Theater


Originally published on HowlRound on September 14, 2016

It’s a fascinating time to be a feminist in the theatre. Thanks to The Kilroys, The Count, and women like Sumru Erkut and Ineke Ceder, we’ve made incredible progress in raising awareness of the lack of equity for women in our field. Actual change has been slower than we might like, but change takes time because for many people, becoming aware of a social problem doesn’t necessarily come with the knowledge of what to do about it. Simply being “woke” isn’t enough; a newly raised consciousness requires that you also put in time and work educating yourself about ways to create change. Catherine Castellani and The League of Professional Theatre Women are curating a series asking what a feminist play is, and I’d love to build on that important conversation by also addressing how to direct a feminist production.

First, I must offer my definition of feminist theatre. It is heavily inspired by post-structural analyses, which built off earlier feminist film theory by Laura Mulvey, who argued that the camera “constructs a specifically male viewing position by aligning or suturing the male’s gaze to that of the fictional hero, and by inviting him thereby both to identify narcissistically with that hero and to fetishize the female (turning her into an object of sexual stimulation).” Feminist theatre theory, accordingly, identified ways to disrupt the male gaze and avoid objectifying women by making the female characters subjects rather than objects: In order for the audience to see the world from their point of view, women characters have to act rather than simply be acted upon.

These feminist theatre theories were also shaped by the prevailing feminist thought of the time that there are more than two sexes of people and no one, normative way to combine sex, gendered behavior, and sexuality exists. Accordingly, feminist theatre has long sought to disrupt the male gaze by dismantling the binary of man vs. woman itself as well as the associated binaries of masculine/feminine and gay/straight, acknowledging instead that there are more than two possible identities.

My first feminist theatre theory book, edited by Helene Keyssar, includes essays such as “Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright,” by Jeanie Forte, and “Frame Up: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Theatre,” by Barbara Freedman.

During the same period, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins were postulating the intersectional theory that issues of sex, gender, and sexuality cannot ever be completely separated from issues of class, race, ethnicity, and all of the other identities that overlap with that of gender. In fact, due to the intersection of gender with other aspects of identity, equality among the genders cannot be achieved without also addressing racial, class-based, and other forms of inequality. To that end, my feminism seeks to dismantle not just sex and gender binaries but also the uber-binary of normative (male, straight, cis, white, Judeo-Christian, upper-class, abled, etc.) vs. other.

Feminist theatre, then, according to my definition of feminism, is theatre that provides an alternative not just to the male gaze but also to the normative gaze by intervening in cultural assumptions about identity, dismantling binaries, and creating equality.

I emphasize what feminist theatre does over what it is because even the most feminist play may not do the work of feminism—creating equality—if the process is authoritarian. Most theatres still operate along the patriarchal model in which a single person sits at the top of a hierarchy and controls, if not all of the decision making, then at least who gets to be involved in the decision-making. But presenting the world from a non-normative perspective requires the inclusion in decision-making of non-normative perspectives.

Jill Dolan’s Feminist Spectator as Critic was my Bible when I began teaching feminist theatre. Her distinctions between liberal, cultural, and materialist feminism and her strategies for reading the politics of performance have deeply informed my understanding of the difference between a subject and an object.

This is why feminist directing begins with the process of casting and selecting the rest of the artists for the production. Working with as many women as possible is obviously key, but so is creating diversity and avoiding casting that reinforces inequality. A feminist director, for example, cannot choose to do a Latinx play and then not cast Latinx actors or hire any Latinx artistic staff, as that would result in a production in which the world is presented only from the perspective of a white gaze that fetishizes, rather than represents, Latinx culture.

To be inclusive, a feminist director’s vision has to be more malleable and permeable than some artists are used to. In What’s the Story: Essays About Art, Theatre, and Storytelling, Anne Bogart talks about the difference between the director’s job and the actor’s job: The director’s job is to direct the play; the actor’s job is to direct the role. This means that just as the director must have a vision of the whole, the actor must have a vision of how her role can be played. (I would add that the designers must also direct the design.) The director’s vision, therefore, must be strong but flexible enough to encompass to the actors’ and designers’ ideas.

A vision that adapts to the ideas brought to the table by each member of the team exists in a state of “dynamic equilibrium” in which balance (equilibrium) is maintained through the ability of the director to shift (be dynamic) in relation to the constantly shifting circumstances in which she is working. Fear of destabilization can often make directors say no to the ideas of others, but a vision built on the idea of dynamic equilibrium can adapt and expand to include big ideas that come from actors and a designers without losing its center.

Elin Diamond appeals to my love of Brecht by using his theories to postulate a feminist theatre that makes familiar gender norms seem strange and strange ideas about gender seem familiar.

Maintaining dynamic equilibrium is difficult. In reaction to an overwhelming number of vastly different viewpoints, a director might understandably compensate by going too far in the direction of fidelity to her original idea. Or, in response to a plethora of great ideas, a director may lose sight of an original vision that would have been worth maintaining.

Dynamic equilibrium is also a challenge when not every artist responds well to having to “direct their role.” Young artists in particular might feel less inspired by the freedom to try their own ideas than terrified of the abyss that has thereby opened up in front of them. In the excitement of not only coming up with my own ideas but also being inspired by everyone else’s, I sometimes fail to notice the team member who is not excited, not coming up with her own ideas, and/or not feeling that her ideas would be accepted should she try them. An ability to hear that person despite her silence, to see her despite her fear that she is invisible, is a difficult to develop but important skill for a feminist director to have.

Rosemary Malague’s more recent An Actress Prepares: Women and “the Method” details the historical and contemporary ways the Method puts women in the control of dominating directors and turns them into over-sexualized hysterics. 

To that end, the most useful manual for directing I have read recently is not a theatre book at all: It is Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, recommended to me by playwright Jami Brandli. Brown’s research into shame identifies the defenses that people commonly employ when they find themselves in a vulnerable position, such as being asked to try their own artistic ideas out in front of other people, helps readers get beyond their own defenses, and teaches them to identify and empathize with other people who use them. Now that I can tell when a collaborator is having a hard time jumping into the abyss, I hope that I can be more present to her in the moment and more willing to be vulnerable myself.

Because the overall mode of the feminist director is to empower artists to make their own choices, when dealing with scenes that include violence, sex, or nudity, a feminist director has a responsibility to get consent from participants at every step of the process. The human body sometimes does not know the difference between real violence or sex and the mimesis of violence or sex, meaning that staging those moments requires particular attention to the safety, both physical and psychological, of everyone in the room. Using trained fight choreographers, mindfully choreographing sexual moments while repeatedly seeking renewed consent as the ideas evolve, and checking in with actors about how they are doing are tools directors can use to make theatre in a feminist way.

For theatre to intervene in cultural assumptions about identity, the process must intervene in assumptions about who can lead and what kind of processes are considered leading. For theatre to dismantle binaries, the process must dismantle the binary of authority/follower. And for theatre to create equality, the process must empower all artists to take action—aka be subjects—in their own areas. In addition to the content of the play and the choices made about performance, feminist directors, in order to make feminist theatre, must engage in a feminist process.

db042b0198By virtue of the fact that, at many colleges, students can earn credit by being in theater productions, academia has cultivated a strange, liminal space that is both a classroom and a rehearsal room. I’ve been hired a number of times to direct students in a production, teaching them as I go what is expected of professional actors in a rehearsal and performance room. I call this “teach-directing” and it is one of my favorite endeavors. Unlike the whiny, undergrad PC warriors that the media would have you all fear, student actors are on the whole pretty interested in taking artistic risks. They want to emulate professional labor standards because they see them as important protections for both actors and their collaborators, but students, I find, are not as interested in limiting discomfort in the class-rehearsal room as they are simply eager to know just what the rules are. All the better to fearlessly jump into creative and intellectual challenges, after all.

Last week I responded to the University of Chicago’s letter to its incoming class warning them not to expect trigger warnings and safe spaces by saying that in the theater classroom, some safe space rules are necessary. This is not to keep students from having to experience psychological discomfort (to make theater they have to be willing to do that), but rather to ensure that while they are in that vulnerable place – that place where they’re willing to really be present and really feel in front of other people – they can know they are protected from abuse and real danger.

If I were teach-directing this semester, I’d be attempting to lay out the rules of our safe class-rehearsal room space more clearly than ever before, not because I fear today’s politically correct student body, but because they do in fact have a right to know whether they are putting themselves in danger, and they need reassurance that they will be supported when they take artistic risks.

Here’s what I would tell my student-actors about our shared educational-creative space.

  1. You will be uncomfortable. You will be off balance. You will occasionally fail in front of other people. This will not be nearly as painful as you think it will be.
  2. You might not like everyone else in the room. You definitely won’t agree with all of them. Disagreement is totally normal and really healthy, and it actually leads to better art. It is not a sign of a problem; it is a sign that everyone is really, fully engaged.
  3. You cannot improvise violence or sex. That does not mean that having the impulse to add violence or sex to a moment is a bad thing. It means you have to stop yourself when you have one of those impulses and instead say, “I have an idea, but we need to work out how to do it safely.” So please, honor your impulses, even the unattractive ones. Trust them. I want to know what they are and I want to support them. I promise I will not shame you. But in this class-rehearsal room, you can’t act on the violent and/or sexual impulses until you have consent.
  4. Don’t tell other actors what to do. It’s not your job. If you have that many ideas about what they could be doing, think about studying directing. Here and now, in this class-rehearsal room, your job is to figure out what you can do, not what others can. Have ideas about your part and share them. Then shape your ideas in relationship to other people’s ideas about their part. Do not try to make your ideas other people’s ideas.
  5. I am here to enable you to have so many ideas you don’t even know where to start. My vision is intended as a springboard for you to use to get to other ideas that I could never think of myself, and I trust you to come up with those ideas. If you feel like you’re not getting enough direction, or like you have ideas but you don’t trust that you could try them and fail and not be judged for it, or like your ideas are too different from my vision to work, or like you don’t have any ideas, or best of all like you have so many ideas you don’t know where to start, please tell me. I can help with that. The only thing I can’t do is know what you’re thinking and feeling if you don’t express it to me. I will not judge you for being uncomfortable, afraid, excited, sad, passionate, happy, disconnected, turned on, angry, judgmental, amused, incessantly logical, ridiculously illogical, or any other thing you could possibly be feeling while making theater. In fact all those feelings and more are common and expected. We all have them and we have to have them in order to our job well. What I can do, if you tell me what you’re going through, is help.

If I were teaching this semester, I would also emphasize that theater is not made alone; it is made in companies. Even one-woman shows require more than one woman to make them. Our class-rehearsal room is one in which you have the chance to experience the discomfort, the lack of safety, in front of other people, that is essential to making good art. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, fall down, and get back up again, all with other people in the room. And that is neither comfortable nor, depending on your definition, safe. What is has to be to work is communicative.

 

9349743409_1fde8abd91_bThe University of Chicago made news by telling its incoming students not to expect trigger warnings or safe spaces, and not to bother petitioning the administration to disinvite problematic speakers. Responses have varied from “good for them!” to “how authoritarian!” In between sweeping bans on a major component of campus culture and the sweeping fear that administrations are trying to silent student voices is the possibility that some trigger warnings in some situations are a good idea and some student protests are valuable contributions to campus culture.

U. of C. is just the latest university to try to craft a policy to deal with the expectations that today’s college students have that their institution has a responiblity to protect them psychologically. In the 14 years that I’ve been in higher education, I’ve definitely noticed an increase in anxiety among students, and had a number of students ask that I change my pedagogy to make them feel more comfortable. In particular, whereas I have always positioned myself as co-learner with my students, students increasingly want their professors to be more like their parents than their colleagues. In one review, I even had a student use the phrase “grown ups” to refer to faculty members. Having to be a next-level babysitter while also providing an educational experience can make co-learning difficult.

Successfully democratizing my own classroom is especially difficult if the college and/or department culture leans more towards professors having to be distant, uncollaborative authority figures. For the students and faculty who see college as an extension of high school with no change in the nature of their relationships with their teachers, this works well. For faculty who see college as a time to train adolescents to be adults by treating them like adults, this can be deadly.

These issues all come together even more dramatically in theater departments. A college rehearsal room – which is often, by virtue of the students getting academic credit to be in a show, also a classroom – is not a safe space. I don’t mean to say that it is a space in which students have to put up with being psychologically abused, I mean that it is a space where people have to take risks and fail. This is a scary thing to do. It’s not safe because failure feels bad, no matter how you experience it. Unfortunately, there is no other way to make good theater – no way around the fact that art is always an experiment. The artist is always venturing an idea – whether it’s an image or a metaphor or a character choice or a feeling – the artist must have an impulse, follow it through, and share it with an audience. That will never feel safe, and I don’t think it should.

The possibility for abuse in these situations is an obvious but unnecessary evil. Artists are required to be vulnerable with one another, and some people prey on the vulnerable. Therefore, director/teachers should have the same professional boundaries they would have in a professional theater, which is to say that they should not use this space to become sexually intimate with the actors/students, they should not physically endanger the actors/students in this space, and they shouldn’t force them to work in conditions or for hours that have been deemed excessive by the people who do this professionally. (This is as much a liability issue as a pedagogical one.) Thus, ironically, the theater classroom is a place where “safe space” rules become almost a must, not so that the students can be protected from experiencing discomfort and vulnerability, but so that they can do so knowing that they will not be preyed upon in the process.

Alas, most theater departments have yet to bridge this gap between “no trigger warnings/no democracy” and “students can complain about anything and genuinely expect their professors to fix it for them.” What I hope to find eventually is a department culture that doesn’t infantilize students but rather actually protects them by making space for them to learn to experience unsafe things as adults. Processes, guidelines, transparency, and safety standards that address both the physical and psychological risks of making theater are essential to achieving this. And giving students a voice in creating those standards is a great way to push them beyond demanding that we keep them safe to learning how to keep themselves safe.

Originally published by Howlround on January 28, 2016

Lynn Nottage’s newest play, Sweat, a co-commission by Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and Arena Stage, originated in OSF’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. Nottage’s contribution to this ten-year program of commissioning “up to thirty-seven new plays from moments of change in United States history” deals with the moment of change that we are in right now, a moment she calls the “de-industrial revolution, the bookend to a century that began with the shaping of America through the Industrial Revolution.”

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nottage had been struck by a 2011 New York Times article about the impact of the Great Recession on the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, and, along with director Kate Whoriskey, decided to approach this project the same way they approached Ruined, Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play about Congolese women living in a war zone: by immersing themselves in a place and getting to know the people who live there.

Speaking by phone from New York, Nottage shared her love of that process:

There is something lovely about the playwright and the director going through the same process, having the same reference. I know that the experience we had in Uganda is that we made these lists. She’d write down everything she was experiencing and I’d write down everything that I’d experienced and what we found is that a lot of time our eyes pick up and see different things, which I think complement each other and fill out the experience. So when I reached out to Kate it was with that same concept in mind: that we go and do the research together, sharing the same experience but writing it down and then comparing our lists. For me it was kind of eye opening. For so many directors, theatre is a visual medium and for so many playwrights it’s a literary medium. So she would describe textures and colors whereas I would tend to describe the nature of the encounter.

What they found in Reading was a town in which the economic contraction that began in 2008 and has nearly disappeared the middle class in the ensuing years is realized literally in the architecture. Whereas Reading used to be the site of a thriving shopping economy, now “the outlet malls are all closed and you see the shells, these hollowed out buildings that still have the Kenneth Cole logo painted on them but there’s nothing inside.”

When things became fractured, they became fractured along economic lines but also racial lines. What we experienced was that everyone is sort of pointing over the divide at everyone else and placing blame. So instead of placing the blame on those who are really responsible, the greedy corporate interests, we tend to cannibalize each other. We say “it’s your fault, person of color, for coming in and taking our jobs” rather than really examining what’s happening on a larger and broader scale, which is that the companies are making decisions to move the factories to a right-to-work state, or out of the country so that they can exploit workers in different ways.

Wary of pillaging Reading for their stories and leaving, Nottage is now working with the Labyrinth Theater Company on an installation project that aims to create a space that puts people in Reading in conversation with one another, allows them to tell each other their stories, and hopefully shows them what Nottage saw, which was that despite their differences, they actually share one fundamental narrative. Labyrinth and Oregon Shakespeare Festival will also co-produce a reading of Sweat in Reading this spring.

(L-R) Stephen Michael Spencer as Jason and Tramell Tillman as Chris in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Asked whether she’s concerned that the upper-middle-class audiences that frequent large theatres in metropolitan areas might not be able to connect with her working-class characters, Nottage was optimistic: “There’s a fear that upper-class audience members can’t see themselves in the characters, but I think that that’s not true of everyone who goes to the theater.” She continued:

One of my frustrations with what happens on the stage a lot of the time when working class people are put up there, it’s like poverty porn. They’re laughed at, or they’re the villains, or they’re ridiculous. I think the struggles folks are going through are really real. It affects you physically and emotionally. And I think about America where you have the majority of people living in that state and we’re seeing what it’s doing to us in the level of gun violence and the level of sexual abuse and assault that happens around the country. I think it’s a result of the stress that we’re under to survive.

Despite the underlying economic and social critique and the painstaking research that went into creating the play, the people it renders are familiar, and the audience encounters these people in a very familiar place—one that has served as an apt home for classics from Eugene O’Neill and William Saroyan to John Patrick Shanley —a bar.

(L-R) Tramell Tillman as Chris and Tyrone Wilson as Evan in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nottage chose the setting in order to write the kinds of conversations people have in neutral, relaxed spaces like bars, and she based her bar on one of many that she and Whoriskey visited in Reading:

There was one that we walked into where the architecture definitely affected the design impulses: You could see it was filled with history and knick-knacks and little things that told the story and told you how much the space was kind of beloved.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t bet on the relatable characters and familiar setting keeping the play from hitting a few nerves, but that’s part of Nottage’s goal:

What I see in New York is that the shows are shrinking down. I don’t see a lot of politics on stage. And I think that when work is confrontational the confrontation is about people taking off their clothes, it’s not about ideas and ideologies being challenged. It’s interesting what people think provocation is.  I think that provocation is when you enter in the space and everything you believe in is challenged.

I think that what surprises people with this show is the alliances that they forge with characters that are then undermined. I think that that’s what people respond to—that the whole show exists in the gray area. Everyone in the play makes a compromised decision that ends up having implications that hurt someone else. There’s no character in the play that doesn’t do that, and I think that’s challenging.

Originally published by HowlRound on November 10, 2015

This piece is a follow up to an earlier preview of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Read the original piece here.

Was it Oz? Well, it took me about as long to recover from my weekend in DC as I imagine it took Dorothy to settle back in to Kansas. I was on a theatre high for weeks after a visit to see as much of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as I could over three days—which is actually not much given that forty-eight women have new plays in this festival.

Destiny of Desire
First up was Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías, directed by José Luis Valenzuela, at Arena Stage. When I spoke with Zacarías in September, she described her show featured a troupe of actors doing a telenovela. The women in the acting company, she said, are not pleased with where their characters are going, so it becomes about “What happens when women take destiny in their own hands and start changing the script? What happens when we go off the path that is expected of us and test new things?”

Esperanza America as Pilar Castillo, Elia Saldaña as Victoria del Rio, and Fidel Gomez as Doctor Diego in Destiny of Desire. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Given this description I was therefore surprised that, though the show contained many Brechtian elements, such as visible lighting apparatus and the interruption of the action by actors delivering sometimes humorous, sometimes sobering factoids about love, marriage, family, and Latina/o life into microphones, the actors in the telenovela never actually acknowledged that they were actors or that they were “changing the script.” The reality was something much more subtle, wherein all of the typical devices of a telenovela were employed (swapped babies, mysterious deaths, fabulous costumes) without question, yet merely by focusing the narrative on the two young women— who according to the usual structure, have little authority over their own lives— Zacarías allows us to watch them, in the most Brechtian sense, nevertheless persist in making their own choices about how to get what they want. The overall effect was hilarious, moving, and a truly insightful look at Latina/o life in relation to pop culture.

Animal
Saturday I treated myself to a matinee of Animal by Claire Lizzimore, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, at Studio Theatre. Animal was in one of the theatre’s smaller spaces, while Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica played the main stage. (Because Chimerica was not a world premiere, it could not technically be part of the festival.)

Animal, on the other hand, is the kind of new play that, like an adolescent human, is still actively forming its neural pathways. The theatre provided copies of the script to attendees at their afternoon panel discussion, “Playwright as Hybrid Artist,” featuring Lizzimore and other Festival playwrights who also act, direct, or design. Studio Literary Manager, Adrien-Alice Hansel, made sure to let us know that the script has changed just since that recent printing.

Joel David Santner and Kate Eastwood Norris (foreground), and Cody Nickell (background) in Animal at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

For a play so tender its formation, Animal packs a powerful punch. The artful blend between what is real and what is not subtly invites the audience into the worldview of the protagonist, Rachel—a woman enduring a mental illness, the diagnosis of which we only learn at the end. Kate Eastwood Norris’ defiant yet empathetic portrayal drives the show and the audience’s emotional response, and though she doesn’t miss a beat, our hearts do.

This show is written to be done with a small cast in a small space with a minimal set, so the next time anyone tries to tell you that they just can’t find plays by women that they can afford to do, or that have central protagonists that both men and women can connect to, tell them about Animal.

Queens Girl in the World
Saturday night I saw Queens Girl in the World by Caleen Sinette Jennings, directed by Eleanor Holdridge at Theater J. Developed by Theater J’s Locally Grown: Community Supported Art initiative, this one-woman show tells the story of a young black girl (Jacqueline) whose parents transfer her from a neighborhood school in Queens to a progressive school in Greenwich Village. Set in 1962, references to historical events like the assassination of Malcolm X resonate as strongly as the decision of the heroine to stop wearing bobby socks, a moment that becomes both personal and political when uses this a period-specific metaphor for the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Jacqueline’s encounters with Jewish culture awaken her to the vast world outside her neighborhood just as the Civil Rights Movement is awakening her political consciousness and awareness of her own racial identity. All the while, Jacqueline endures everything most young women do, like crushes and BFFs. Turns out, you can learn a lot when you look at the world through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. This show is a tour-de-force for its lead, played by Dawn Ursula.

Dawn Ursula as Jacqueline in Queens Girl in the World. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Women Laughing Alone with Salad
Woolly Mammoth’s production of Women Laughing Alone with Salad by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Kip Fagan, is both the most financially supported production of one of Callaghan’s plays I have ever seen, and probably not coincidentally the best. In fact, the question of whether or not new plays by women can really be expected to succeed when they are given only half the resources of productions of new plays by men came up at Woolly’s post-show panel discussion on gender parity. At the panel, Callaghan and other activist theatre women spoke about the Summit, the Kilroys, the Pipeline, and The Count, and shared their successful strategies and tactics to advance gender parity in the not-for-profit theatre. During the panel, Callaghan barely managed to contain her frustration with inequality in professional theatre. In her play, she gives full voice to the frustration she feels at the way women are treated and places the blame squarely on the media for promulgating the mythology of beauty as value. The production was loud, bold, angry, funny, sexy, disturbing, disorienting, political, and personal, with a second act that is Churchill-ian in both structure and effect.

Kimberly Gilbert, Janet Ulrich Brooks, and Meghan Reardon in Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The post-show panelists repeatedly pointed out that no hard evidence suggests that shows by women do worse than those by men when they are given the same resources for development and production. If you invest in the works of Sheila Callaghan, you will reap the rewards.

Uprising
Uprising by Gabrielle Fulton, directed by Thomas W. Jones, at MetroStage was my surprise find of the weekend. As industry weekends are intended to do, I met Fulton at the “Playwright as Hybrid Artist” panel and was able to get tickets to see her show in Alexandria, VA, on my last night there.

Set in pre-Civil War America in a community of free blacks, the inciting event of this play is the arrival of Osbourne Perry Anderson, the only surviving African American at the Harper’s Ferry Raid, seeking refuge after John Brown’s failed revolution. The play with music goes on to question the nature of freedom, work, love, motherhood, and history through an epic use of music, dance, sound, dialogue, and projections. The quality of the production rivaled all that I saw at the area’s more metropolitan theatres and the intimacy of the space was well suited to a story at turns philosophical and heart-wrenchingly personal.

Anthony Manough as Ossie and Cynthia D. Barker as Sal in Uprising. Photo by Chris Banks.

Union is particularly adept at decentering the historical figure of Anderson in favor of the fictional Sal, a free black and a repository of the history of being enslaved, raped, and separated from family that is particular to women of color. While Osbourne remains a fixed figure whose fate is determined before the play begins, Sal, though influenced and affected by the forces around her, makes her own decisions, using what little freedom she has to determine her own fate, ignoring the dire warnings of everyone around her. Despite all she’s lived through and even when no one else seems to trust her, Sal trusts herself.

Trust in women is not something you find often today—in some cases we are not trusted to make our own medical decisions, to raise children, to be single, to be married, to manage budgets, and to work at the highest levels. But the people who put together the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and the collaborators that made world-premiere productions possible for so many playwrights clearly placed not only their trust, but also their resources, behind women.

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival has also set a precedent and created a template that can be used across the country. Assuming you invest in the production, there is simply no truth in the excuse that producing plays by women is a financial risk. In fact, I’m willing to bet that almost any producer in DC who participated in the festival will tell you: Trusting women pays.

Originally published by HowlRound on October 7, 2015

HowlRound readers and social media revolutionaries may remember an event that occurred in our nation’s capital in February 2014 that became quickly known as the Summit. Convened by Washington Post critic Peter Marks around the issue of gender inequity in theatre, a panel of metro-area artistic directors discussed their collectively abysmal records at producing plays by women. As the discussion proceeded, more than one panel member was called out on social media for the tepidness of his/her approach.

Lost in the ensuing shuffle was the fact that the month before word leaked to the press of what would eventually be dubbed the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an entire fall of world premieres of new plays and musicals by women. When the Summit was held, forty-four theatres signed up to participate. The total is now forty-eight, two of which are offering multiple premieres.

Despite the rocky start of this venture, the seven artistic directors from Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company formulated the idea behind the festival. They quickly regrouped and hired coordinating producers Nan Barnett and JoJo Ruf to organize the festival and reframe it as a concerted, collaborative effort to do something about the problem.

Cut to about sixteen months later, and the whole country is abuzz about the Festival, its origins, its possibilities, and its realization of world premieres by fifty female playwrights. I spoke with Ruf and Barnett; Maggie Boland, the managing director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA; and Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth. I also talked with Caleen Sinette Jennings, who is a professor at American University, a founding member of a DC playwright collective The Welders, and author of two premieres in the festival; Jami Brandli, a Los Angeles-based writer and author of Technicolor Life, which will premiere at Rep Stage; and Karen Zacarias, a professor at Georgetown University and author ofDestiny of Desire, premiering at Arena.

Poster for Technicolor Life by Jami Brandli. Courtesy of Rep Stage and Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Collaboration and Cross-Pollination
Unlike the discussion at the Summit and the media firestorm that followed, producers and artists alike gave positive, forward-thinking feedback, and, on the part of Boland and Shalwitz, were refreshingly self-critical. The story goes that the artistic directors of the Big Seven regularly get together for brunch to talk about the state of DC theatre. Following on the mild success of a citywide Shakespeare festival a few years ago, they began to discuss another collaboration to highlight the range and quality of DC theatre and to promote cross-pollination between artists and audiences.

“I think there was about ten seconds between the idea of a festival and the idea of focusing it on women. It just seemed like a no-brainer to put the focus where we could provide leadership by creating a model of something that could be part of the solution,” shared Shalwitz.

Boland puts the time between inception and definition at closer to twenty seconds, but both she and Shalwitz have found that the simple fact of working on the festival while also planning future seasons has forced them to place more of a priority on diversity. Boland shared:

“One incredible side effect of this citywide conversation is that every single conversation we have internally about season planning and about artistic vision involves a discussion of who are the artists and are we doing enough to represent a diverse set of voices.”

Signature is offering three shows by women this year and Boland expects to continue doing this many shows every year, consciously diversifying in other ways as well. She notes:

“We’re not trying to wear a hair shirt about our past, we’re just trying to do better. We’re trying to look at the talent pool that Signature is drawing from at every level of the organization, onstage and off, and make sure that we’re being thoughtful and specific about having different kinds of humans around our building.”

Yet, playwright Brandli is a little more skeptical, but still inspired:

“I’m hoping that the festival really does cause a ripple effect. I’m not ungrateful at all—this is the best thing to happen to me in a long time. But what I don’t want to hear is, ‘Well you had your festival, so now you can be quiet.’ I don’t want all us female playwrights to have our ‘queen for a day’ moment, but when it’s over, we’re told to go back into the corner, and to not bitch as much if there aren’t as many female playwrights in the next few seasons of American theatre. I’m tired of being polite about it. I know I sound pretty ornery, but you get to a point in your life where you’re like: fuck it.”

Jumping All Together

Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Shortly after hiring Barnett and Ruf, the Festival consciously included representatives from more than the originating seven companies on committees devoted to marketing and publicity, development, and programming. This resulted in a genuine community-wide effort to celebrate and promote the work of women writers. Sinette Jennings has been in DC since ’84 and from the moment she arrived, she was struck by the collaborative and supportive relationships between local playwrights. She still feels like the Festival is a game changer, saying:

“I feel like part of a mosaic to know that all of these stories are going on at the same time. It’s an amazing affirmation of our talent and the power of our stories. We have artistic directors here who have always gotten it—they didn’t need a festival to recognize the power and importance of women. But this has been a fabulous way to make other artistic directors aware that this wealth of material is out there, and it’s not all touchy feely kitchen sink drama. I’ve got female playwright colleagues who scare the pants off me in terms of how edgy and tough they are. So any assumptions people have about a woman is X, they need to throw that out the window.”

The offerings range from Woolly’s production of Sheila Callaghan’s overtly feminist Women Laughing Alone with Salad, which examines the ways sexually charged representations of women in the media effect both men and women, to a new musical at Signature called Cake Off that tells the story of the first man to win the Pillsbury Bake Off. Then, Zacarias’s Brechtian telenovela is about what happens to a troupe of actors doing a Mexican television series when the women, dissatisfied with the way their roles are written, take destiny in their own hands, and start changing the script.

Although Zacarias, a founding member of Latina/o Theatre Commons, is one of the few Latina playwrights represented in the whole festival, she is still struck by the camaraderie behind the event. She remarks:

“It’s usually a very solitary moment when a theatre does a new play, like you’re the only one jumping off the cliff, while everybody else is doing some golden nugget that you know the audiences will come to. Because we’re all taking the risk at the same time, it takes away the competitive nature of things and everybody just wants to do as well as they can. We’re all jumping off at the same time and we’re hoping that everyone makes a beautiful dive.”

Artwork for Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarias. Courtesy of Arena Stage.

Barnett is already looking to raise money to gather data about the festival and to produce a handbook for cities looking to do something on their own turf. She states:

“I want to know what the long term effects of this are. Three months from now, I want to be able to do a really great analysis of what tickets were sold. Did we accomplish the goal of making people outside of DC aware of how much theatre there is here? Did we get people to go to different theatres than where they normally go? And of course in the long run, are the DC theatres continuing to program more female writers than they were before the festival? Will we see subsequent productions for the plays that were supported by the festival? These are questions that will need to be answered. It’s important to make sure that the lessons learned are shared.”

Ruf added, “There’s already musings happening in Philly, Denver or broader Colorado, and elsewhere. I think that would be phenomenal. This is a first step towards gender parity; I certainly hope that eventually we won’t need a festival and it will happen on it’s own. But this is a good step in that direction.”

Take the Challenge
I’ll be heading to DC in October to check out as much of the festival as I can in one weekend and I’ll let HowlRound readers know whether I find the metro-area to be the Emerald City that I’ve been lead to expect, where every Dorothy has her glittering day.

In the meantime, the effects of the social media revolution that followed the Summit are obvious. Ryan Rilette, Producing Artistic Director at Round House Theatre and the receiver of the most severe Summit-prompted Twitter lashing, issued a challenge on Facebook. He’s willing to buy a drink for any and every one who sees more plays by women this fall than he does.

People, let me hear you say it: “Challenge accepted.”

by William Shakespeare
Saratoga Shakespeare Company, 2015
photos by Madison Caan
costumes by Joan Lawson

 

 

 

 

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