“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Here’s the thing. We all want our plays to mean something. In political times like these (or, if we’re being real, at just about any political time ever), the writer stands at the precipice of a canyon of noise and anger and disruption. And we think – how can I possibly make a blip in this mess?
As both a marketing person and a playwright, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people about why a play is “relevant” – and more than that, why theatre is “relevant” – and why they should spend this amount of money and this amount of time buying into a false reality and be moved in some way, to be challenged or questioned.
It is exhausting.
In our struggle to be “relevant” (a word I might actually despise right now) – we playwrights sometimes produce “message” plays – plays that tend to hit on a topical conversation (gay marriage, terrorism, gun control, abortion) but not only hit on it, hit it right on the damn nose. There’s usually a moment when the playwright-thinly-veiled-as-a-character has a speech that describes why their view on the topic is the correct one. We all have one of these plays because the topic is important to us, because we are trying to be heard above the noise, because goddamnit, art can mean something.
The problem with message plays is that they tend to preach to the choir. My opinion is not going to be changed because you deliver a monologue in my direction. Chances are, if I’m in the audience of your message play, I already agree with you. It’s the algorithm. It is everywhere.
But, I will question my point of view if you give me characters I can relate to and love, a situation that is relatable or complicated and tense, and a slice of humanity that perhaps I had never considered before. Show me the grey area I’ve been ignoring. I might not change my opinion, but perhaps now I can see through the clutter and the postulating, all the way to the person on the other side.
Theatre has to work harder, to be more than a Facebook or Twitter argument. Give me a message, but dip it in character and setting and poetry and beauty and darkness and comedy first. Coat it on thick, pull all the threads together, and make me swallow it with a smile on my face or ugly tears in my eyes. And I will digest that message over the next day or week or months or years – I will feel it there, even if the words don’t come right away.
I don’t want a thesis statement. I don’t want to be able to describe in a sentence what your play was about after I’ve walked out. Make me feel it, show me what its about. Audiences are smarter than you think. Make them work. Even when they are being entertained, put them to work. This is not a passive art. It is not a passive life. We cannot be passive.
Here’s the thing. There are plenty of people out there who say that art is irrelevant (and plenty of those people are in power right now), or that they don’t take meaning from art and that art is not there to mean something. But art always means something, even if you don’t realize what it is telling you. We consume stories and art constantly, even if we never step foot in a theatre.
So I suppose all plays are message plays. But it is how we choose to frame it that makes the difference. Take your message and frame it in different ways. See what life it takes on.
We cannot measure our worth as writers based on the number of minds that are changed after two hours of the theatre. Minds are far too stubborn. Instead, we should challenge ourselves to let our hearts explode onto the page and the stage, and hope somehow, somewhere, a shard of the heart lodges into another person, and you are intrinsically linked for the rest of your lives.
The world is changed by marches and strikes and wars and protests and hitting the pavement, but also by one shard of one heart in one stranger.
Here’s the thing. It is exhausting. It is indescribably messy.
In our current political climate, we need theatre more than ever. Theatre can reflect the challenges of our current reality or it can invite audiences to escape it.
Let’s hear from artists who seem to find a way to do both, like playwright Adrienne Dawes and director Rosie Glen-Lambert, in Denim Doves produced by Sacred Fools, just extended through February 23, 2018 at the Broadwater Mainstage.
LA FPI: What inspired this piece?
Adrienne Dawes: Denim Doves began as a devised piece with Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, TX. We started building the play around the summer of 2013, around the time of the Wendy Davis filibuster. It was a gross sort of spectator sport to watch Democratic senators try for nearly 13 hours to block a bill that would have implemented some of the most stringent abortion restrictions in the country. My friends and I felt so incredibly angry… We poured all those feelings, all that “fiery feminist rage,” into creating a new piece.
We knew we couldn’t just scream at an audience for 75 minutes, so very early in the process, we played within comedic structures. How could we sneak very serious conversations into very silly premises? Dick jokes became the sort of “Trojan Horse” into talking about intersectional feminism, fluid identities and an oppressive government that considers female bodies as a commodity. We drew inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Suzette Haden Elgin’s novel “Native Tongue” (specifically for her use of the feminist language Laadan), YouTube videos of hand bell choirs, and finger tutting choreography.
LA FPI: Rosie, what attracted you to directing this play?
Rosie Glen-Lambert: I am always on the hunt to direct work that gives a voice to women, queer folk, non-binary folk, people of color and anyone who feels like their “type” isn’t typically represented in casting ads.
But beyond providing a platform to diverse performers, I have a particular attraction to plays that allow anyone besides white men to be “the funny one.” I believe wholeheartedly in the power of comedy. I think it’s a great way to unpack an issue that is challenging or to permeate a hard, un-listening exterior.
LA FPI: How does music play a role in this piece?
Adrienne:Denim Doves is more of a “play with music” than musical. There are specific musical moments that scratch the surface and reveal the darker, more sinister aspects of this world. Cyndi Williams is an amazing performer, playwright and lyricist who was part of the original devising team (she originated the role of First Wife). Cyndi’s writing is incredibly rich and unique. She brings a very serious, Southern Gothic quality that gives us a nice contrast to the lighter, bawdy stuff I bring. Erik Secrest composed the original score (and originated the role of First Son) that was performed by the original cast with church hand bells, the electric guitar and a drum kit that was hidden in plain sight onstage.
For the LA production, Sacred Fools collaborated with composer Ellen Warkentine to develop new music. It was wild to hear those old songs in a completely different way. I hope to find more opportunities to collaborate with female composers in the future.
LA FPI: We love supporting femme-centric projects. What has this experience been like, working with a female majority including writer, director, cast and crew?
Rosie: An unbelievable privilege. Here’s the thing: I believe wholeheartedly that gender is a construct. I believe that men can be soft and compassionate and women can be strong and authoritative. I believe that anyone, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum, has the ability to behave in any manner they choose; that how you identify or what you were assigned at birth is not the determining factor in your behavior.
With that being said, many women and femmes are socialized in such a way where they are often allowed to be softer and more empathetic, where men tend to be socialized to disconnect from emotion and consider those qualities as weak. This means that a rehearsal room that is full of women and femmes is often a room that is full of people who are willing to tap into emotion and create a space that is safe and welcoming. A room where someone can say “actually I don’t think my body is capable of doing what you are describing” and rather than a room of people rolling their eyes and a caff’d up male director yelling “just do it,” the team is able to slow down, consider this person’s perspective, and enthusiastically find a solution.
I think that we as humans are all capable of working in this manner, and I believe that by allowing women and femmes to lead by example men are changing their perspective on what a theatrical process should look like.
Adrienne: I was absent for much of the rehearsal process (I’m currently living in Tulsa, OK for a writing residency) but I can say that the rehearsal rooms and processes where I felt I made the most sense have always been led by women+ and people of color. Those are the rooms where I feel like I belong, where I feel like all my differences (all the many ways I am different) are seen as strengths. It’s a huge relief to feel safe and like my voice can be heard without having to yell over another person. In most rooms, it feels like a fight for survival, a fight to belong or to prove yourself. I prefer a room where I feel like my voice is needed and valued.
LA FPI: Amidst today’s politics, what would you like audiences to take away with them?
Rosie: The art that has come out of this past year reflects our national desire to unpack and discuss this past election, and our political climate. This desire is constant, and yet it is exhausting. People who are protected by privilege are able to, at times, disconnect from the insanity and say “I feel overwhelmed, I don’t want to be sad anymore.” And while that is a natural inclination, not everyone is able to make the choice to tap out. Those whose bodies are inherently politicized are never allowed a day off; they are never able to just not be black, or trans, or latinx, or a woman for the day. I believe that this play in particular – which begins farcically, raucously, and which, full disclosure, is just plain riddled with dick jokes – has the potential to trick someone who would never seek out something as serious as the “Handmaid’s Tale” and make them reflect on their privilege and invigorate them to recommitting themselves to a more active dedication to social change. I want people to get in their cars, drive home, kick off their shoes, and wonder if what they are doing is enough.
Adrienne: I hope we can make audiences laugh. I hope to give audiences some relief, some escape from the trash fire that is our current political climate. I also hope that even inside this extremely absurd world, audiences recognize how harmful misogyny and strict gender-based rules/expectations are for everyone. Everyone is hurt, everyone is affected. We imagine a future rebellion that mirrors past resistance movements, one that is led by people of color and trans/queer/non-binary people.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
Hot jelly and biscuits, is there a lot to talk about!
A fewweeksmonths longish time ago, when the LAFPI crew asked if I’d like to get back on the blogging bandwagon, I said “Hell, yes!” because I was feeling productive and all kinds of mouthy with super important sh*t to say. But now my week is here, and it’s almost too much because Little Black Dress INK’s final ONSTAGE lineup from 2017 has a reading on Jan 15, and then a bunch of this year’s ONSTAGE semi-finalists have readings all over the place on Jan 21 as part of International Women’s Voices Day, (oh, I run Little Black Dress INK), plus the Spring semester starts on Weds, and I have a letter of rec to write, revisions to do, and a toddler to keep track of…
So I don’t have time to write the deep, thoughtful, life-changing post I intended to. If I could, though, I would probably have some witty/deep things to say about the following:
The Golden Globes
Were they feminist enough? Too feminist (is that even a thing??) Will Oprah be our new president? Was that woman from 50 Shades of Grey giving Angelina Jolie side-eye during Jennifer Aniston’s speech? I mean, I don’t have cable, but the news coverage is enough to make me want to stuff cotton in my ears and unplug the router for good.
What’s that you say? You don’t believe me? You’re saying that if I haven’t stuffed cotton in my ears and unplugged the router after the monstrous orange shit-show of a year we just wrapped, that I must be engaging in a healthy hyperbolic outburst and nothing more?
You’re probably right.
I’m trying it out. Anyone else write for that site? I like some of the writers a lot… Maybe, if I write some truly epic stuff there, I’ll get more traffic on Medium than I do on my personal blog… sh*t, I don’t have a personal blog anymore? Why not? Oh yeah, because I don’t have time…
Heeeyyyyyy, do you think, MAYBE, that I might have a problem with over-committing myself to things? I mean, could I possible suffer from (faux gasp) Artistic FOMO?
(Yes. The answer is yes, yes I do.)
I love my son. He is the apple of my eye, the sugar on my cornflakes, the laughter in my ears… but he’s also the little tyrant screaming at me to escort him to the washing machine twelve times a day, where he will sit for interminably long periods of time flipping the dials around in abject pleasure, waiting for my eyes to gloss over with boredom so that he can QUICKPUSHTHESTARTBUTTON! before I catch his hand with mine and remind him that he is not yet allowed to do the laundry on his own, and can we please go back to the living toy room now so that mommy can sit on the couch and check her Facebook for a hot second?
New Year’s Resolutions
Are for chumps. And perfectionists. And people with stronger will-power than I possess. So be nice to yourself, even if you’ve already failed at whatever ridiculous demands you put on yourself last week. I signed up for Red Theater’s playwriting challenge last November and didn’t even make it past the first day. The FIRST DAY. Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and tell your expectations to take a hike.
I’m not too busy to tell you you should check out one of our ONSTAGE readings! If you’re in Los Angeles on Jan 15, make sure you swing by the Zephyr Theatre for the final reading of our 2017 Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Festival: Hot Mess.
And if you’re in Los Angeles (or Bemidji,MN; or Columbus, OH; or Magnolia, AR; or Milwaukee, WI; or Prescott, AZ) on Jan 21st, check out one of our Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Festival: Volume Control readings! They’re sure to be a hoot/make you feel the deep feels (and all that other cathartic magic that theatre does) PLUS you’ll be supporting International Women’s Voices Day, which is all kinds of awesome! Here’s a LINK for more info.
Tune in later this week for more words/sentences composed by me (along with—hopefully—some deeper thoughts)
Three Queens visiting Northeast LA. A good reason to head to Bootleg Theater. (As if you needed one!)
Solo Queens Fest brings together three acclaimed solo shows playing in rep – Kristina Wong’s Wong Street Journal, Elizabeth Liang’s Alien Citizen: An Earth Odysseyand Valerie Hager’s Naked in Alaska: The Behind The Scenes True Story of Stripping in the Last Frontier – in addition to workshops for writers and performers. With (what?!) free childcare during Sunday matinees.
Yep. This is the brainchild of producer Jessica Hanna, fantastic femme queen of all things Bootleg. Well, we couldn’t pass up the chance to chat with the newly appointed sovereigns before the (inaugural? fingers crossed) Fest is underway.
LA FPI: So! What are you ladies queen of?
Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang: I’m individually the queen of 50% anxiety/50% grit; collectively we’re the queens of telling and supporting women’s unique stories with fierce honesty, vulnerability, and unpredictable humor, together at the Bootleg in the city of angels.
Valerie Hager: I am the queen of moving my body – it’s where I find my deepest flow.
Kristina Wong: This week I am the queen of cutting and pasting the link to my show all over the internet. So much so that I’ve been banned by Facebook from posting in Facebook groups for the next week. Marketing is hard yo.
LA FPI: But we so love the Fest Hashtag: #QueenSaysWhat! What would you say your show is about, in 140 characters or less?
Kristina: A jaded Asian Am social media activist goes to Northern Uganda to volunteer with a microloan organization only to record a hit rap album.
Lisa:Alien Citizen: AEO is a funny and poignant one-woman show about growing up as a dual citizen of mixed heritage in six countries.
Valerie:Naked is a fearless look at the objects we make of ourselves to fit in and the buried truths we must face to have a chance at coming home.
LA FPI: Each of these shows has toured across the country and internationally. Where was the first public performance, in any incarnation?
Valerie: TheaterLab, NYC in late 2012. Interestingly, TheaterLab has a similar mission to Bootleg: to develop and present new and experimental work in theater, music, and visual arts.
Kristina: I showed this as a work in progress in Burlington, Vermont at the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in January 2015. They were one of the four National Performance Network Creation Fund commissioners for this show. I’ve cut a few scenes since then and the show definitely sits better in my body from touring it the last few years. I’m still finding ways to make the material more relevant and more alive.
Lisa: I performed one 12-minute segment at the first annual “5,000 Women” Festival at Wesleyan University in 2011.
LA FPI: And thematically, each of your shows covers a lot of territory. Can you talk about where your show begins? Or the journey we’ll take?
Valerie: Naked In Alaska begins when I’m 15 and living in my childhood home in San Diego. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of social and emotional tools to work through issues I was experiencing at home and school, so the coping mechanisms I created—like becoming a bulimic, cutter, and meth addict—laid the psychological foundation for experiencing stripping as the most exciting and fulfilling adventure I could possibly imagine when I discovered it—it truly gave me the family feeling I had been longing for all my life.
Lisa: My show’s starting point is an Alien (Martian-style) on Earth, trying to answer supposedly simple questions: Who are you? Where are you from? What are you?
Kristina: I have yet to see Valerie and Elizabeth’s shows, but what all our shows definitely have in common is that we are women who traversed incredible distances as we find out who we are. I would say there are two journeys in my show. One is obvious journey is from my armchair in America to Northern Uganda. The other is the journey from a fight-happy Twitter activist out to call out anybody who has ever been a colonial asshole, to reconciling that I myself am guilty of being a colonial asshole.
LA FPI: Tell us a bit about your workshops, which sound incredible.
Valerie: SOLOfire [Sat. 11/4 at 1 pm] is a workshop series I developed over many years that takes a movement-based approach to discovering and creating new work. I lead students through physical exercises that combine both group and partner work, as well as stretching, character discovery, and vocal release. The whole mission of SOLOfire is to shake the bullshit off and get to the raw, unvarnished truth.
Lisa: I’ve been leading my Solo Show & Memoir [Sat 11/11 at 1 pm] workshop for 4 years on college campuses (Princeton, DePaul, CSULA), at conferences, in private in L.A. and via Skype with participants all over the world. Anyone who grew up or is currently living between or among different worlds, as a bridge or an island or both (whatever that may mean to them), will get a lot from this workshop. But all are welcome! I hope that anyone who’s been yearning to tell their own story but has been afraid or unsure of how to begin will take this workshop.
Kristina: I’ve been mostly teaching workshops in social justice settings or as a guest at a university. It’s been a while since I’ve taught for individuals interested in making their own work and I’m so excited.The last few years of making work for harsh critics (professional and otherwise) has really taught me how to build a thicker skin and just “do the damn thing.”My workshop is called “How to Be a Badass Bitch” [Sat 11/8 at 11 am] and I really want to get participants to approach hard topics without fear.
Q: Bootleg says it has “a fierce belief in the power of women in Art to create change in the world.” How will you use your powers?
Kristina: There’s a great shift happening now with the harassers of Hollywood getting called out on their BS and women are speaking out about their harassment experiences with #MeToo. But theater has been one of the spaces where I first witnessed women call out their harassers and stand their own ground. As we head full speed into some apocalyptic time, I want to hold the space for women to keep telling their stories.
Valerie: I will use my power to promote greater vulnerability within ourselves and with one another – to tell the truth out loud, all of it, and stand with an open heart and strong. This is also the power that naturally comes out in Naked In Alaska. I hope that when someone leaves the show, they feel a surge of that power within them, and they never look back. I call it the power of cracking open. It is where all hope lives.
Lisa: To create and connect via truthful storytelling on stage and page, building bridges between people, helping others to do the same, casting lifejackets to those who thought they were drifting alone (especially women)…and heal the world.
Solo Queens Fest plays from October 26 – November 19 at Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90057. For Festival Passes, Info & Tickets to Individual Shows and Workshops Visit www.bootlegtheater.org.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
WHY: In “Confessions of an Arab Woman”, Joumana Haddad’s radical feminist book is brought to life as the Arab female identity breaks free from the shackles of a sexist, patriarchal culture. The result is a sort of choreopoem enacted by a cast embodying Jourmana’s thoughts and memories. Joumana is a no holds-barred fearless and liberated warrior and if the thought of such a woman being Arab is confusing to you, get yourself to the Complex quick. Y’alla!
WHY: In a time when women are refusing to have their voices silenced and refuse to have their stories told for them, Tough Brown Leather is a testament to the powerful mantra: my time, my way. This solo show poetically takes us through the journey of a carefree little girl in love with football to a woman who must learn to face her past while accepting her sexual self. Tonya uses her body, football and comedy to reflect upon a pain that often quietly eats away pieces of oneself. Tonya thrives and overcomes – using her voice to heal not only herself but, without knowing, other women who’ve also faced sexual assault. An inspirational theatre ride that Tonya owns with bravura. GO!
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:
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!
“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues….”― George Orwell, Why I Write
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.
As an LAFPI blog reader, you are probably already familiar with The Kilroys, the gang of 13 Los Angeles-based playwrights and producers who, in their own words, “are done talking about gender parity and are taking action.” They make news every year when they publish The Kilroy’s List, an aggregation of the most recommended unproduced or underproduced plays by women and trans playwrights. In a way, they do this to call out any theatre that’s lagging in gender parity – simply by saying, hey, look, we did the work for you. Are you saying you can’t find great plays by women or trans writers? Produce one of these plays, to start with.
Earlier this week Joy Meads emailed and asked if I could do The Kilroys a favor – could I deliver a chocolate cake to the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Thursday? It would be part of a nationwide celebration – thirteen theaters around the country would get delicious cake delivered to them by an ambassador playwright, to celebrate their leadership and commitment to gender parity.
As it happens, I have a special connection with the LATC myself since they co-produced my play In Love and Warcraftthis season, in association with Artists at Play. I was thrilled to do it.
So along with twelve other playwrights across the country, I picked up a specially baked cake and delivered it to a theatre that means a lot to me. The lovely people at LATC, under the leadership of Jose Luis Valenzuela and Evelina Fernandez, are doing excellent work for under-represented communities, and they deserve cake every day! (Or whatever treat they please, this cake was DELICIOUS but I might not be able to have it every day.)
Check out all the photos from the various cake drops today by following the hashtag #parityraid and #cakedrop on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
In closing I’d like to echo the request that The Kilroys have made today.
Don’t see your favorite parity-achieving theater on the list? We hope you’ll show them some love. Send a social media shout-out (or a cake!) and buy a ticket to celebrate their commitment to producing work by women and trans* writers.
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-two 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.
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
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.”
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.”
Holdridge 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?