
"She certainly taught us how to contact our imaginations and free our minds," says Loomer of Fornes, who also teaches at L.A.'s Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop-Festival. "In working with her, I began to distinguish between what's clever and what's humor. Clever is more from the head; humor is more from the whole being, the character," Loomer continues. "Clever wasn't what I was after. It wasn't that I simply intended to be funny, but that comedy was a way to get at something else."
The distinction is central to Loomer's spirit and style, which is often whimsical, but seldom frivolous. In fact, the matters at the heart of "The Waiting Room" are some of the most grave--literally, life-and-death--that she's ever dealt with, although she does it with wit and irony.
"It's about perceptions of beauty that are perpetrated by a male-driven industry--the irony being that when you suffer the physical repercussions it's another male industry that tries to take care of you," Egan says.