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A Call to Art

Why We Need Independent Women’s Theatre

Fifty years ago I was born in Washington, DC. It's been incredible to grow up with the Smithsonian as a field trip destination during the end of bussing and amid great movements of social integration. Art was accessible and everywhere. No matter what was happening in the world I always had permission to play, and I just never stopped doing that. My company, Venus Theatre, now stands among the longest running women’s theatres in the world.

I believe in small, immersive theatre, and that the disappearance of the black box—which is happening all over—means devastation to the form. When we package theatre up and market it like dollar store pregnancy tests, we lose the power of the form.

It’s essential for women to have access to black boxes and storefronts because we have been smashed into silence for so long that we need time to stretch and safe spaces to explore our ideas without being held to larger theatres’ budgetary standards.

Women make up 50 percent of our world, so without the contemporary voices of women on today’s stages, audiences are only getting half of the story. Humanity cannot afford this. Especially not now. Theatre is a vehicle of empathy. We need it in our neighborhoods; we need it with tiled brown carpet in the lobby, in addition to the decadent red. We need it everywhere right now.

Producing women's voices takes experience, patience, and trust.  In my experience, in order for the true female voice to be embraced she must dive deeply and find it within a safe and effective process. This process should be more important than the result. Process cannot be marketed without also being exposed and destroyed.  This is why black box independent theatre is critical. It’s essential for women to have access to black boxes and storefronts because we have been smashed into silence for so long that we need time to stretch and safe spaces to explore our ideas without being held to larger theatres’ budgetary standards.

Deborah Randall featured in the Washington Post.

As I’ve been working on this essay, the world has been shifting under our collective feet. The first woman became the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States of America, and then we lost the great Mother of American Theatre, Zelda Fichandler.

Archetypally, this is a time of the loss of the artistic mother, it seems to me. As the daughters, we must honor her by building further the incredible structure she began. That means taking risks and trusting ourselves and each other. We, who dare to produce works by women. We, who dare to pay whatever we can afford in the form of stipends to artists, even if it means foregoing advertising. We, the sisters of now, must join hands and create.

It’s difficult to find one another. The isolation feels incredibly depressing. It’s terrifying. I know.

If you are reading this now and you are daring or have dared to set flight to voices of women, I know! You’ve been ignored. Discredited. Diminished. Disregarded. But I tell you it’s still worth it. Even if you only ever produce one play. Even if you only ever get a table reading in front of five other people, it’s worth it.

It’s worth it because it changes the nature of our collective experience. What we know now is the canon of male writing is different than the way women tend to express. This is so often discussed in universities and so rarely explored in any professional theatre. There is a grave difference between intro/climax/denouement and the swirling spiral of contraction and release.

Each time you feel the contraction of darkness it is a call to get still and internal. It’s a call to cultivate the vision you are here to create. And when the release comes back around again, and it always does, let it go out into the world. No matter how terrifying it seems, know this: it will become internal and personal again. Everything is in motion. The idea that we are rooted in the linear storytelling format is simply not true. Round and round this artistic life spiral will go—as it does and has always done—for women. This is what my fifty years has taught me.

This style of female expression is waiting to be acknowledged. We need to find the courage to go out and meet it. We need to honor the women who have created before us by summoning a fraction of their courage and stepping out into the risk zones during times of release. This is where the birth happens. Every time.

Live it. Trust it. Release it out into the world.

And let me know when you do, because your courage feeds my courage.

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YES! We need as women to keep making art and getting it out there any way we can. I recently started a women centric theatre/collective in Philadelphia, ReVamp Collective. It is so exciting to see other women theatre artists making it happen and for such an extended amount of time. We need to be the change.

I as a woman, can relate to this article but I also believe that it is critical for men to read as well. Not enough men are standing up for us women and it creates sort of a barrier in certain areas of equality for women. Not enough people realize the place a woman has in this world when it comes to power and leadership, and then there are those who realize it and do nothing about it. I strongly agree that no matter what, you always keep trying because soon enough you'll be heard, taken seriously, and you can cause change. We were just on the topic of feminism in one of my college courses and it is absolutely eye opening of the ways women are portrayed in the media; politics, the roles we are "given" in movies and T.V. shows, as well as many other mediums. I read an article this morning about the illusion of power and I believe that it correlates so well to this one because in such a huge world, there are so many opportunities out there but not many are geared toward or offered to women. And as much power as some of us may think we have, many of us don't. We take these stereotypical roles for entertainment, but why? Should we ignore the entertainment aspect and demand better roles, roles where we can be the protagonist without there having to be some love interest or being deemed a "chick-flick"?

Kahleia: You are right on it! If we look back in history, going back to Seneca Falls and beyond, we can see the division of groups of people. This divisive approach puts power in the wrong place. The triumph comes from knowing who we are and then, out of that genuine knowing, connecting with others. From there we begin expressing together without disenfranchisement anywhere to be found. That will be the great big win.

Wonderful essay - THANK YOU. In March 2016, a group of women led by Ashley Popio decided it was time to address the parity issue head-on, and began organizing the Women's Theater Festival; the first of which we hope to be an annual event was held in August 2016. We performed in the Raleigh area and in locations around the state; in churches, in art museums, in coffee shops, and in traditional theater spaces who donated space to us.

It was hard, and terrifying, and inspiring, and frustrating, and we made mistakes, and we had triumphs. AND -- we can't wait to do it again in 2017.

Heather Ondersma and I founded Flying Fig Theater in NYC in 2002. Our mission was to tell compelling theatrical stories about women's lives through commissioning new works and rediscovering plays from the past. We produced eight shows all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, including two world premieres by playwright Ellen K Anderson.Our lives have changed a lot and we both live on the West Coast now, but we're continuing to tell women's stories on stage, however and wherever we can.

On it! Have happily been on it and without a budget... But I push on. Producing my entire trilogy and remount my Creole drama next Spring as a play series of 4 plays for Women's History Month. My "no budget" feature film is an adaption of my Off Off and Off Broadway women driven mystery thriller, now in sporadic production (shooting whenever I save enough to pay crew). As an actor I try to write strong, compelling roles that challenge the female actor. It is my mission and I sacrifice all for it. Thanks for writing this... http://www.wetbgprods.com

Martha Boesing, At the Foot of the Mountain, and I, New Cycle Theater and for the past 20 years, Theater Three Collaborative, have recently reconnected. Yes, to what you say! Martha, I believe, though I might be wrong, first wrote about female orgasm as an organizing structural principles for women's plays. I'm more eclectic, or more classically influenced, deeply, always, by Greek drama, but my own plays are structurally inventive on a spectrum (speculum). The play's structure contains the playwright's world view. Also, of course, the society's at the time the play was written. But ecofeminist, pacifist theater work--to speak from experience--is demonized NOT however by audiences. Onward.

Kate Kasten and I co-founded Actors' Sorority in Kansas City, Mo in 1977. I left and moved to Portland, Oregon in 1980 and founded Portland Women's Theatre Company in January 1981. It lived for 12 years. In 2007, I founded Penplay, a multi-cultural company of women and non-binary people who were playwrights, screenwriters, and filmmakers. We didn't last long, but we rocked. I'm thrilled to know you've been at it so long and are still going strong. I'm still writing plays.

This is incredible, Sandra! What an accomplishment!! We are in process right now and this play is, "Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarinnah" by Australian playwright Alana Valentine. I knew last year that I wanted to produce this at the end of the year. Turns out it's much more topical than I could have every imagined (I'm sad to say). The resonance holds a dynamic I can't quite describe. It's a two hander. Two amazing Muslim characters and all of the drama that comes with wearing (or not wearing) the hijab. To hear the personal stories of these actors---to see what they are bringing into my room! I tell you I've been crying in week two of staging, partly for the beauty of the piece and partly for the concern of their safety. The world just got really scary. We need one another. We open the day after Thanksgiving. I would LOVE to read one of your works after that. Our guidelines should be posted soon on the web. It's a 7 character max. Thank you so much for your good work!!! Keep creating.