by Jami Brandli
For those of you who may not know, the two-month long Women’s Voices Theater Festival in the Washington D.C. area has officially begun. Over fifty of the region’s professional theaters (including Baltimore and northern Virginia) are producing over fifty world premiere plays written by over fifty female playwrights. This is an unprecedented event, and I am beyond thrilled to be one of the female playwrights to have my world premiere of Technicolor Life produced at participating theater REP Stage (which is producing an all-female season by the way). I also had the good fortune of being able to attend the invitation-only kickoff gala on the evening of Tuesday, September 8th at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. You can read about the seven originating theaters here, but I first want to give a huge, heartfelt shout-out to the festival’s producers, Nan Barnett and Jojo Ruf. Without these two rock stars, this monumental event would not be possible.
Here’s how my day went:
I arrived early in Washington D.C. with my director and co-AD of REP Stage, Joseph Ritsch. He had some meetings, which meant I had most of the day to myself. I decided to check out the collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts since I knew that I’d be schmoozing and cocktailing later that night. I thought I’d spend about an hour there, but I wound up spending nearly three. Their all-female permanent collection is simply mind-blowing, as some of their paintings go as far back as the Middle Ages when women were not allowed professional training in the arts. Rather, a female artist was seen as a curiosity (why oh why would a woman want to create art?!). And if she did get any training, she received it from male relatives. These are female artists I have never heard of—Lavinia Fontana, Louise Moillon, Clara Peeters, Judith Leyster—and their paintings are absolutely stunning. As I moved from the Seventeenth Century to the Eighteenth to the Nineteenth, absorbing breathtaking landscapes and Vermeer-like portraits, I became angry. Strike that. I became really f’ing pissed. Women were still mostly excluded from professional training, and if they were accepted into an institution, they couldn’t study the naked human form until the end of the Nineteenth Century. Because of this patriarchal fear and ignorance, we—the collective human we—have been denied our female Renoirs, van Goghs, Picassos and so on. Because these female artists were denied their fair share of the art “real estate,” we have been denied paintings and sculptures that could have transformed individual lives and influenced cultures. Which brings me to…
Female playwrights’ fair share of the American theatre real estate.
Since the birth of American theatre in the 1750s, white male playwrights have successfully dominated the stage and won prestigious prizes with their white male (mostly straight) stories. This is fact. The more a culture sees and experiences a particular kind of story, the more it is considered the standard. This could be deemed as theory, but let’s get real here, this is fact. But I want to be clear. I’m not bashing the white male experience—so many plays that have moved and inspired me have been written by white males. (Our Town and Death of a Salesman kill me every time I read them.) BUT the result of white male stories taking up all the prime real estate for the last 260 or so years is that all other types of American voices and stories have been marginalized. The only way for parity to be gained is to give the marginalized voices center stage for as long as it takes for them to no longer be marginalized. This is where the Women’s Voices Theater Festival comes into play. ALL of the theatre real estate is going to be given to female playwrights for the next two months. Which means our stories will be the standard. Yes, it’s for two months in the D.C. area, but the festival is getting national attention and there is great power in this.
As I left the National Museum of Women in the Arts and made my way back to the hotel, I kept thinking about this power and all the future possibilities it holds. One possibility is that the festival will be insanely successful and cause a ripple effect where twenty cities hold their own women’s voices theater festival over the next few years. This would then inspire ALL theaters to make the conscious effort to share the prime real estate in their upcoming seasons. But my dream? My dream is that ALL theaters will actually want to do this and there will no longer be a need for a women’s voices theater festival. I’m not sure if this dream will happen in my lifetime, but I know as sure as I’m typing this blog, I will proactively work toward making parity happen.
But back to the gala…
The night started with all the playwrights, artistic directors and other VIPs opening up the gala’s program and seeing Michelle Obama’s welcome letter. Alas, Ms. Obama, the festival’s Honorary Chair, couldn’t attend, but she was certainly there in spirit as you can see from my photo below.
Next, NPR’s Susan Stamberg interviewed the Tony Award-winning force of nature that is Lisa Kron. In case you missed it, you can watch it at Howlround TV. (Please note: You absolutely should watch this interview.)
Here are three of Lisa Kron’s gems from the interview:
“Unless you believe men are better writers than women, there’s an inherent bias. This isn’t a feeling women have. The numbers are there.”
“Women playwrights have the same authority to write about the world the way male playwrights have authority to write about the world. But we see the world from a different vantage point.”
“The definition of parity is that there will be as many bad plays by women as great plays…that women will produce great plays in the same proportion as everyone else.”
That last one really made me think. Because it’s the truth. As much as I hope for this to not be the case, there will be less than successful plays at the festival. But as Lisa stated, true parity means women should have the same opportunity to fail as well as to succeed.
After the interview, we all made our way into the main space of the museum where the rest of gala attendees were festively drinking champagne and eating creme brulee. They were waiting to celebrate us, our plays, and this revolutionary collective achievement to highlight female playwrights. I was filled with pure exuberance as it finally hit me. This festival is actually going to happen and history is about to be made! So I grabbed a glass of bubbly and celebrated with this fabulous group of women and men until last call…
And I would like to think that the spirits of the female artists in this museum—the ones who were denied to fully express their creative selves all those years ago—were celebrating with us, too.