#52PlaysByWomen

By Laura Shamas

There’s a new social media initiative launching for women playwrights called #52playsbywomen.

It’s modeled on Women in Film’s brilliant #52filmsbywomen campaign:

Here’s the gist of it: For one year, we’re trying to encourage a social media pledge to see a play by a woman playwright in performance weekly (readings count!) and if there are not enough performed plays available by women writers in a specific region, to encourage reading a play by a woman playwright instead that week. This should last for a year, so that each participant will have experienced #52playsbywomen.

If you’d like (optional), you can announce your pledge on social media, something like:
“I pledge to see a play by a woman playwright each week for one year to support #52playsby women. Follow my choices here.”

Here’s bit more on the easy guidelines the Call to Action:

#52playsbywomen

This campaign will encourage more discussion of female playwrights and their plays in social media, and add to the buzz by raising visibility. Additionally, it can help audience members develop a regular habit of seeking plays by women as part of their choices as theater-goers.

This is an international campaign, and all are welcome to be part of it!

Self-promotion, however, is not part of the initiative. So if you have a show running, recruit members of the audience to tweet your show to the hashtag. That way, your work is discussed by others, and you’ll help theatre-goers develop a habit of seeking plays by women playwrights.

So if you’re on Twitter, please join us! If you’re on Facebook, please spread the word. See you at the hashtag #52playsbywomen!
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March 20: The Reproductive Freedom Festival

by Laura Shamas

“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues….”― George Orwell, Why I Write

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This election year, I’m concerned about the erosion of women’s rights on a number of fronts; that’s why I’m participating as a playwright in the Reproductive Freedom Festival on March 20, 2016. Featuring 25 short plays and poems, the event will stream live from New York’s TACT Studio this Sunday from 6-9 p.m. EDT/ 3-6 p.m. PDT via Virtual Arts TV.

As described on the RFF site, it’s: “a festival of short works celebrating the fundamental right to human reproductive autonomy.” Created and produced by Choice Theater (run by the amazing Cindy Cooper), its stated purpose is “to support reproductive freedom, rights, health and justice and to generate new conversations on these subjects.”

It has six parts, guided by six female directors. Here are the format details: “Half-hour sets, each completely different, of short theatrical works and poetry collected from across the country and presented by talented New York actors under the guidance of six directors. Artists and activists will describe their works every half hour.”

Each grouping has a theme: 1) Heroines; 2) Next Generations; 3) Conflicts; 4) Body Politics; 5) Discoveries; and 6) What We Know. There’s also a “Pre-Show” from Ireland at 5:30 p.m. EDT/ 2:30 p.m. PDT. You can watch just some of the festival or all of it—and it’s free.

I have a short comic piece in it called “Papyrus” about the discovery of an ancient scroll; it’s scheduled in the fifth half hour. Other LA FPI writers participating in the festival are Allie Costa, with her work “Two Girls” (in the second half hour), and Mildred Lewis, with her play “Chained Labor” (in the fourth half hour). For a complete performance schedule, with the writers and directors listed, please click here.

Costa’s piece, “Two Girls,” is a haunting, poetic duologue in which two women emerge from a violent attack. The play was first performed in London in 2015 at the Unheard Festival, produced by Goblin Baby Theatre Co. at The Bread & Roses Theatre. It has also been presented at the Clear Lines Festival and the Keble Arts Festival in London. This will be the first time “Two Girls” has been performed in the United States. Costa’s play “She Has Seen The Wolf,” which is thematically linked to “Two Girls,” just had its first staged reading this week in Hollywood at PlayGround-LA. Costa is a Los Angeles-based actress, writer, director, and singer working in film, TV, theatre, and voiceover.

Costa, when asked about why she’s part of the festival, observed: “Victims of sexual assault often have questions posed at them – ‘What were you wearing? Why were you out late at night?’ – that are tinged with shame and blame. We need to stop blaming victims and start listening to them, and give them a safe place to speak up and speak out. I am honored that my piece was selected for this festival, and I can’t wait to see it!”

In Mildred Lewis’ piece, “Chained Labor,” an African American woman reveals to her daughter that she gave birth to her in chains while she was incarcerated. Lewis notes: “That experience sadly continues. Facing the reproductive freedom issues that women face in jails (e.g., forced sterilization) demonstrates how urgently the conversation around reproductive freedom needs to broaden. It’s not just about abortion or birth control.”

Lewis is excited that “Chained Labor” will premiere at the RFF. “I can’t think of a better platform, particularly since it’s being filmed in my hometown (Go Stuy Hi Peglegs!) I’m also grateful that it follows a run of my piece, “Bleed Black Bleed Blue,” at the Secret Theatre’s Act One Festival.” Explaining why she’s participating in the festival, Lewis responds: “I am a beneficiary of the women’s movement. I had access to great sex education from my mom, an RN, and my junior high school. Watching old battles being fought again over not just abortion, but birth control(!) is maddening. Sometimes I write purely to entertain. But there are some points in history where I believe we must pick up our pens to fight. This is one of them.” Lewis writes and directs for theater, film, television and the web; she is also a full-time film professor.

The Reproductive Freedom Festival is officially part of SWAN Day, Women Arts’ famous international celebration which aims to “Support Women Artists Now.”

RFF will send you a reminder notice to watch the performance online on March 20, if you’d like. You can catch the livestream and sign up for the reminder notice here. There will be a live chat function during the Festival, for online users. Please join us on Sunday, March 20, for a look at some female-centric plays and poems about reproductive freedom (and more!), and let’s continue the conversation.

When My Mom Had Tea With Mary Chase

AnnawynShamas

Annawyn Shamas

By Laura Shamas

My mother, Annawyn Shamas, has just finished directing Mary Chase’s Harvey again at her church in Colorado. Harvey is a very successful play. Chase won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for it in 1945, as only the fourth woman to win one; even in 2015, only 14 women have won or shared the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. [1] When Harvey opened on Broadway in 1944, it was directed by Antoinette Perry, for whom The Tony Awards are named.[2]

Harvey became a very popular 1950 film starring the beloved Jimmy Stewart as a middle-aged drinker, Elwood P. Dowd, who insists that he has a six-foot one invisible rabbit friend named Harvey (but it’s really “a pooka” from Celtic mythology). Remakes of Harvey are still discussed in Hollywood, including a 2009 round that was helmed by Steven Spielberg but fizzled out. The play was successfully revived in 2012 on Broadway starring Jim Parsons; in his The New York Times review, however, critic Charles Isherwood bemoans that Harvey won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Maybe there are others who feel that Williams’ two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (for A Streetcar Named Desire and A Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) are not enough recognition for Williams, but one wonders if a review of Harvey is the appropriate platform for such retrospective advocacy.

My mother and members of her church have a very personal connection to Harvey, because in 1981, one of them called the playwright after finding her number listed in the Denver phone book and asked if they could meet her. And Mary Chase kindly invited them over for tea. [3]

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Mary Chase

So on a Sunday in October, my mother and two other members of the cast went over to the Chase home in an older and exclusive part of Denver, not far from the Botanical Gardens. Ron Hamilton, who played Elwood P. Dowd, and Pete Jenks, who was the cabbie, were the other lucky invitees. When they arrived, Chase’s husband Robert (a longtime editor of The Rocky Mountain News) and a producer from Canada greeted them, along with Chase herself. Chase was working with the producer at the time on a musical version of the play, slated to star Donald O’Connor.

My mother recalls Chase’s warmth, graciousness, and loveliness as they were served tea and cookies. She really liked Mary Chase. She remembers asking Chase what inspired Harvey, which is set in Denver, but was too star-struck to remember Chase’s exact answer. Later she learned that Chase wanted to cheer those who were grieving the loss of loved ones in World War II. Among other theater topics they discussed were: an appreciation for the brilliant, sweet and loyal character of Elwood P. Dowd; whether “Love and Marriage” was from Plain and Fancy or the musical TV version of Our Town, starring Frank Sinatra; and specific details of their own upcoming production. Although it was a church production and not a professional one, Chase made them all feel so special and supported their efforts. My mother believes that Harvey is a true American comedic classic that withstands the test of time. Her entire cast later did go to Fairfax between 18th and 19th streets in Denver to see if they, too, might actually see a tall rabbit leaning against a lamppost.

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The 2015 Cast, with Ron Hamilton as Elwood (center) with Norma Austermann as Veta Louise (seated)

A few days after their visit, they were extremely shocked to learn of Mary Chase’s death. She died of a heart attack at her home at the age of 75. Deeply saddened, the group dedicated their production to her.

There is one specific sentiment that my mom recalls from her tea with Mary Chase. Upon learning that my mother had a daughter who wrote plays, Chase said: “Please tell her to keep trying, to keep at it. Tell her never to give up!”

And so, I pass this story to you: Keep at it and Happy Holidays!
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[1] Zona Gale, Susan Glaspell, Zoe Akins won it before Chase. In 1956, Frances Goodrich shared a Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Albert Hackett for The Diary of Anne Frank. Since then, Ketti Fring, Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, Margaret Edson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Quiara Alegria Hudes, and Annie Baker have won Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
[2] Both Mary Chase and Antoinette Perry were from Denver, Colorado.
[3] This event launched a drama group called The Encore Players at their church that’s been active for 34 years.

Notes and Quotes: The D.C. Women’s Voices Festival

by Laura Shamas

The travel gods smiled on me this fall, and I’ve been able to catch several new plays that are part of the historic D.C. Women’s Voices Festival, currently running in our nation’s capital. The Festival’s mission, according to their website, is one that I love and support: “To highlight the scope of new plays being written by women, and the range of professional theater being produced in the nation’s capital,” as part of “the largest collaboration of theater companies working simultaneously to produce original works by female writers in history.”

About fifty-tWomensVoicesLogowo world premieres of female-authored plays and musicals are being produced by 48 D.C. area theaters, a mix of large and small companies (Equity and non-Equity); the launch party was on September 8, and the last show closes on Nov. 22, 2015.

With a budget of over $500,000, co-produced by Nan Barnett (Executive Director of the New Play Network) and Jojo Ruf (Managing Director of The Global Lab at Georgetown University and Executive & Creative Director of The Welders), the Festival was modeled on the 2007 “Shakespeare in Washington” celebration that lasted for six months across the city. Over a two-year period, 7 D.C. area theaters created the Women’s Voices Festival: Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Make no mistake about it: the Festival is both a boost to women playwrights and a way to draw attention to the scope of D.C. theaters – a win/win.

I am unable to see even 1/10th of the shows being offered, so I don’t consider myself an expert about the Festival in any way – just a lucky pop-in attendee. Here are some of my informal impressions, with quotes from some of the amazing artists involved in the Festival.

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“Witches Vanish” by Claudia Barnett – Back row from left, Lakeisha Harrison, Vivian Allen and Tara Cariaso, with front row from left, Leticia Monet and Jennifer Berry, directed by Deborah Randall. (Photo by Deborah Randall)

1) WITCHES VANISH by Claudia Barnett

The first play I got to see in the Festival was Witches Vanish by Claudia Barnett, directed by Deborah Randall at Venus Theatre. LA FPI’s own Jennie Webb put Barnett’s play on my radar, and I’m so glad she did. I’ve had a longstanding mythological interest in The Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and this play features the archetypal trio as a metaphoric theatrical entity who witness (or sometimes cause?) women vanishing, in real life and in literature. As playwright, Barnett asks from a political, historical and sociological perspective: “Why do women vanish?” With elements of puppetry, dance and fascinating vignettes, Barnett’s script interweaves scenes about “lost” women; it runs 90 minutes without an intermission. I admired the theme and originality of Barnett’s play and Randall’s inventive direction. I admired the all-female cast.

Witches Vanish closed in late September, and I asked Barnett for her thoughts about her play and the Festival: “Witches Vanish gives voices to women who’ve disappeared throughout time—both by telling their (fictionalized) stories and by explicitly naming them in a series of chants between scenes. Given the common theme, it fit the Festival perfectly.”

Barnett described what it was like to be there as a playwright: “The sense of community was amazing, even for an out-of-town playwright who was only in Maryland for four days. One reason was Lorraine Treanor, who introduced the playwrights to each other with her series of interviews, which she distributed to us daily with cheerful emails. (The interviews are posted on the DC Theatre Scene website.) Another reason was the American Theatre photo shoot, where many of us met. I remember the moment when we were all nervously posed on the staircase at the Arena Stage and were told this shot would be the cover of the October issue. First I felt shock, then acceptance, then delight. It’s a tremendous honor to be part of that group.”

Claudia Barnett is the author of No. 731 Degraw-street, Brooklyn, or Emily Dickinson’s Sister: A Play in Two Acts, published in October by Carnegie Mellon University Press.

2) CHIMERICA by Lucy Kirkwood

The next play I saw related to the Festival was Chimerica by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. Although it was not an official part of it, it was scheduled to “coincide” with the Festival. This is Chimerica’s U.S. premiere. I‘ve wanted to see this play since I’d first heard about its 2013 run in London (and its subsequent wins for Best Play for both The Evening Standard and the Oliver Awards). The title refers to the domination of the U.S. and China in modern geopolitics, covering a span of twenty years. A photographer’s iconic photo taken in Tiananmen Square becomes a catalyst for a mystery that spans generations and cultures. The two-act play, masterfully directed by David Muse, at the Studio Theatre, is ambitious, powerful and quite moving. It was over three hours long but seemed to fly by. Kirkwood’s approach was cinematic in style and epic in scope: I find myself still reflecting about her characters and images more than a month after seeing it. (For more on Studio Theatre’s production of Chimerica, click here.)

3) IRONBOUND by Martyna Majok

Ironbound by Martyna Majok, directed by Daniella Topol, at Round House Theatre was the next show I caught in the Festival. Majok, who was born in Poland, is an award-winning playwright on the rise (New Play Network Smith Prize, David Calicchio Emerging American Playwright Prize, 2015-2016 PONY Award, among others). Majok was inspired to tell the story of Darja, a Polish immigrant who works as a caretaker and factory-laborer, because “poor women” are misrepresented in our theatres; in the video linked below, Majok comments: “I wanted to see my own story on stage.” Ironbound is a 90-minute tour-de-force that takes place mostly at an urban bus stop; it has a cast of four. A huge “X” image in the industrial set by James Kronzer marks the spot; it embodies the protagonist’s economic and emotional quagmire, suggesting a steel cage. The protagonist Darja (beautifully played by Alexandra Henrikson) holds the stage the entire show, and we learn in real time and flashbacks about the key points of her life and relationships in the U.S., from 1992 – 2006. Without giving too much of the plot away, I felt especially lucky that I got to see Ironbound with my mother. It’s ultimately about the bond between mother and son, and the meaning of love.

Ironbound will open next in New York in March 2016, co-produced by The Women’s Project and Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, again directed by the talented Topol. (For a brief interview with Majok about Ironbound, scroll through this page.)

4) INHERITANCE CANYON by Liz Maestri

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“Inheritance Canyon” by Liz Maestri, directed by Lise Bruneau. Pictured: Esther Williamson as Shell. (Photo by Brittany Diliberto.)

I’ve followed playwright Liz Maestri for years on Twitter, and was thrilled to have a chance to see her new play Inheritance Canyon as part of the Festival, directed by Lise Bruneau, produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Company.  Maestri is based in D.C. Her most recent projects include the site-specific piece LAZE MAJESTY with Field Trip Theatre, and she was a 2015 O’Neill Playwriting Theatre Conference finalist.

Inheritance Canyon is a zany and thought-provoking look at a scientific experiment and the meaning of life. It takes place in a canyon near a desert, and involves three friends: Shell (Esther Williamson), Sal (Teresa Castracane) and Gary (James Flanagan). They witness a mysterious explosion, and then are put under medical surveillance, a sort of limbo-quarantine, for the rest of the play. This work was commissioned by Taffety Punk and is related to a previous Maestri play, Owl Moon (the program notes describe Inheritance Canyon as an “un-prequel”). I didn’t see Owl Moon, but I did catch that the owl is a major symbol/prop in Inheritance Canyon, and is connected to “doubling.” The play, in two acts, runs about two hours, with intermission.

And speaking of intermission, the character switch that happens (during it?) between the first Shell and the other Shell (Gwen Gastorf) was theatrically fun at the top of Act Two. One of the meta-themes in Maestri’s play was “performance” in modern life: if we “perform” a function, does that mean we become it, Maestri asks? Gary, one of the doomed trio, repeatedly states his longtime dream to be a performer, and rehearses songs, wearing a wig, as he impersonates Olivia Newton-John in anticipation of an audition that never comes. Shell wants to pretend to be a scientist, and in the end, a Camera Kid/Intern comes along to document the “reality” of it all.

I asked Maestri for her thoughts on attending the Festival, as well as being featured in it: “The Women’s Voices Festival has been a powerful and formidable ride so far. I’m very much inspired by all the new and exciting work I’m seeing, the energy around the Festival itself, and the remarkable efforts of Nan Barnett and Jojo Ruf realized. I’m still processing it all–the past few months have been such a whirlwind of new experiences, hard work, and straight-talk about the industry’s commitment to parity. The Festival is churning things up, causing trouble, changing lives, starting conversations, and catapulting new art into the world. I’m proud to be part of it.”

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“Queens Girl in the World” by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Pictured: Dawn Ursula. (Photo by Teresa Wood.)

5) QUEENS GIRL IN THE WORLD by Caleen Sinnette Jennings

Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings has two plays in the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival. Jennings’ one-person play Queens Girl in the World, directed by Eleanor Holdridge and produced by Theater J, is the last show that I saw.

This play stars the virtuoso performer Dawn Ursula as the young Jacqueline Marie Butler (“Jackie”), during her tween to teenage years–until the mid-1960’s–in Queens. Ursula plays every character in the piece, including her worldly “best friend” Persephone Wilson, Jackie’s parents, young male suitors, the grandfather of a friend who molests her, her teachers, her mixed race middle school friend Doug, Persephone’s mother, and more. Jackie must constantly navigate dual worlds: neighborhood street life versus her stricter home rules as the daughter of a doctor; Queens versus Manhattan, as one of four black students in a progressive Greenwich Village school; leaving childhood/entering adulthood.

Queens Girls in the World depicts in two acts (with the act break serving as a tone shift marker when the script turns from “fun” to “serious”) what it was like for a studious, bright African-American girl to grow up in the Civil Rights era, and to live through its violent days: the 1963 death of Medgar Evers, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. She memorizes the names of the four girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carole Denise McNair. Jackie gets to meet Malcolm X one night, and then, soon after, mourns his death. By the end of the play, Jackie’s parents are so fed up with life in America that they move to Nigeria. The beautiful star-field projected at the end of the show, as they sail away, serves to highlight Jackie’s poignant continuing search for her identity. Everything about the production is top-notch, and the super-talented Dawn Ursula is unforgettable.

One thing I’ve been tracking is the number of excellent female directors working in the Festival. It’s been inspiring to see so many female-helmed productions. I asked Eleanor Holdridge, a director in great demand and the head of the MFA Directing Program at Catholic University, about directing in the Festival: “It has been so thrilling to direct not one but two World Premieres by Caleen Sinnette Jennings in the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival. Just opened her Queens Girl in the World at Theatre J, a semi-autobiographical piece in which the wonderful work of Dawn Ursula evokes a girl coming of age in a very turbulent time. A really remarkable process.”

Darius&Twig_titleimage KenCenHoldridge continued: “On October 8, I will embark on rehearsals for Caleen’s Darius and Twig, a TYA show at the Kennedy Center, based on Walter Dean Myers’ stunning young adult novel about two kids growing up in Harlem whose friendship and resilience take them through very difficult times. The current draft gets beautifully at the difficulty and joy of growing up in rough circumstances. And somewhere in the middle of it all, on October 19th, I will direct a reading of a new play by Sarah Gancher at Mosaic Theatre, The Place We Built, about the lives of young people striving for voices and a place of their own in Hungary. It’s a thrilling bi-product of the festival that so many women directors are being brought along for the ride. For my female directing and playwriting students, I find the season a wonderful inspiration for what enriching strength that women theatre artists can bring to the art form in America.”

6) MORE, PLEASE:

I wish I could see many other shows in this Festival, which runs until late November; it is such a rich, thrilling expansive endeavor. I tweeted an inquiry several days ago, to ask if the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival might become an annual event. (Fingers crossed?) They responded: “Great question. At this point it’s still too soon to say. We’ll keep you posted on any updates.” In Holly L. Derr’s recent Howl Round post about the Festival, Nan Barnett mentions plans for a post-Festival handbook that could be used as a guide by other cities to mount their own versions of this kind of festival. Yes, please!

Martha Richards, Founder and Executive Director of Women Arts, attended the first October industry weekend of the Women’s Voices Festival, and was part of a Gender Parity panel on October 4 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Richards notes the Festival’s significance: “I think that history will recognize the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as a turning point for women in theater. Gender parity activists have been looking for ways to reach our goal of 50/50 by 2020, and large-scale festivals like this provide a perfect mechanism to push our numbers up quickly. So many women in theatre are fed up with the inequality in our field, and I predict that the Washington role model will inspire them to create similar festivals all over the world.”

7) 2.0 THOUGHTS, TO IMPROVE?

While there are some who feel that the concept of a “Woman’s Festival” is patronizing in and of itself (e.g., shouldn’t “women playwrights” just be considered “playwrights,” after all?), I applaud these innovative producers and theatre-makers in D.C. for taking positive action, and for bringing attention to female writers and the thriving theatre community in our nation’s capital.

In future iterations, one always hopes for improvements. Here are a couple of areas to consider:

a) Inclusion – Playwrights of Color. In the October 2015 article entitled “Women’s Work” by Suzy Adams in American Theatre, Arena Stage’s artistic director Molly Smith regrets that the number of writers of color in this Festival is less than 10 percent: “When we talk about diverse voices, it always has to include race, and I think that’s one thing for me that’s a weakness of this particular festival” (p. 47). That’s an important factor that should be addressed in a future festival incarnation or iteration.

b) Coverage Disparity? It’s so hard to get press for the arts these days, so we’re all grateful for the theatre reviews that are published. But as is standard in reviewing festivals these days, the practice of combining critiques of several shows within the same review seems to infer “competition” among the shows (a “see this, skip this” consumerist tack, sometimes even at the headline level). Also, some plays in the Festival received their own stand-alone reviews, while others didn’t. I don’t know what the remedy to it is from a press perspective, but I’m sure some of the theaters noticed levels of disparity in the coverage. Surely the playwrights noticed, too.

8) LOS ANGELES? EVERY CITY IN THE U.S? AND BEYOND?

Could this festival be replicated/produced/curated in another city? Yes! How about it, L.A.? Why not try to organize a multi-month festival involving fifty (or more) L.A. theaters that’ll produce shows by female playwrights at the same time? Let’s consider this, SoCal theatre-makers. It’s a great way to promote the high talent level of our theaters, large and small, as well as promote the high level of female playwrights who reside and work here.

And beyond L.A., I hope the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival launches a worldwide movement: Women’s Voices Everywhere! Maybe if enough female-focused festivals occur, it will eventually be “normal” to include a 50/50 ratio of female playwrights in all regular seasons on the world’s stages. A playwright can dream, can’t she?

(Note: A shorter version of this post is published in the International Centre for Women Playwrights October 2015 Newsletter. Another version is published on the Women Arts blog. )

RECOMMENDED LINKS:

D.C. Women’s Voices Festival

“Women’s Voices Theater Festival: Getting a Piece of Real Estate” by Jami Brandli

“Something is Afoot in Washington, D.C.” by Holly L. Derr & The Women’s Voices Festival Weekend Recap by Holly L. Derr

“Women’s Voices Theater Festival in Washington is An Energizing Showcase” by Charles Isherwood, New York Times 

“Putting Women in the Spotlight” by Nelson Pressley, Washington Post 

Profile of The Naked Expedition Project

by Laura Shamas

The Naked Expedition Theatre Project
is a new theatre company in New York, co-founded by Laura Bray and Celestine Rae. Its mission is specific and significant:
“To challenge the perceptions of women and the underrepresented through the voice of theatre and to serve as an advocate for their stories…TNEP strives to inspire writers of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and gender by providing a space for them to develop and share their work. We believe that artists thrive within a community that embraces exploration and the many stages of development and process. Our goal is to provide a platform for non-traditional stories and voices that will ignite conversation, understanding and investigation into the core humanity of women and the underrepresented within the local and global community.”

I was lucky enough to be part of the first evening of their new Reading Series, held at the beautiful Theatre Lab  on W. 36th on September 15, 2014. There were five short plays read, all written by women: Femme Noir by Allie Costa; God Don’t Exist For Girls in Brooklyn by Yani Perez; my play The Cumin Guard; Got a Light by Tanya Everett; and Color Blue by Alexis Roblan. The directors were: Tiffany Greene, Julio Monge, and Derrick Anthony. It was a thrilling event; the bright talent of all involved was dazzling. How terrific to see five shows in a row by talented female writers! Personally, I was amazed by the performance of my 10-minute show that evening; all kudos and credit to director Tiffany Greene, and actors Erin Cherry, Suzanne Darrell and Lori Lang! The TNEP Reading Series will continue in coming months.

The atmosphere in any theatre company is fostered by its leaders; the ambience surrounding The Naked Expedition Theatre Project was palpably positive. So I wanted to find out more about Laura Bray and Celestine Rae, and learn about their insights and future plans; I asked them a few questions via e-mail. Check out their inspiring answers, and please don’t miss the announcement of a new submission opportunity at the end.

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Celestine Rae and Laura Bray, photo credit: JP Photography NYC

1) When and where did you first become involved with theater?
Celestine Rae: “I was very aware of the need for self-expression at a young age. I was terribly shy as a child but ironically, I was drawn to performing. I began my life in the theater as a dancer. Dancing was a vehicle for me to not only express myself but to tell my own personal story through movement. I was always creating and seeking out new avenues for performing. I began choreographing my own dances, creating my own skits, performing in school plays and dance recitals, and directing all of the children in my neighborhood in productions of my own. I was blessed to dance and train in Philadelphia at dance studios, including the renowned Philadanco (where I also performed as an apprentice company member), under some of the dance masters of our time who were former dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Martha Graham Company. These choreographers and teachers were the storytellers I looked up to. They were my August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Shakespeare.  I watched documentaries on the lives of Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavellade, and Geoffery Holder and heard them speak of the importance of telling stories that were of their culture and background. And I saw and felt the enormous impact it had on a generation of dancers who were given the platform to share a part of themselves with a world that might not have shown interest were it not for that art form. I recognized what dance and theater did for the artist and for the audience. It was, and is transformative. When I decided to focus primarily on acting, it felt like the natural progression of my career and artistry. I trained at the William Esper Studio under Terry Knickerbocker and began working in off-Broadway theater productions soon after. Continuing my patterns from childhood, I began taking interest in creating my own work and began writing and directing my own plays.”

Laura Bray: Being in a theatre is one of my earliest memories. My dad was a classical musician with our state orchestra so I remember spending hours in a huge 1000+ seat theatre with no audience and a full orchestra playing and just loving the feeling I had there and feeling really at home and connected with it. My mum is an English teacher so I think that’s where my love affair with words and how they worked together came from. From both of those things stemmed my love of the theatre. Of live connection with an audience and of story telling. I started performing stage as an actor back in Australia when I was about 15, but I really think my love was more with the scripts and hence I left acting for writing and haven’t looked back.”

2) When and why did you decide to form your own theatre company?
“We both initially began as actors and met at The William Esper Studio in NYC.  We connected as friends and fellow artists but we definitely shared a desire for more diverse portrayals of women in theater and in entertainment and the media across the board. We came up with the idea to start something… we weren’t sure what… at the beginning of last year. After many meetings and cups of coffee, we came to realize that beginning our own theater company was the direction we wanted to go. We saw a great need for this and began to build it.”

Laura: “I know for me personally, I didn’t often feel that I got to see much of our humanity on stage. I think that is a big driving force behind not only deciding to work together but also to form a company with such a specific mission. Another reason (and this is another important one to me) was to create a community. A community of like-minded artists and thinkers. Dreamers and doers. I think that surrounding ourselves with others that strive and think and challenge is hugely helpful and inspiring. This is something that we would love to achieve with TNEP.”

Celestine: “Humanity is definitely our buzz word. Our desire to show women and other underrepresented people as complex human beings as opposed to stereotypes is at the center of our work. As former actors and emerging writers, we share the desire to tell stories about women, all kinds of women from all kinds of diverse backgrounds. I believe in the cliché motto ‘If you build it, they will come’ and I wanted to move from a place of feeling reactive to proactive. I wanted to stop feeling helpless and disappointed with the limited opportunities for women and begin to empower myself (and others) by building our own platform. I’d say empowerment is another one of our buzzwords for sure.”

3) What are your future plans for The Naked Expedition Project?
“Our long term goal is for TNEP is to expand into a full functioning theater company with a diverse pool of talented, inspired & driven artists. A company that showcases the underrepresented voices so that eventually they will become REPRESENTED. We want to assist in providing opportunities for artists who are struggling to be seen. Our plans for TNEP include producing full productions that reach audiences of all backgrounds and ignite conversation, leading to education, change & unity.

We are incredibly excited about our October reading series as we feature the work of an incredible woman and playwright, Cori Thomas. We are thrilled to be hosting a reading of her play, My Secret Language of Wishes on Monday, October 13th at 7:30 pm at THEATERLAB in NYC. 357 W 36th St.”

4) What is the genesis of your company’s name?
Celestine: “I really love our name! The Naked Expedition Project. It’s provocative. I’m actually really proud of our name.  As an actress working in film & TV as well, many of the roles I have been auditioning for have begun to require nudity. The nudity of women on screen is so prevalent and such a complex issue for me. I’d like to believe that the female body is celebrated for its beauty on screen and in the media, however more often than not it is being objectified instead. Being naked, both physically and emotionally is such a vulnerable experience. My acting teacher (Terry Knickerbocker) used to tell us that we had to be willing to be publicly naked (emotionally)– without skin– to be an actor. That stuck with me. I think the same is true for artists of all disciplines and especially in the world of theater. Sharing your voice and art with the world is extremely vulnerable. So- there was a bit of a play on the objectification of the female body and the vulnerability of being naked in an emotional and artistic sense.”

Laura: “Our name really derived from our desire, I think. The desire to find, experience & reveal work that required us to expose & to be exposed. To be naked and truthful. And to be taken on a journey. Or not even on a journey. Something so much bigger than that. An Expedition… I think whatever kind of artist you are, you are required to be bare and naked. With yourself and with your audience. This is kind of work I want to create myself as a playwright & produce within TNEP. The name felt right when we created it.”

5) Are there any upcoming submission opportunities for women playwrights with TNEP?
“We’re excited about February 2015 and the opportunity to be inspired by the great Maya Angelou. We’re seeking submissions from playwrights that are inspired by the works and life of Ms. Angelou. This submission opportunity is open to all playwrights until December 1st, 2014. Short plays 10-15 pages maximum. All submissions can be sent to: submissions@thenakedexpeditionproject.com.”

Thanks, Celestine and Laura, for taking action and leading the way. You can subscribe to their “Spotlight Series page” to stay up to date on everything going on with TNEP via their website. You can find TNEP on Twitter – @NakedExpedition; on Facebook – The Naked Expedition Project; and on Instagram – TheNakedExpeditionProjectNYC. Donations needed: The Naked Expedition Project is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas. Please visit their website for more info on how to donate to TNEP.

Final words from Celestine and Laura: “Show us some love. We’ll love you back.”

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Celestine Rae, Laura Bray, TIffany Greene, Yani Perez, Alexis Roblan
September 15, 2014 – Photo Credit: JP Photography NYC. 
 

Equality Pledge for U.K. Theatres and More

by Laura Shamas

There’s some excellent news from London this week. From the BBC News article entitled “Theatres Make Gender Equality Pledge“: “Leading English theatres have committed to making changes in their programming and working practices to address gender inequality in the theatre industry.” The theatres involved include “the Almeida, Tricycle and Young Vic theatres in London; the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC); and the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.” One theatre hopes for new results to be viable within a year. The overall aim is to include more opportunities for women working in all areas of theatre, including acting, writing and directing. “One theatre complex has made a concrete pledge to balance the number of men and women actors in its in-house shows.” Read more at the link above. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something similar happened in other countries, including the U.S.?

Also, related U.K. news, the reason the pledge came about: The Advance Programme from Tonic Theatre, an intensive, 6-month effort to advance women in theatre, was profiled in The Guardian in an article by Lyn Gardner on Monday, Sept 22, 2014. Only 29% of shows at big theatres in London are directed by women, “but change is in the air.”  About the field of playwriting: “among the writers of new plays produced in leading theatres such as the Almeida, Tricycle, Royal Court, Donmar and Olivier and Lyttleton at the National, only 24% were female.”

If you missed it from last week, a new 4-year study was released from the League of Professional Theatre Women, about gender parity Off-Broadway: “Women Hired Off Broadway, 2010 – 2014.” The study was  conducted by LPTW members and professional theatre women Judith Binus and Martha Wade Steketee; this study includes new data about women working in all areas of Off-Broadway theatre, including playwriting and directing: “Women playwrights working Off-Broadway ranged from a high of 36% in 2012-2013, to a low of 28% in 2013-2014. Women directors Off-Broadway ranged from a high of 39% in 2012-2013 to a low of 24% in 2011-2012.”

Earlier this month, the LA FPI’s own So Cal League of Resident Theatre [LORT] count for 2014/2015 season was updated: Out of the 57 LORT shows announced for the 2014/2015 Season for the 9 LORT theaters in our area, LA FPI calculates that about 29.5% are female-authored, and about 30.5% are directed by women.

HFF 14 Preview: Q & A with Chris Farah – “Fancy”

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Chris Farah

By Laura A. Shamas

In 2013, writer/performer Chris Farah’s show Fancy: The Southern Gothic Camp Parable debuted in the Hollywood Fringe Festival, winning a “Virgin” Award and “Best of Fringe Extension.” The good news is that Farah’s latest iteration of Fancy is back this year, opening in the 2014 Hollywood Fringe on June 8th at 3 Clubs as Fancy: Secrets from my Bootydoir. Since meeting Farah last year, I’ve seen her on television a lot, and as a fan, wanted to ask her some questions about her process, how she writes/performs comedy, and what it means to be a Fringe Femme. Luckily for me, she had time to respond. By the way, Farah is guest-tweeting for LA FPI starting the week of June 8, 2014.

Q: What is your background and how did you become interested in comedy?

A: How do I even begin this question? Haha, I was born in the valley and raised in Orange County. I always liked to sing and grew up being obsessed with musical theatre, everything from Guys and Dolls, to Godspell, to Cabaret to Rent (especially in high school). We moved around a lot, so I started to cultivate being funny or embracing my innate ridiculousness to be popular in new environments.

In high school, I started taking theatre classes at South Coast Repertory and found a teacher there, Laurie Woolery, who was such a strong, inspirational female mentor to me that when I got into college I had the audacity to major in Theatre (I had promised my dad I was going to go into Journalism and Communications). I went to Loyola Marymount University, and got cast as a freshman in the play Portia Coughlan by Marina Carr (directed by Diane Benedict, another strong female mentor and my favorite teacher in college) as the retired prostitute aunt, Maggie May, who smoked like a chimney and limped around the stage due to her varicose veins. Still to this day, my favorite role and production of my life. The play is haunting, and dark, and beautiful, and cemented in me the reality that theatre was my life. I dreamed of graduation and going to get my MFA at NYU but alas, my dad, albeit supportive, wasn’t into paying thousands for more theatre education and when I quite easily got a commercial agent I decided to stay in LA.

I took improv classes at the Groundlings and then started taking long form improv and sketch classes at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theatre right when it opened in LA (I had wandered into the now defunct Tamarind theatre space and into the UCB opening party where I was seduced with all the people dancing, drinking and generally being full of debauchery inside a theatre, it felt VERY Dionysian). Long form improv felt like true stripped down, bare bones theatre, no director, no writer, just theater artists jumping from the backwall to create a full and succinct piece. I started doing shows there, lots of “dirty” or blue comedy, sketch shows, character bits in shows, and genre-based improv like musical theatre or Tennessee Williams, and then writing my own short musicals for a show at UCB called Quick & Funny Musicals. Through writing I really got to hone in on my comedic voice which, of course, ultimately helped me as a performer, and that voice was camp comedy. I had done a musical improv show at the Celebration Theater where I met Kurt Koehler and Efrain Schunior. Kurt would later facilitate me doing shows at the Cavern Club at the basement of Casita del Campo, the best camp and drag theatre in the town! Efrain would go on to write and let me star in his improv telenovela saga Stallions de Amor. When I started writing my one lady show Fancy, Kurt ended up being my director and Efrain my producer. And that’s where we are now!

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FANCY at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival

Q: How did you develop your show Fancy and how is it different this year than last?

A: I took a class on writing a one person show at the Writer’s Pad that was taught by Julie Brister, another UCB improviser whose own one lady show Fat Parts I had seen and respected. I knew I wanted to create a piece of theatre but I didn’t want it to be a SNL audition (big characters, haphazardly strewn together), nor did I want to talk about my personal life or family, and I had seen Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel and didn’t think I was capable of that kind of character work, Godbless, so I literally had no idea what I was gonna do. Julie had asked to email her show ideas if we didn’t already have one and I, only in passing at the end of the email, mentioned Fancy. Fancy, an idea based on the fact that my mother used to sing me the song while playing the guitar and as I got older it had become my karaoke anthem. There was something about the storytelling in that song, Fancy’s strength, the melodrama and southern spirit, the fact my paternal grandmother was from a small Louisiana town, and finally the last verse where she gives it to the “hypocrites” that I connected with, and with Julie’s support wrote some monologues that would end up being in Fancy’s first show – Fancy! A Southern Gothic Camp Parable. Fancy first premiered at the Cavern Club and the next summer I brought it to the Hollywood Fringe ’13. I love performing her and was completely overwhelmed by the response people gave her. I can’t even express the delight and appreciation I have when people say they connect with her or love her. I want for her to have the accessibility of cult icons like Elvira or Dame Edna.

For this next show, Fancy: Secrets from my Bootydoir, I want to connect with the audience in a brand new interactive cabaret show which picks up with the Fancy we left you with at the end of the last show, strong, independent, fearless and free. She is going to share the things she has learned along the way but of course in her warm, sassy, and “innocent for a prostitute” way. Fancy is going to talk directly to the audience, answer questions, integrate social media, teach/preach, sing songs, maybe even improv a song, who knows. 🙂

Q: Where/when/how do you write? What are your inspirations? Who are your mentors? Do you mentor someone?

A: I write on my couch which is where I eat, watch TV, hang with friends, take afternoon naps, and do pretty much every other important thing in life on. I write only when necessary, so I have to “book myself” things to ultimately get me to write. I am naturally HORRIBLY LAZY, and have nightmarish self-discipline skills. I don’t have a mentor but my best friend Amy Rhodes is a writer (she has done a couple of one person shows and published plays and currently writes on Ellen) and she reads everything I write. I don’t mentor anyone for writing, but I have acted in the Young Storytellers Foundation’s Big Shows and would love to mentor school-aged kids soon. I pull inspiration from so many sources! Mae West, Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, Jennifer Saunders, Jill Davis, Tina Fey, Rebel Wilson, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Casey Wilson, June Diane Raphael, Lennon Parham, Morgan Murphy, Jackie Beat, RuPaul, & Elvira. I get inspired every time I see Angelyne riding around LA in that pink corvette, she’s like a living nomadic performance artist (though maybe I wish she did something besides sell t-shirts for 20 bucks out of her trunk, I own at least 3 shirts by the way).

Q: What do you think are the challenges and perks of being a woman in comedy in Los Angeles?

A: The challenge is if you don’t know about comic books, sports, video games or other things comedy guys like, it can be super frustrating to be in male-dominated scenarios. That frustration can weigh on your own self-esteem as a writer and performer, and if you aren’t able to take yourself out of the situation and know your intrinsic value, it can ultimately be super depressing. Surround yourself with people that understand and appreciate you and that also WORK. Cultivating a group of ambitious and hilarious females and homosexual males that have driven me to work has been the biggest blessing in my career. The perks are once you get to a level where you know what you do and you trust you do it well, there are unforetold opportunities to share your voice. Sometimes you have to make those opportunities but so many successful females are writing and producing their own work (again: Casey Wilson & June Diane Raphael, Jessica St. Claire & Lennon Parham, obs Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham). I believe as female comedy writers, we all own a lil’ piece of each other successes (SPOILER ALERT: one of Fancy’s secrets), because it says there IS a market for female-centered comedies written by females who truly understand the feminine narrative in the modern world.

Q: What are some of your theories on comedy? (Its value, why we need it, how to do it, etc.)

A: Godbless, I think truth is always present in successful comedy. Maybe that’s why I enjoy camp, I can always wink at the audience with the “You know I’m wearing fake eyelashes and a drag wig, right? This is a show.” I also think that’s why comedy and heart plays so well together; it’s another way of showing the truth of characters or relationships being portrayed. I guess I subscribe to all the other rules of comedy: “yes and,” ” don’t ask questions,” “comedy in reversals,” “the unexpected,” “rules of three,” “funny is in the details,” and “using plosives,” but they don’t define my work. I don’t know HOW to do it per se; I think what I write is funny and I know it’s not for everyone but that at least SOME other people will think it’s funny too.

Q: Why do you like to perform in the Hollywood Fringe? And what does it feel like to be a part of it? What are your thoughts on being a Fringe Femme?

A: I love performing at HFF for so many reasons but here’s just a few:
a) because it’s my hometown and as a theatre artist, I’m gonna rep LA for life
b) it’s easy as I live here, and obs cheaper for that reason too
c) it gives me a place and sense of community
d) I love meeting new people and seeing new work
e) it has taught me to be a producer and for that alone I am eternally grateful
f) it helps give validation to Fancy whom I care so deeply for, and the insight on how to give her legs beyond her first show last year
g) forcing me to continue her shows (literally because I won the Virgin award, I couldn’t just not come back the next year) and wanting to make this next show better than the first.

It feels completely different this year than last! I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and this year people already know Fancy’s name! It feels like what i always thought going to a dream performing arts high school would feel like! Except I can stay out late. 🙂

Being a Fringe Femme is everything. The support I was granted by the LA FPI last year was immeasurable and helped shine a light on Fancy when no one knew her. For me, it validated me as a writer. I always knew when writing Fancy that I was going to give myself the subtle platform to express my views on feminism (as well as LGBTQ rights) and being a Fringe Femme and honestly reading Jennie Webb’s blog filled me with the pride that I had infused this crazy, ridiculous character with those values. We are women, and we do have to fight tooth and nail to bring ourselves from one stage in life to where we ultimately want to be. It’s hard, and there’s going to be adversaries and antagonists along the way, but if you know yourself and your power, no one can take it away from you.

Q: Any other upcoming projects to discuss?

A: I mean, what else do you want from me? Haha, joking. I have been blessed to get into talking head work on pop culture shows. I live for pop culture, reading gossip blogs are another favorite pastime to do on my couch. I am doing a lot of standup shows and am trying to get a monthly variety show happening in LA. Besides that, I’m producing a podcast and writing a pilot because, as I said, I rep LA. 🙂

Q: Are there links to any of your performances already online (TV, etc.) that we can include?

A: I just shot Fancy promos and I don’t have the last show online (these will hopefully all be coming in the next few weeks) BUT:
Here’s me doing standup: http://vimeo.com/88089714
Here’s some jokes I did on Chelsea Lately: http://vimeo.com/81453775
www.fancytheshow.com
www.facebook.com/fancytheshow
www.twitter.com/fancytheshow
www.twitter.com/chrislfarah
http://hff14.org/1681

The Numbers Problem and Why It Matters

By Laura A. Shamas

Last month, a popular entertainment blog caused quite a stir when it flashed a hopeful headline and post that misstated women playwrights wrote “half of the plays being performed in the upcoming season across the country.” After two days, the blog post was corrected; it was unintentional, a misreading of a New York Times report about Theatre Communications Group’s Annual Top Ten Most Popular Plays of the Season list; half of this year’s list is female-authored (and there are 14 plays on this year’s list due to ties). Until the entertainment blog was corrected, many people were expecting that a 50/50 level of gender parity in production had been achieved in U.S. theaters for female and male playwrights. Not so.  But it raises the question: then what are the actual statistics for female and male playwrights in American theater seasons for 2013-14? Here’s the truth. No one knows, because national data collection on this topic is not currently funded in the United States by any single research entity or institution.

Earlier in 2013, LA FPI volunteers Stephanie Hutchinson and Jan O’Connor undertook what has become an annual measurement task performed by our Los Angeles advocacy group: tracking the League of Resident Theaters [LORT] seasons of nine theaters in Southern California, to find out how many female playwrights and directors are working on their stages. You can read our results from 2013 and 2012 here.  The numbers are down significantly this current season from last: only 16% in both categories.  These are terrible numbers, quite disheartening, miserable. Everyone at LA FPI is very grateful to Stephanie Hutchinson and Jan O’Connor for taking the time to complete the season count for this yearly total, which we use in an attempt to discern any gender parity progress (or lack thereof) in our local theater scene.

Yet, this 16% number is really not an accurate picture of the complete theater scene here, nor were any of our previous annual LORT counts. Here’s why: a SoCal LORT count does not nearly encompass all of the theaters in the area who use professional artists, including Equity actors. If SoCal is defined as the large region from Santa Barbara to San Diego, there are at least 20 “professional” companies here who use full Actors Equity [AEA] contracts –not just 99-seat waiver agreements.  Not all of these companies are members of LORT. Should we be counting the annual seasons of these theaters instead of LORT? Maybe.

Moreover, there are many other companies in this area who are not LORT members, nor using full AEA contracts, yet they could or would say that they, too, are “professional” theaters because they use artists in all disciplines who are members of professional unions. How many of these companies are there in SoCal?  According to a reply tweet to us from Los Angeles STAGE Alliance  on October 14: “Well, we estimate we have around 350 companies working with us in a given year. But we also have a list of 230-some others.”

So, let’s just say that each of those 350 companies (and the sometimes additional +230 groups) produce several shows a year. Who’s counting all of these LA theatre season rosters for gender parity stats? No one.

So do we truly have any understanding of the complete theater scene in terms of gender parity and statistical breakdowns in Los Angeles or SoCal?  No, we do not. And it’s not just here in southern California. Try finding 2013-2014 season data related to gender parity for New York City shows—New York, the exciting heartbeat of our American theater scene. Can you find them? (If you do, please add them to the comments sections of this blog post. Because I could not.)

When LA FPI began, it was in part a response to Julia Jordan’s 2008 decision to calculate the numbers of female playwrights in the New York seasons per non-profit theaters, and her finding that only 12.6% were female-authored. Our website has a “Facts” page where we have attempted to aggregate gender parity/theater data links in the past few years, but I haven’t tried to update it in awhile. I don’t know what data or studies to add, because there are no precise new annual national numbers to report.

To be completely clear, the numbers used most often to describe the typical American female playwright’s status are New York-based stats. In 2011, Ella Martin, Jennie Webb and I partnered to investigate data from the Los Angeles area for the beginning of the twenty-first century. We wanted to find out what the percentage number was in SoCal for productions by women playwrights. Thank goodness for the Los Angeles STAGE Alliance and their willingness to hand count into their 2002 – 2010 records for us, because without their generous efforts, we never would have had a basis for our 20% result, reflecting the 993 shows that were female-authored and produced here during those years.

Some of the problems that plague an accurate assessment of any gender parity stats in American theatre are:
1) lack of funding or resources for any such studies;
2) uniform metrics, methodology and data sources of what should be counted and when.
I’ve shared some samples of these types of questions in the early part of this essay. One of the more famous American studies that garnered attention in 2009 was Emily Sandburg Sands’ report which relied on the Doollee.com database, a source criticized by some as incomplete. You can find Sands’ “Opening the Curtain” report here.  And yet, as Doollee is incomplete, where will more accurate data come from?

Fortunately, there are heroic theater datakeepers in various places around the world who are trying to amend the numbers problem by keeping track of what’s going in the communities where they live, as related to gender parity and diversity.

One of those people is Niall Tangney of Sydney, Australia. Tangney is a long-time hospitality employee and theatre enthusiast who has “rediscovered his love of theatre in his middle-age.” He promotes theatre free of charge to the theatre community of Sydney and NSW via the Theatre in Sydney website [found at www.theatresydney.info], which he runs as a fairly intensive hobby. Niall writes: “I am a regular theatregoer but am not involved in making theatre in any way, so I am able to stir the pot in a way that no one can accuse me of it being self-serving. I think perhaps this is part of the problem. Regarding speaking out on the issue, I think (but do not know for sure) that some female playwrights may not want to be seen as simply complaining that their particular play was not selected or got rejected by a major company… but if no one speaks up, nothing will change.“ Here’s Tangney’s tally of the 2013-14 season as related to gender parity. For the 2013-14 season, Tangney found that from a total of 59 shows of five state-funded theaters, approximately 30% are plays written by female playwrights, and approximately 30% of plays will be solely directed by female directors.

Tangney thinks that collecting the numbers does matter, related to fairness:  “The issue has been discussed in Australia for a number of years already, particularly by this group of playwrights called 7-ON  who raised the issue as a collective. I also have three sisters, none of whom are writers by the way, but they give me a fair insight into things as well, in terms of equality. So I just say to myself…’if I was a woman would I think that was fair?’  One thing I have been thinking about with this issue is that, where theatre companies receive state funding, you could argue that since taxpayers are funding the art, and governments are committed to equal opportunity, that the theatre companies should be required to represent the genders equitably in their choices of work by (at least, living, and taxpaying…) playwrights. But it is a tricky question, and not being involved myself in theatre I have no idea how you would implement this practically. But it is worth thinking about. If people in theatre are smart enough to put on all this great theatre, which I love, surely they are smart enough to work this out.”

In 2012, a major report on Women In Theatre was released by the Australia Council, in hopes of raising awareness about the current state of gender equity in the art form, and advocating for action to bring about change. Those who authored the report found “no progress over the decade since 2001 and there is evidence that the situation for women in creative leadership deteriorated over that time” (pps 4-5).

Hilary Bell also makes a strong case as to why it matters to keep track of gender parity-related stats.  Bell writes for theater, radio, film, TV, opera, and music theatre; she graduated from Julliard in 1998 and lives in Sydney, Australia. Bell responded to me on behalf of  the “7-On” Playwrights. Bell wonders what would happen if 16% male quotas were proposed for theater seasons, such as: “’In our next season, we will give male directors 16% of the productions.’ There’s an unconscious bias towards giving creative roles in theatre to men. The only way to redress the balance is to make employers conscious. Rightly, there’s a hue and cry about women being underrepresented on boards, in business and government. In the arts – supposedly inclusive, progressive, liberal – women artists are consistently marginalised. An all-male playwrights season raises no eyebrows; an all-female season (were anyone to ever propose one) is seen as a provocative statement. This, despite an equal number of female artists and a majority of female ticket-buyers. The ‘merit’ argument is as spurious as it is insulting. Only when artistic directors see the numbers, over and again, will they wake up to the fact of this discrimination, and do something about it.”

Another theatre data keeper here in the U.S. is Gwydion Suilebhan of Washington, D.C.; he’s a playwright, transmedia artist, arts advocate, and digital strategist for arts organizations. Suilebhan is part of the new D.C. company “The Welders, A Playwrights’ Collective.” Suilebhan has partnered with playwrights Patricia Connelly and David Mitchell Robinson to keep track of theatre demographic data from the area. The season results for 2013-14 are here. You can access the full study, launched in 2012, here. From the 2013-14 results: “Of the plays being produced in D.C. in the 2013-14 season, 73% were written by men, 27% by women. By comparison, in the 2012-13 season, 79% of the plays were written by men, 21% by women.”

Of why the numbers matter, Suilebhan writes: “Looking at data is like looking into a well-polished mirror. It shows us exactly who we are, whether we like what we see or not…and helps us make reality-based decisions. If we really want to achieve gender parity in the American theater, we have to know exactly where we’re starting from…and monitor whether our choices are really making a difference or not. That’s why I gather data.”

Performer Valerie Weak tallies data from the San Francisco area in monthly posts called “Counting Actors.” In a Tactics Interview with Amy Claire Tasker posted earlier in 2013 on the “Works by Women Blog,” Weak said: “The big tactic with Counting Actors is to let the numbers speak.  When I do my monthly blog post, I don’t say anything about how the numbers make me feel, about what’s bad or what’s good.  I just say here are the numbers, please talk about them.” Weak’s count may be found here. In one of Weak’s recent posts, she reports: “There were 56 shows (56%) that were on [AEA] contracts that use health weeks.Those shows had: 46 male directors, 21 female directors (67%, 33%), 58 male writers, 15 female writers (79%, 21%), 274 male actors, 208 female actors (57%, 43%).”

In the United Kingdom, Professor Maggie Gale made headlines this summer at a National Theatre panel in London with an assessment that women playwrights there are produced in the 8-12% range; this estimate is especially discouraging when compared to “18.4% in 1923, 20.4% in 1936, and 22% in 1945.”  (For a response to Gale from a different perspective, please read Katy Brand’s view.)

Wendy Thomson, Editor of FemaleArts.com, an online U.K. magazine promoting women in the arts, pointed me towards several key sites with research on gender parity and playwrights, such as the excellent Archives of the Sphinx Theatre, which lists on its header: “35% of actors, 17% of writers, 23% of directors…52% of the population.”  Thomson also referred me to this excellent Datablog piece in The Guardian from December 2012, about the 2:1 ratio of men to women working in theater, compiled in collaboration with Elizabeth Freestone: 35% of new plays in this Datablog are female-authored.

Another great U.K. site with specific regional data is the 17Percent Blog. In a guest post by Lindsay Nicholas, Nicholas writes that keeping track of what’s happening is purposeful: “For now, it seems to be down to writers themselves, such as Sam Hall at 17Percent, dedicated to changing a very bad statistic through regular showcases of women’s writing, to explore the issues. She suggests that close monitoring of gender ratios in theatre writing could bring about improvement. This has worked well in Sweden, for example, where in 2011 46% of new plays were written by women.”

Thomson, too, believes there’s value in keeping track of parity-related data. “It is important to monitor on a regular basis if gender inequality is decreasing or increasing and this activity should be funded! The public must be aware so they can celebrate when things get better and campaign when things get worse, we can never be complacent. There should be equality on stage just as in every walk of life. There can be rapid deterioration of women’s rights and achievements and that is why we need campaigners like Malala for girls education and LA FPI for Los Angeles playwrights.”

What of Canada? I do not have specific data from any regional sites to report. But here are some recent studies that address the general topic of Women in Theatre.

1) “…only 27 percent of the plays produced in Canada are written by female playwrights.” – “The Status of Women in Theatre: Disturbing Reports from Australia, Canada, and the US” by Sarah O’Conner, August 2012, Vol. 1, No.2, published in Women in TheatreFrom March 2011, the same 27% stat for female playwrights is quoted in “Females Try to Smash Glass Ceiling” by Kathleen Renne, but there’s also a mention that most stage managers and costumers are female.
2) The 2006 Study on the Status of Women in Canadian Theatre  – “Adding It Up”
3) The 2009 Equity in Canadian Theatre Report, from Professional Association of Canadian Theatre [PACT], discussed here.

Rebecca Burton, of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, shared an update on overall 2012-2013 stats and plans for a new Canadian initiative: “The Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) has followed-up every year since then [2006] with a straw poll to see how women playwrights are faring. This year, for the 2012/13 season, women constituted 23% of the produced playwrights (men were 61% and mixed gender collaborations accounted for 16%). These stats suggest that the situation is regressing rather than improving! PGC has plans to launch an industry-wide Equity initiative next year to help combat the problem.”

One global organization for women playwrights is the International Centre for Women Playwrights [ICWP]. They feature a research page for gender parity data on their site.

Margaret McSeveney is a writer, poet, and playwright who resides in the U.K. McSeveney has been an ICWP Board Member since 2000, was ICWP President from 2009-2011, and ICWP Vice President from 2011-2013. McSeveney, too, feels that data should be collected on gender parity in theatre: “It matters a great deal because the figures will show the progress (hopefully not the lack of progress) theatres are making towards treating women playwrights fairly, as artists worthy of equal treatment and human beings worthy of an equal share of the commissioning and production funding used to support the theatre industry.”

Winding back to New York City, I have discussed these same gender parity data issues recently via e-mail with several members of the League of Professional Theatre Women. There is a desire for a more formal study about gender parity in theater from LPTW members, and there’s a hope for future funding. Jenny Lyn Bader is a playwright and author, a Dramatists Guild member, the Artistic Producer at Theatre 167, and an executive board member of the League of Professional Theatre Women. Bader generously shared some of her thoughts about data collection related to gender parity arts stats, or lack thereof.

In regards to New York stats, Bader writes: “It’s shocking how little hard evidence there is to document this problem that so many are aware of — and how difficult it is even to find a record, not just of gender breakdowns in our industry, but of everything in our industry! It’s nearly impossible to find a comprehensive list of all Broadway and Off-Broadway openings. And forget Off-off-Broadway — we’re talking about 2,000 productions. “

A methodology for data collection is also daunting, related to the shows produced in New York. Bader notes: “I realize that the statistics are not easy to compile. For example, just look at new plays on Broadway in 2012. I found one list that seemed comprehensive. But it included Rebecca, which never even opened. So I narrowed it down to shows that opened. But does that include musicals? It might be easier not to count musicals since they are frequently co-authored. But then how do you count a play with music? Do you count one-person shows? Does Kiki Tyson count as a female playwright, since she co-authored, with Randy Johnson, Mike Tyson’s one-man show? Does the comedian Lewis Black whose Running on Empty played 8 performances on Broadway during its tour count as a male playwright? Should William Shatner’s one-man show count as a play? What about Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which has been produced on Broadway four times? Should that still count as a new play? Should Wit, by Margaret Edson, previously produced Off-Broadway and already having won the Pulitzer, be counted as new? Maybe since Edson and Albee are both alive, they can be put in the ‘new play’ category, but then how do we count Nora Ephron, whose play was produced posthumously but was new?  In the end, using any consistent method, it still looks like women playwrights wrote fewer than 15% of new plays produced on Broadway in 2012. But how do we decide on what the method is?” And of course, any variance in data collection methodologies may mean that the data is not directly comparable.

And even though issues of collection, such as funding and methodology, are challenging, it is necessary that we collect the data, according to Bader. “We’ve exploded glass ceilings in so many fields, but not in this one. There are different numbers, but everyone can agree that of produced plays, a minority are written by women, while women make up the majority of the audience. So women are coming to see these plays mostly written by men. At some point, that has an impact. It’s a question of putting women’s stories at the center of stories and not just on the sidelines, of privileging voices from both genders, of not teaching young women always to be considering things from the male point of view. It seems surprising and bizarre that we have not reached gender parity in a field such as theatre which is normally not perceived as exceptionally traditional or conservative. Indeed it seems so surprising and bizarre that many knowledgeable people don’t even believe it. That’s why the numbers matter. It’s important to collect them.”

With so many people in so many places agreeing on the need for gender equity data collection in theater, isn’t it time we start a serious conversation about ways to solve this numbers problem, so that studies may be executed to encompass all communities of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and the entire world beyond–including the vast number of non-English language theaters? And shouldn’t we extend our data numbers to embrace all positions held in theater, including designers, stage managers, costumers, etc.?

In closing, and in an attempt to answer the question I began with, about the ratio of female to male playwrights in American 2013-14 theater seasons, I do have one final piece of data to share. A volunteer in Los Angeles (who wishes to remain anonymous) counted all productions listed in the American Theater magazine 2013-2014 season preview, pages 48-97 of the October 2013 issue. This is only an estimate, as some slots were To Be Announced or listed no authors, and thus were unable to be tracked. These are the current seasons of 500 Theatre Communication Group member companies only, spread over 47 states. The data encompasses some non-English language shows. In keeping with other counting methods, any plays by William Shakespeare were not included.  This estimate found that 35% of the shows listed for 2013-14 were female-authored, and 65% were male-authored (female-authored shows, 446.93; male-authored shows, 1,274.77).

Again, this is only an estimate.

© 2013 by Laura A. Shamas. For permission to reprint or repost this article, please inquire: blog(at)lafpi(dot)com

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ADDITIONAL LINKS, ORGANIZED BY GEOGRAPHY

(If you have more links to share, please let us know in the comments and we will add them below as we can.)

AUSTRALIA
Career Playwrights: (Australian) Working Women Dramatists, 1928-1968, by Michelle Arrow, University of Sydney
Seven On
Theatre in Sydney, Niall Tangney’s Site
2012 Women in Theatre Report by the Australian Council

AUSTRALIA – MISCELLANEOUS, RELATED
AusStage
Playwriting Australia

CANADA
The 2006 Study on the Status of Women in Canadian Theatre: “Adding It Up”

From Rebecca Burton of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, on 2012-13 stats:
“The Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) has followed-up every year since then [2006] with a straw poll to see how women playwrights are faring. This year, for the 2012/13 season, women constituted 23% of the produced playwrights (men were 61% and mixed gender collaborations accounted for 16%). These stats suggest that the situation is regressing rather than improving! PGC has plans to launch an industry-wide Equity initiative next year to help combat the problem.”

CANADA – MISCELLANEOUS, RELATED
Playwrights Guild of Canada, Women’s Caucus

GERMANY – MISCELLANEOUS, RELATED
Statistics on Women Filmmakers

NEW ZEALAND
Gender Issues for Female Playwrights and Filmmakers

UNITED KINGDOM
Sphinx Theatre Archives
The Guardian Datablog in collaboration with Elizabeth Freestone
The 17percent Blog

UNITED STATES
Boston
The Blog of the Playwrights’ Commons – 2012-13 Stats
Company One – Season 15, 2013-14, all female playwrights

Chicago
Gender Equity Report, 2010

Cleveland
8 of 10 shows at Cleveland Public by women, 2013-14: Cleveland Public Theatre

Los Angeles
2011  LA FPI “The Study,” lead by Ella Martin
2013 – “News”

New York
June 2013, Scream into a Bucket Alert – Guerrilla Girls On Tour
“Why Playwrights Horizon Isn’t Talking About the Gender Imbalance in Their Season”

North Carolina Triangle Theaters
2012-13 Data Compiled by Jules Odendahl-James, Resident Dramaturg, Duke University
“Women writers & directors representation in the 2012-2013 seasons of 20 Triangle NC Producing Theaters/Theater Companies.
94 shows announced. For 21 of these shows, directing staff unknown as of July 21, 2012.
27 women directors. (Some of these are directing more than one show in a season, e.g. Meredith College; some also creators of the work so they are given credit for directing and writing.)
2 women co-directing shows with men. (A Christmas Story, Haymaker’s Elektra).
13 female playwrights.
17 women working on projects as co-writer/part of devising company.”

San Francisco
Counting Actors by Valerie Weak

Washington, D.C.
DC Theatre Demographics, 2013-14, collected by Gwydion Suilebhan, Patricia Connelly and David Mitchell Robinson
DC Theatre Demographics, Full Study

USA – MISCELLANEOUS, RELATED
2002 – “Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement” by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett
2010 – Discrimination and the Female Playwright by Julia Jordan and Sheri Wilner
2011 – Karen Kinch’s data on 2011 LORT counts, as cited in a 2012 post by Diane Grant
2012 – The VIDA Count 2012
2012/2013 – Guerrilla Girls On Tour Annual Girlcott List

With special thanks to Niall Tangney, Hilary Bell, Gwydion Suilebhan, Wendy Thomson, Margaret McSeveney, and Jenny Lyn Bader. 

How To Make Theatre Contagious

A Guest Post by Laura A. Shamas

With so many entertainment options available now, the question is: How can we encourage interest in theatre so it will thrive in the twenty-first century?

Recently, I read a bestselling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On. It’s written by Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Although Contagious is written as a marketing primer, I was struck by how much of it was applicable to theatre and to the arts in general.

It’s hard to determine what makes things popular today. Berger writes that it’s not merely the quality, the pricing, or the advertising of the projects/products that catch on. He reports that although we spend a great deal of time online, only 7% of word-of-mouth happens via Internet-related channels: “We tend to overestimate online word-of-mouth because it’s easier to see.” Social media may display the interests and activities we’ve chosen to share, so the record is available at a glance, but the activities we have offline are just as important and are just as influential. Most of us do not have the time to respond to every update or tweet. When Berger polled his college students, he found that less than 10% of their friends responded to a message they’d posted online. He reminds us “that Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies.”

So what does work? Berger has found six principles that make things “go wide.” Berger describes the anatomy of virality, although not all components are necessary for each and every case of a popular share. These ideas are easily remembered in the acronym “STEPPS”:

1) Social Currency.
2) Triggers.
3) Emotion.
4) Public.
5) Practical Value.
6) Stories.

1) SOCIAL CURRENCY. Do you know insider info that makes you seem cool? Can you share something that you know will be considered “remarkable” or unique? If so, you will share it; it’s human nature. Berger underscores that we find it “pleasurable” to talk about our interests and attitudes. This makes us “look good,” Berger says; it gives us social stature.

Breaking patterns that others have come to expect also gives us social currency, like doing something in a novel, unexpected way. Leveraging game mechanics (by allowing others to see how well we do in a points system, as with airline miles or Foursquare) is another way to gain currency because games motivate us via “social comparison.” We measure our scores next to our friends’ tallies.

Making people feel like “insiders” also boosts their social currency; this is done by giving scarce, unique, exclusive offers to customers or clients.

Berger’s thoughts on social currency made me think about current theatre practices. Theatres have long used “special pre-show receptions,” a chance to preview a show, or even an opportunity to attend certain rehearsals to give subscribers “insider” cachet, such as in Arena Stage’s Theater 101 class.

But what more could we, as theater professionals, do to promote “remarkability” and innovation? Mixed Blood Theatre’s egalitarian Radical Hospitality is a recent idea that breaks previous patterns related to how theater is “sold” to an audience. Or how about doing a play in one’s living room for only twelve people at a time? What else can be done that’s surprising to change the ways in which theater is experienced today?

What can a specific play do that is “remarkable,” completely surprising, or new?

2) TRIGGERS. Daily, we each share about 16 or more opinions about an organization, product, or service, Berger says. That’s a lot of “word-of-mouth.” Why do we do it? Timing is everything.

Something in the environment “triggers” our need to share. Did you know the sales of Mars bars escalated during the 1997 NASA Pathfinder’s mission? Or that Rebecca Black’s 2011 hit song “Friday” always got more YouTube hits on that actual day of the week than any other? These are examples of “triggers” that resonate in our everyday lives.

Berger explains that even negative reviews can be positive for business, if the reviews introduce a project’s existence by giving it press.

If you want to lay the groundwork for triggers for your product, you can “grow its habitat,” according to Berger, “by creating new links to stimuli in the environment.”  This can be done by directing attention to related messages or associated ideas in your project’s arena. The more often you can make a project come to mind, the better.

In this chapter, Berger notes that movie theaters depend on immediate word-of-mouth, as weekly box office reports convey.

But it is also true that ongoing word-of-mouth or “repeat business” helps to drive entertainment sales. So I wonder: How do we “grow a habitat” for theatre? Is it related to the DNA (or identity) of a specific theater or should it always be more play-specific? Or both? How do you grow a habitat for a new play? What are the environmental “triggers” needed? What is the relationship between the cultural zeitgeist and the community in terms of “triggers” that may need to be seeded and tended?

3) EMOTION. Theatre artists already know this axiom: “When we care, we share.” But Berger attaches a component to emotion that goes beyond empathy/sympathy: awe. This was my favorite part of Berger’s book, as he discusses our love of mystery and “the experience of confronting something greater than yourself” which enlarges one’s own “point of reference.”

This section reminded me of works in depth psychology, where awe is seen as part of the numinous or “mysterium tremendum,” the transcendent spiritual force that both attracts and repels.

Berger cites Albert Einstein’s idea that the mysterious is the power of “all true art and science.” I’ve been in “awe” in the theater many times: in awe of excellence of artistry and aesthetics, in awe at the brilliance of execution, in awe of the communal act of artists joined together onstage to produce drama. Berger’s emphasis on the importance of “awe” as an emotion really rang true for me as an artist. Yes, awe-inspiring projects catch on!

We feel affinity for those with whom we’ve shared emotions and secrets, but also with those who make us laugh, according to Berger. If you can crack me up—well, now we’re connected.

The science of “physiological arousal,” an active state in which we’re ready to move or react as needed, is at the core of why emotion matters in virality. Berger uses the image of “kindling a fire” as a metaphor to express emotion as a marketing force. He also reports that exercise (jogging, walking) promotes more emotional sharing.

In theatre, we’ve long known that emotion is what drives human beings. Berger’s exercise discussion made me think of interactive theater like Sleep No More. There’s always a lot of well-deserved buzz about shows that require the audience to move. Does walking around or being physically active while viewing a show contribute to the audience’s desire to spread the word post-show?

4) PUBLIC. Is your project publically visible? We imitate the behavior of others. Can we observe other people supporting your project? Berger reports that we mimic the behavior of others because it provides information about how to live: “social proof.” If others are eating at that restaurant, it must be good. (I wonder if it’s also related to the idea of crowd-sourcing.)

Where do most people put their theatre tickets? Away, in pockets, purses. One idea that Berger suggests directly about theatre is intriguing: “…if theater companies and minor league teams could use buttons or stickers as the ‘ticket,’ instead, ‘tickets’ would be much more publicly observable.”

Berger also explores the concept of “behavioral residue,” something that lasts after the experience. That made me reflect further: certainly, shirts and swag promoting a show should be categorized as part of this.

5) PRACTICAL VALUE. Berger calls this component “news you can use.” Is your project part of a money-saving “deal”? Is there valuable information to impart? Can it help get a discount? Berger suggests that the precept of “practical value” may be the easiest to apply.

To apply “Practical Value” to theatre-making: we certainly award discounted tickets for Student or Early Rush, or preview sales. There’s a financial “deal” aspect to that, as producers have known for a long time.

But is there another way to explore the concept of “practical value”? Can we make the case for the necessity for the arts (art, music, theater, dance, literature)? Can we show it’s not practical to live without them? Is there a way to impart to twenty-first century audiences that art is “fit for action,” as the etymology of “practical” shows?

6) STORIES. Berger begins this final chapter by relaying the story of Odysseus and the Trojan Horse, a Greek myth that has been retold for thousands of years. It has a message; it’s a good narrative. Berger then uses that myth as a metaphor for the function of story relatable to products and brands: a good story may contain valuable information more entertainingly told, and thus, is more memorable, more sustainable.

Berger believes that a product should construct a “carrier narrative” shell that will get people talking, like the Trojan Horse itself. He also cautions that this narrative should be embedded to the plot, so that it’s directly related to the product—not tangential.

The element of story is easy to connect to theatre-making. Writers certainly know something about “story as vessel” for information, since we often struggle with how to artfully hide exposition in a good tale. We know about the value of story, whether for a one-person show or an ensemble.

But what is the story of a specific project? Often, we limit promotional narratives to the bios of the creators, or an issue that brought the creative team to the project. What if you can create “the story” of a play in performance in order to attract an audience, as a meta-narrative? Should the show have its own origin story?

Berger ends Contagious with an epilogue and a checklist, and the good news that you don’t need a big budget to apply these steps to make your project “go viral.”

As we seek audiences for our art, perhaps some of Berger’s ideas can point the way towards imagining a more “contagious” future for theatre artists and audiences.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger, published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 2013.

To see author Jonah Berger discuss Contagious: Why Things Catch On and each aspect in detail, click here.

Laura A. Shamas is a co-founder of LA FPI and currently volunteers as an Outreach Agent. 

“The Bitch Pack & LA FPI Hollywood New Year Event: To Bring Focus to Women Writers”

by Laura Shamas

What happens when two groups who promote female entertainment writers in Los Angeles get together to start the New Year? On Saturday, January 12, 2013, 2 – 5 p.m. at Samuel French Bookshop in Hollywood, the Bitch Pack and the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative are co-sponsoring a networking mixer for women writers who work in film, television and stage. The event is free and open to all.

The Bitch Pack is a group of active female and male entertainment writers who have joined forces in order to foster more work that passes the Bechdel Test, and to ensure that diverse women’s voices are represented in television and film. Their goal: “Changing Women’s Representation on Screen, Starting with the Written Page.” They look for screenplays that pass the Bechdel Test, and feature these on “The Bitch List,” which stands for “Brilliant, Intriguing, Creative, Tenacious Heroines.”  One of their ongoing projects includes an Award they give at Shriekfest for a horror screenplay that passes the Bechdel Test.  Their mentors include: Carole Dean, Bob Engels, Ari Posner, Dan Vining, Terry George and Susan Cartsonis. They are also affiliated with Pop Change.

The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is comprised of female and male theatre writers working toward fair representation of women playwrights on stage. LA FPI projects include a 2011 study of women playwrights produced in the SoCal area, which concluded that only about 20% of plays produced locally are female-authored and “Tactical Reads,” a partnership with The Vagrancy to present readings of female-authored plays, directed by female directors. The next Tactical Reads presentation is January 27, 2013.

Screenwriter Thuc Nguyen, founder of The Bitch Pack, says that the newest 2013 “Bitch List” will be ready for distribution by January 12, so there will be a lot to discuss at the Samuel French/Hollywood event. “We need this event to bring to light the fact that this town/our industries still don’t pay enough attention to women’s dialogue and women’s representation on stage or film. Our afternoon will have writers mingling together and hopefully new connections to bring our goals and missions to fruition!”

Lynne Moses, a founding partner of Appleseed Entertainment who writes, directs and produces for the screen and stage, feels the event is a vital one. Moses, the Communication Director for LA FPI, explains: “Women’s historic exclusion from theatre deprived the world of female voices for centuries.  Now that women are free to write for the stage and screen, there’s a lot of catching up to do!  The January 12th Hollywood event is a great opportunity to highlight the extraordinary work of women on L.A.’s stages and screens.”

Playwright Jennie Webb, a co-Founder of LA FPI, and Editor of the group’s website, feels the synergy between the two groups is a natural fit. “One of the things that we told ourselves when we started LA FPI is  ‘Let’s not say no.’ We wanted to focus on the positive and the possibilities while staying true to our goals: helping put women’s voices onstage.  So when we heard a cry in the wilderness from the Bitch Pack, of course we jumped at the chance to help one another by joining forces whenever possible. Playwrights work in film and TV, and vice versa: screenwriters want to play in theaters. Hopefully, by corralling our energies, there’ll be more women working in both fields, and more collective energy feeding us all as we move forward. Here’s a big ‘YES’ to connecting like-minded women in the new year.”

A future collaboration between the Bitch Pack and LA FPI may include a 2013 livestreamed reading event to feature L.A. women writers who work on stage and screen. Other possibilities: Finding new collaborators, exploring new creative ventures…and finding innovative ways to change the representation of women on stage and screen, by encouraging more women’s voices in the mix.

Bitch Pack & LA FPI Hollywood Event: Saturday, January 12, 2:00 – 5:00 p.m., Samuel French Bookshop, 7623 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Free. Open to all. For more details about the event: info@lafpi.com

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