Is it just us, or has Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles been getting their femme on, lately? Including last year’s hit production of member playwright Karen Rizzo’s “Mutual Philanthropy,” Ann Talman’s “Woody’s Order!” earlier this year, and works presented through the company’s development programs, we’ve heard a lot of female voices coming from EST/LA’s space at Atwater Village. Now the 2017 One Act Festival is currently playing, with 50% of the works written by women. Time to chat with one of EST/LA’s Co-Artistic Directors, actor/producer Liz Ross, and Carole Real, playwright and former Co-Artistic Director.
LA FPI: Needless to say, we’re big fans of gender parity. How did the plays for this Fest come to you?
Liz Ross: All the submissions came from playwrights associated with our company either through the Playwrights Unit, NeWest Playwrights (which is our writers group for playwrights under the age of 30), and writer company members.
Our membership and writing groups are all pretty equally male and female voices. I think we are around 50/50, to be honest. And we’re particularly proud this year that each play has been developed here through our programs such as Sunday Best, our monthly reading series; Winterfest, our annual members project series; LAFest, our Los Angeles voices festival; Launchpad, a staged reading series; and True Story, our monthly storytelling evening.
LA FPI: Do you see differences in the stories women playwrights are telling, vs. male playwrights? Or differences in how they’re telling them?
Carole Real: I have all kinds of theories, but they are just theories and it’s never wise to paint with a broad brush. For instance, in my observation, the play with the twist ending tends to be written by a male playwright. But I bet our readers could come up more than one example of a twist ending play that was written by a female playwright.
One thing I think is objectively true is that women playwrights tend to have more female characters and more female protagonists in their plays than male playwrights. In addition, the female characters women write tend to have their own goals and aren’t just in the play to “help” other (male) characters or serve as plot points. And I think women playwrights tend to write female-female interactions that women audience members experience as truthful and moving.
Liz: I’m finding that things seem to be shifting. I think in the past women wrote more of the relationship stories, but now there seems to be a shift in this generationally. Many of the younger playwrights are crossing those gender norms and exploring more plays about identity issues from both male and female voices.
And then there’s a play like “The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff” by Carole Real [included in Program B of the Festival]. This play explores how our global economy can unknowingly make us complicit in the abuse of factory workers over even a small purchase, like toys with our favorite cartoon characters on them.
LA FPI: So let’s talk about the Festival selections, starting with your play, Carole. Why are you telling this story?
Carole: I became aware that foreign factories routinely break labor laws and violate safety codes of the countries where they are located — their own country’s laws — during the recession when I worked in a temp job for a large entertainment conglomerate. The job entailed reading foreign factory audits eight hours a day, five days a week. It was profoundly depressing and I became convinced that if people understood how these factories operate, they would feel differently about the global economy and understand that by turning a blind eye, we are complicit in the exploitation of vulnerable workers. It later dawned on me that I could dramatize the subject by creating a theatrical world where a factory auditor in China could “talk” to the temp worker in the US.
I absolutely love that the play has mostly women characters and that they attempt to work together to protect the most vulnerable of them! I know that in China, many factories are staffed mostly with teenaged girls, because they are hardworking and obedient, so factory safety and fair labor laws there is really and truly a women’s issue, and this is probably true in many other countries as well.
And I would be remiss not to give director Chuma Gault huge credit for the artistic success of this production. Chuma really saw the play as being about how women are penalized by being strong and smart in the office environment. This wasn’t something I was focussed on — that just seemed like “how it is” — but he picked up on that and made sure it was part of the story. Thank you, Chuma!
Liz: All three plays in Program B explore questions of conscience — from “Provenance” by Ian Patrick Williams to “Writing to Mrs. Otts” by Tom Stringer to Carole’s play, each play in this program asks us to consider what we’re willing to speak up about or against.
Program A had 5 plays that all explored relationships. They ranged from Karen Rizzo’s “Darkest Place” which explored loss and crisis to Deborah Pearl’s short piece “Can You Hear Me Now” about miscommunication in the cell phone era. Mary Portser’s “So Lovely Here on Earth” was a sweet piece about a woman trying to volunteer for a Mars Mission when her interviewer realizes that she’s just trying to escape her own misery here on Earth by “committing suicide by space.” Each of these plays, while being very different from each other and taking entirely different approaches, had a similar thread exploring our desperate need to be understood. I do think that women writers tend to invest in the search for understanding each other. Women write characters who watch and observe each other.
Program C has 4 wonderful pieces starting with “Things That Matter” a musical by Elin Hampton and Gerald Sternbach, “How Do I Get Get to Carnegie Hall” by Nick Ullett and directed by his wife Jenny O’Hara. Then “My Jesus Year” a heartfelt piece by Tony Foster, and finishing with Katherine Cortez’ “Between Friends” which is about a many years old friendship between two older women who discover that they still harbor secrets from each other after all these years. Katherine is just coming off of a successful Fringe production of her play, “In The Valley of the Shadow” with Rogue Machine. It’s a powerful piece that she developed with the Playwrights Unit and we had a reading in Winterfest.
LA FPI: So it’s not just us! Seems like there are a lot of powerful women artists working as part of EST/LA?
Carole: Yes! And I’d like to thank Liz Ross for the work she’s currently doing as one of the three Artistic Directors, and the work she has done in the past for EST/LA as an actress, producer and creative director. I’d also like to give a shout out to the other strong women who have made our company run, including Jenny O’Hara, Board President, Gates McFadden, Laura Salvato, Risa Bramon Garcia and Deb Stricklin (all former Artistic Directors), Heather Robinson who currently heads the Members Committee and all the other women who make EST/LA go. Without them, we’re nothing!
Liz: We have increased the diversity of voices within our membership and playwrights groups and this past year and actually have a very long history of producing women playwrights. Right now, we have so many projects in development that we can’t possibly produce them all so our focus is to serve their process; we’ve become a major incubator of plays, so to speak. We’re very conscious of including women’s voices equally to men’s and we do have a wonderfully strong and vocal community of women within our organization so I expect we will continue that way for a long time to come.
EST/LA’s 2017 One Act Festival continues through July 16 at the Atwater Village Theatre complex. For more information visit www.estlosangeles.org or call (818) 839-1197. Reserve tickets at brownpapertickets.com.