In 1993, soon after Donna Kaz began training as a rape and battery hotline counselor, she came to terms with a harrowing truth. Her years-long relationship with a Hollywood movie star had been an abusive one, and she, herself, is a survivor of domestic violence. For the New York City-based actor and playwright, it was a turning point that awakened her to social justice activism, and compelled her, three years later at the age of 43, to join the notorious Guerrilla Girls, a feminist organization founded in 1985 to combat gender and race discrimination in the arts.
The Guerrilla Girls are anonymous. They don rubber gorilla masks at public protests and assume pseudonyms.
Kaz became Aphra Behn, a playwright and poet in the 1600s. With her masked, alias comrades (“Gertrude Stein,” “Alma Thomas,” “Lyubov Popova,” among others), she took to the streets of New York to tack up posters on ticket booths and stickers on theater bathroom stalls decrying the gender disparity in theater including one that read: “Q: What do the toilet stalls and the Tony Awards have in common? A: They only let in one woman at a time.”
In 2001, Guerrilla Girls split into three more focused groups. Kaz helped to birth Guerrilla Girls on Tour!, which focuses specifically on discrimination in theater. Another group, Guerrilla Girls, Inc., fights discrimination in the visual arts while Guerrilla Girls BroadBand comprises the next generation of feminist artists.
The intersection between activism and the arts is an eloquently rendered theme in Kaz’s extraordinary memoir, Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour, out today. Kaz skillfully plays with form. She weaves flashbacks from her past abusive relationship with her more recent work as a Guerrilla Girl, and includes mini play scripts (complete with stage direction) at pivotal junctures in the narrative. Though her days of anonymity are over, she currently serves as the artistic director of Guerrilla Girls on Tour! and continues to write plays and speak out about discrimination.
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Rewire: How much has changed in the theater world since the Guerrilla Girls began its work?
Donna Kaz: In the late ’90s, less than 17 percent of all plays produced were written by women. Today, about 20 percent of plays produced are written by women. It’s not a big increase. That’s the thing about change—it happens slowly. There are always two steps forward and one step back. This year on Broadway we had Hamilton and Eclipsed—there were more people of color and more women. And we need to celebrate this. But progress is not always a natural, forward-moving progression. It’s messy.
Rewire: Why does discrimination have such a stronghold in the art world, particularly when it’s an industry that bills itself as being liberal and progressive?
DK: I think a big part of the problem is that art is subjective. What is a good play? What is a good piece of art? And because art is subjective, this subjectivity becomes an excuse for discrimination. If we don’t include women and artists of color, plays, as a form, remain static. Discrimination prevents the art form from evolving. It narrows the artistic range. It’s not art if it’s only created from and for the male perspective. And despite what people think, female-written plays do make money. People pay to see them.
Rewire: In the book, you talk about how you started feeling irrelevant as an artist after you turned 40. Can you talk a little more about why?
DK: Female artists are expected to fit into a certain narrative. Men play heroes who go on journeys of self-discovery. Women play victims and mothers—this is the totality of their stories. Audiences are spoon-fed these same gendered narratives, year after year. Once women turn 40, there’s no acceptable narrative for them anymore. We don’t feel welcome at the table and have been worn down by years of sexism. So some women look for ways to continue to create, off, off, off Broadway. Which is noble, but the problem is there’s no money there. I was frustrated in many ways …. not only at being 40 and feeling tossed aside, but also understanding that my chances to be produced were slim because of the trend in theater to produce plays by men. It definitely caused me to jump at the chance to be a Guerrilla Girl and attack the theater world.
Rewire: What was it like being an anonymous activist?
DK: Extremely empowering. It took the focus off of me and allowed me to accuse organizations of being discriminatory. The mask gave me the courage to get my point across. I became a force to be reckoned with. But there were issues too. The public called us chicken and cowardly for hiding behind masks.
Rewire: What have been some of most effective Guerrilla Girl tactics?
DK: Nobody wants to be called out, but we name names on our posters, on our stickers, and during our protests. This gets the audiences’ attention. We want the audiences to realize they are subscribing to seasons with no female-authored plays. If you are a theater company, like Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City, and you have nine plays, two written by women, two female directors, and only one female-authored play on the main stage—you are behind the ball. In 2013, Guthrie Theatre Company in Minneapolis celebrated its 50th anniversary season. None of the plays produced that season were written by women. Abbey Theatre in Dublin celebrated its 110-year anniversary in 2014. There were no plays by women produced that season. This is why Guerrilla Girls on Tour! used to publish a “girlcott” list, urging audiences to avoid theaters that do not produce any plays by women and to place Guerrilla Girl stickers on the inside of the theater’s bathroom stalls. Now other theater groups like The Kilroys collect and post these types of discriminatory stats.
Today there are a number of activist groups that protest discrimination in theater, like the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, Waking the Feminists: Equality for Women in Irish Theatre, and the International Centre for Women Playwrights.
Rewire: You write about the tension in some of the Guerrilla Girls meetings regarding the representation of multiply marginalized people—women of color, in particular. How did you all attempt to address intersectionality as an organization?
DK: We listened. We were all respectful to members’ concerns, and we would all speak honestly in the group. The only thing we ever agreed on is that we were all feminists and wanted equality. But there is always room for more inclusion.
Rewire: Do you think online activism has affected the on-the-ground, in-real-life activism that Guerrilla Girls is known for?
DK: Physicality is very important. We Guerrilla Girls were a handful of women meeting once a week, in person, and got a shitload of work done. We plotted out an attack, found ways to get out the issue. There is something enjoyable about making a poster with markers, about getting off the computer. Maybe I feel this way because I come from theater, where people converge, but I really appreciate the bodies and the spaces. I love protests. I love rallies. And I love marches.
Rewire: Let’s talk about how activism inspires your art, and how your art inspires your activism.
DK: When I was younger and in the midst of my formal training as an artist, I saw art and activism as two separate entities. But I came to believe that art has the capacity to generate dialogue and promote change. Art and activism are intertwined. In the Guerrilla Girls on Tour! we perform a play called Feminists Are Funny. We use comedy as a weapon for activism. Oftentimes, art is all that is left of a society. What remains of ancient Greece? The art! It’s the connection between every single human. I will always be both Aphra Behn and Donna Kaz, always a champion for women in the arts. I’ve melded my two identities and claimed myself.
Rewire: What does it mean to be a successful artist, and how has the concept of what constitutes success changed for you over the years?
DK: I was exposed, early on, to the toxicity of fame. I measured my achievements against a fake model of success. Writing this book helped me realize what success means to me. I define success now by the art I create, the art that makes me proud. I create good art. I’m proud of what I do, so I’m successful. It’s an important thing as women and artists to think about how much we do and how much we have done, and not draw comparisons of ourselves to others, or adapt to other people’s models of success.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.