Tag Archives: Chicago

The Alcyone Festival

I first heard about the Alcyone Festival from fellow lafpi instigator Ellen Lewis’s blog. It is produced by the Halcyon Theatre in Chicago to celebrate female playwrights.

(I’ve always like the word halcyon but also have always been a bit hazy about its meaning. So, I looked it up. Alcyone is the daughter of Aeolus who, in grief over the death of her husband Ceyx, threw herself into the sea. Zeus had punished him for blasphemy. Both Alcyone and Ceyx were turned into kingfishers, so metamorphosis is the origin of the etymology for halcyon days, the seven days in winter when storms never occur, the seven days each year during which Alcyone, as a kingfisher, lays her eggs on the beach and during which her father Aeolus, god of the winds, calms the waves so she can do so in safety. Now halcyon days describes a peaceful time generally. A better meaning, however, is that of a lucky break, or a bright interval set in the midst of adversity.)

Halcyon is run by Artistic Director Tony Adams and his wife, Associate Artistic Director Jenn Adams, and they are in their fifth season. In 2008, they decided to do something about the fact that the percentage of women produced on Broadway hasn’t changed in a hundred years, and that only twenty percent of plays produced throughout the country are written by women. That summer, they mounted the first Alcyone festival, producing the works of ten early women writers, seldom or never seen today.

In 2009, they attacked the myth that women write only small domestic dramas, and picked as the festival’s theme, terrorism, the cult of martyrdom, and its effects on the innocents. In 2009, they chose from women playwrights all over the globe and in 2010, featured the works of Maria Irene Fornes.

This year, Ellen Lewis was chosen, along with four other contemporary women playwrights. She and J. Nicole Brooks, Coya Paz, Caridad Svich and Jennifer Fawcett, (who is based in L.A), were to adapt, leap off from, reinvent, reenvision, and/or be inspired by works from a wide range of classical texts. The only rules they had were that they had to be inspired by a female playwright’s works, written before 1870, and be ready to go into rehearsal in April.

What a heady assignment! A lucky break, a bright interval.

They chose plays by Pauline Hopkins, Charlotte Mary Sanford Barnes, Hrosvitha, Anna Cora Mowatt, and Maria de Zaya y Sotomayor.

The plays chosen are diverse and I’d love to have seen them. J. Nicole Brooks’s Shotgun Harriet was inspired by Peculiar Sam by Pauline Hopkins; Jennifer Fawcett’s The Invaders, from The Forest Princess by Charlotte Mary Sanford Barnes, EM Lewis’s Strong Voice from the works of Hrosvitha, Coya Paz’s Fashion, adapted from Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion; and Caridad Svich’s A Little Betrayal Among Friends, from Maria de Zaya y Sotomaoyr’s, La Traicion en la Amistad.

The festival ran from June 9 through July the 10th.

More about the plays tomorrow.

“The Why Before The What”

November 2009.  I was working on a project with Jennie Webb and Laura Shamas.  Laura had written a delightful play called Trapper Joan that was getting a staged reading at Theatricum Botanicum.  We were rehearsing at Jules Aaron’s house.  Jennie and Laura announced they had “a scheme” and took me into the kitchen.

“You can totally say no,” they began.

They were interested in doing a West Coast response to the controversial Sands Study released earlier that year.  Someone needed to collect data on the LA theatre scene — specifically, data that would reflect how frequently women’s plays were produced (or, we later decided, “nurtured”) in Los Angeles.  This wouldn’t be a money thing, though they did offer a small commission.  It was to be a labor of love.  Or principle.  Or something.

A number of factors influenced my decision.  (Spoiler alert: I said yes.)

For one thing, I have always been a feminist, though at different points of my life so far I have been more or less interested in describing myself using that word.

My great-grandmother was a suffragette.  In high school, a friend and I gave a long presentation on ‘the feminist movement.’  We reenacted various important moments in women’s history and looked into famous women writers of years past, even reading aloud part of a poem by Sappho.

I use the word “feminist” with my own definition, or rather, a definition that came up during a recent conversation with Cáitrín McKiernan – a young soon-to-be-attorney who recently co-produced a play about Martin Luther King with the National Theatre in China.  (Crazy?  Yes.)  She and I were talking about her experiences there, and I asked her if she considers herself to be a feminist.

Me: “Modern feminism”– I don’t pretend to be an expert or really even knowledgeable about the feminist movement…  I’m in favor of strong women.  But, um, would you say that you are a feminist?  Do you self-identify as a feminist, or… How do you feel about the word and do you think it applies to you?

Cáitrín: Oh my, I’ve had this conversation…  I think it’s an excellent question.  I think that so many women of our generation have kind of eschewed that term– tried to distance themselves from it.  But if being a feminist means believing that women should be equal with men, then I’m down.

Women’s rights have always been important to me– and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a woman.  It’s because I was fortunate enough to be raised by a family in an environment that promoted equality.  Unfortunately, the rest of the world– even the rest of the country– has not been so lucky.  This saddens me.  There are a number of traits associated with women.  True, this could be called / is stereotyping.  But until our minds are reconfigured, stereotyping will continue to exist.

What is too bad, though, is when women are lumped together in a group and the stereotyping is used specifically against them — to harm them, or to harm them indirectly by overlooking them.

This past year, a number of things have happened that have reminded me how necessary this kind of work, and this kind of group, is.

While we may be in 2011, and while we may have “come a long way,” in a lot of ways we are still comparatively in the dark ages when you think of where we’d like to be.  I’m not talking about the Equal Rights Amendment…

I’m talking about what Theresa Rebeck experienced.

I’m talking about the Ovation Awards and the LA Weekly Awards.

I’m talking about the Wasserstein Prize.

I’m talking about Chicago.

I’m talking about New York.

I’m talking about 20%.