HowlRound readers and social media revolutionaries may remember an event that occurred in our nation’s capital in February 2014 that became quickly known as the Summit. Convened by Washington Post critic Peter Marks around the issue of gender inequity in theatre, a panel of metro-area artistic directors discussed their collectively abysmal records at producing plays by women. As the discussion proceeded, more than one panel member was called out on social media for the tepidness of his/her approach.
Lost in the ensuing shuffle was the fact that the month before word leaked to the press of what would eventually be dubbed the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an entire fall of world premieres of new plays and musicals by women. When the Summit was held, forty-four theatres signed up to participate. The total is now forty-eight, two of which are offering multiple premieres.
Despite the rocky start of this venture, the seven artistic directors from Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company formulated the idea behind the festival. They quickly regrouped and hired coordinating producers Nan Barnett and JoJo Ruf to organize the festival and reframe it as a concerted, collaborative effort to do something about the problem.
Cut to about sixteen months later, and the whole country is abuzz about the Festival, its origins, its possibilities, and its realization of world premieres by fifty female playwrights. I spoke with Ruf and Barnett; Maggie Boland, the managing director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA; and Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth. I also talked with Caleen Sinette Jennings, who is a professor at American University, a founding member of a DC playwright collective The Welders, and author of two premieres in the festival; Jami Brandli, a Los Angeles-based writer and author of Technicolor Life, which will premiere at Rep Stage; and Karen Zacarias, a professor at Georgetown University and author of Destiny of Desire, premiering at Arena.
Collaboration and Cross-Pollination
Unlike the discussion at the Summit and the media firestorm that followed, producers and artists alike gave positive, forward-thinking feedback, and, on the part of Boland and Shalwitz, were refreshingly self-critical. The story goes that the artistic directors of the Big Seven regularly get together for brunch to talk about the state of DC theatre. Following on the mild success of a citywide Shakespeare festival a few years ago, they began to discuss another collaboration to highlight the range and quality of DC theatre and to promote cross-pollination between artists and audiences.
“I think there was about ten seconds between the idea of a festival and the idea of focusing it on women. It just seemed like a no-brainer to put the focus where we could provide leadership by creating a model of something that could be part of the solution,” shared Shalwitz.
Boland puts the time between inception and definition at closer to twenty seconds, but both she and Shalwitz have found that the simple fact of working on the festival while also planning future seasons has forced them to place more of a priority on diversity. Boland shared:
“One incredible side effect of this citywide conversation is that every single conversation we have internally about season planning and about artistic vision involves a discussion of who are the artists and are we doing enough to represent a diverse set of voices.”
Signature is offering three shows by women this year and Boland expects to continue doing this many shows every year, consciously diversifying in other ways as well. She notes:
“We’re not trying to wear a hair shirt about our past, we’re just trying to do better. We’re trying to look at the talent pool that Signature is drawing from at every level of the organization, onstage and off, and make sure that we’re being thoughtful and specific about having different kinds of humans around our building.”
Yet, playwright Brandli is a little more skeptical, but still inspired:
“I’m hoping that the festival really does cause a ripple effect. I’m not ungrateful at all—this is the best thing to happen to me in a long time. But what I don’t want to hear is, ‘Well you had your festival, so now you can be quiet.’ I don’t want all us female playwrights to have our ‘queen for a day’ moment, but when it’s over, we’re told to go back into the corner, and to not bitch as much if there aren’t as many female playwrights in the next few seasons of American theatre. I’m tired of being polite about it. I know I sound pretty ornery, but you get to a point in your life where you’re like: fuck it.”
Jumping All Together
Shortly after hiring Barnett and Ruf, the Festival consciously included representatives from more than the originating seven companies on committees devoted to marketing and publicity, development, and programming. This resulted in a genuine community-wide effort to celebrate and promote the work of women writers. Sinette Jennings has been in DC since ’84 and from the moment she arrived, she was struck by the collaborative and supportive relationships between local playwrights. She still feels like the Festival is a game changer, saying:
“I feel like part of a mosaic to know that all of these stories are going on at the same time. It’s an amazing affirmation of our talent and the power of our stories. We have artistic directors here who have always gotten it—they didn’t need a festival to recognize the power and importance of women. But this has been a fabulous way to make other artistic directors aware that this wealth of material is out there, and it’s not all touchy feely kitchen sink drama. I’ve got female playwright colleagues who scare the pants off me in terms of how edgy and tough they are. So any assumptions people have about a woman is X, they need to throw that out the window.”
The offerings range from Woolly’s production of Sheila Callaghan’s overtly feminist Women Laughing Alone with Salad, which examines the ways sexually charged representations of women in the media effect both men and women, to a new musical at Signature called Cake Off that tells the story of the first man to win the Pillsbury Bake Off. Then, Zacarias’s Brechtian telenovela is about what happens to a troupe of actors doing a Mexican television series when the women, dissatisfied with the way their roles are written, take destiny in their own hands, and start changing the script.
Although Zacarias, a founding member of Latina/o Theatre Commons, is one of the few Latina playwrights represented in the whole festival, she is still struck by the camaraderie behind the event. She remarks:
“It’s usually a very solitary moment when a theatre does a new play, like you’re the only one jumping off the cliff, while everybody else is doing some golden nugget that you know the audiences will come to. Because we’re all taking the risk at the same time, it takes away the competitive nature of things and everybody just wants to do as well as they can. We’re all jumping off at the same time and we’re hoping that everyone makes a beautiful dive.”
Barnett is already looking to raise money to gather data about the festival and to produce a handbook for cities looking to do something on their own turf. She states:
“I want to know what the long term effects of this are. Three months from now, I want to be able to do a really grea