Since its founding in 1980, the League of Professional Theatre Women, as the name suggests, has spent a great deal of time ensuring that we don’t forget the hard work of the many trailblazing women in theatre in our own country. This is a lofty goal in and of itself, but several years ago they had an even bigger idea. What about the great many women working internationally who have never been recognized for their contributions?
When the League set up their first Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award, given out once in every three years, they had specific criteria in mind. The League’s award committee looks for a candidate whose work displays, “artistic excellence in the field of theatre; work that has a visible impact in the home country and abroad; the ability to inspire and educate across cultures; and, clear support of women’s work and issues.” I sat down with two of the members of the International Committee, Ludovica Villar-Hauser and Maxine Kern, to talk about the history and future of this exciting award, whose next presentation will be on October 27, 2014 at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY. The nomination period for the award ends on September 30 this year.
According to Kern, the International Committee’s consistent interest in “connecting with people universally so that we could expand a woman’s perspective in theatre,” was a key reason behind the idea of this award. She explained that the committee had been focusing on educating themselves about professional theatre women working in other countries.
“Because sometimes we [as women in theatre] felt like we only had one avenue, but if we went into another country we found out another voice, another narrative, coming from a situation in another country where women had made other choices because of the culture. But they were still women. And we connected with them and it expanded our position and our thinking.”
After a healthy debate about the pros and cons of creating and giving such an award, the committee was finally polled. Should the LPTW create an International Theatre Award? “The answer was a resounding ‘yes,’” exclaimed Villar-Hausar. The tipping point here seems to be the multi-faceted benefit of bringing such important women theatremakers to New York City—where they can be physically present to educate the theatrical community firsthand and gain the the international recognition that can be important to their work in their home country.
“Their work was very important within their own countries, but they also wanted to expand beyond that,” said Kauser. “That’s true for many, many international artists, but for women it was even more important because in some instances their work was marginalized in their own countries, simply because they were women. And there was a feeling that they could expand what they were doing, in terms of recognition, if it connected with New York City.”
Villar-Haussar brought up a key criteria for choosing the winner: “One of the guidelines was that the award needed to make a difference to that person.” In other words, though there are a great many important international theatre women, the LPTW did not want to simply look for “the usual suspects.” Someone like Caryl Churchill, for example, might not benefit as much from yet another award as an emerging or less well-known theatre artist. After looking through twenty nominations from sixteen countries, the very impressive Rwandan theatre artist Odile Gakire Katese was chosen as the inaugural recipient in 2011. The next winner is yet to be chosen, but nominations—from voting League members—is open.
The award also has an educational component. Villar-Hausar explained that the LPTW was interested in doing more than just bringing a theatremaker to the United States for a luncheon and award ceremony. “We wanted this to be educational,” she said. “We wanted it to be an experience—for them, for us, for learning. So, we offered Odile Gakire Katese a Master Class, she had a whole day at CUNY.”
The educational aspect derives from the founding ideals of LPTW. “The League is about advocacy, and awards are a major part of advocacy. So this was going to be in the world of awards,” said Kern. “But because these were people who had something to offer to us from another culture, we thought it was very important to have an education day—a day where the awardee could talk in great depth about what she was doing, but also about others. Because we looked at who was nominated, we were so excited above and beyond what we thought.” The League was thrilled to have exceptional candidates from all corners of the globe, including countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.
Unfortunately, even now in 2013, the list of noteworthy women who have not been recognized still greatly exceeds the list of those who have. I asked Kern and Villar-Hauser how, after such a long history of overlooked women, does one know where to begin that process? Villar-Hauser didn’t miss a beat. “It’s the same as anything else: you put one foot in front of the other. And it sounds very simplistic, but we had to start somewhere. In some ways it’s easier to start something than to keep something going.”
After learning how difficult, but rewarding, the process of planning such an event can be, the League decided to create a new goal for this year’s nomination. They aim to double the amount of nominations this year aiming for forty exceptional women to be in the running for next year’s award. One of the main reasons for the increased number of nominations is to ensure that more countries are represented. This is a greater challenge due to the fact that only members of the League of Professional Theatre Women can actually nominate recipients, but they have also been reaching out to others to ask for suggestions. The League boasts a membership of almost 500 women with an impressive variety of backgrounds in and associations with theatre.
Even the name of this award is the reification of a connection and of a genealogy of international women. “Part of it was to embrace internationalism, and to look at where that really started,” said Villar-Hauser. The award is named after Rosamond Gilder and Martha Coigney—pioneering founders and presidents of the International Theatre Institute, who were among the first theatremakers to foster a spirit of internationalism.
The award, thus, also creates a bridge between women’s theatre in far-flung corners of the globe and the legacy of Gilder and Coigney. It is this philosophy of connection that truly seems to drive this award. Katese, for example, has worn many hats in the theatre and performance world, though her most well-known achievement is most likely her founding of the first all women’s drumming group in Rwanda, Ingoma Nshya (“Women’s Initiative”), she has also worked with dance groups to create pieces about rebuilding after the genocide.
In describing Katese’s work in Rwanda, Kern said, “The art is happening and the healing is happening, but the fact that we can recognize it internationally, means that it’s really happening. It could disappear. And that’s been the woman’s journey—in the arts. It could disappear. But if we can connect as hugely as we can, it won’t disappear. And that’s about the best process that we can embrace.”
Connections between the professional theatre women of the past, the present, and the future worldwide are germane here. Most people have never heard of names like Rosamond Gilder, Martha Coigney, or even Hallie Flanagan. But these women were not working in the hopes of getting an award or recognition. They simply saw a need, a space for intervention, and they took it upon themselves to try to change something through art. The same can be said of a great many women working in and through theare in countries all around the world.
Next October, the League of Professional Theatre Women will recognize one of these women with an event that will be open to the public at the Martin E. Segal Center. The Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award will be handed to one amazing individual out of a pool of impressive and inspirational theare women from around the world. Whoever is chosen, the award proceedings next year are sure to be part celebration, part master-class and all-around inspirational.