Planning the 40th Anniversary Season at People’s Light
Confessions of a Feminist
I’m the child of feminist parents. My mother is a scholar who launched one of our nation’s first Women Studies departments. My father is a professor, playwright, dramaturg who routinely brought the likes of Caryl Churchill, Judith Thompson, and Wendy Wasserstein to my family’s dining table. For five decades my Dad has written gender-bending plays with titles like These Are Not My Breasts, while my Mom publishes decade-long studies of under-heralded women such as Olive Schreiner and Edith Stein. When I think of the struggle for “gender equity” it is not in terms of fifty-fifty statistics or seventy-two cents to a dollar. It is a kiss, a cuddle, pass the salad please. It is home.
And yet now, when it comes to my role as Producing Director at People’s Light, I find myself more on the porch than in the kitchen. Now in the position to lead the theatre’s play selection process in partnership with Artistic Director Abbey Adams, we have yet to construct a season with equitable gender representation by the terms the Kilroys and Emily Glassberg Sands have established, let alone expected by my DNA. Why is this? With a staff that is 75 percent women and executive leadership that is two-thirds female, there are nevertheless entrenched patriarchal dynamics at play. Many centuries of male elevation and exclusivity within the theatre have resulted in the neck-aching category of the “well-known classic” (i.e., a play that will more likely generate excitement for potential ticket buyers and school groups far in advance of a review or word of mouth) that is dominated by male writers. A regional movement built around plays by white men with casts dominated by white men result in a legacy of resident companies comprised largely of white men. Whether those resident ensembles still exist or have long been disbanded, they still birthed local communities of actors and sparked longstanding relationships that can significantly influence play selection.
With a staff that is 75 percent women and executive leadership that is two-thirds female, there are nevertheless entrenched patriarchal dynamics at play.
People’s Light is not immune to these ongoing manifestations of white male privilege. The story of how we arrived at the 40th Anniversary Season at People’s Light, and the seismic shifts we made over forty-eight hours to get there, however, involve questions and priorities of inclusion that are more complicated than a failure to fully overcome systemic sexism. I believe it illustrates human dynamics around season selection, human concerns and conflicts that may deprive a regional theatre like ours from serving as the remedy for any one specific inequality in our society, but still has the ability to model and illuminate pathways for change. I offer this glimpse into our process with the belief that transparency is a step towards transformation.
Status and Statistics
People’s Light is the only professional theatre in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Eighty-five percent of our audience comes from a fifteen-mile radius of our theatre, which does not extend to Philadelphia. For a significant portion of our audience we are their only exposure to live theatre outside of a rare trip to New York City, which is two hours away. As a result, our theatre traditionally programs an eclectic mix of productions on our two stages: classic plays, new works, multi-generational theatre, comedies, dramas, and, for the past decade, a musical panto during the holiday season. We take seriously the responsibility that we may be an audience member’s first (and only) exposure to Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wilson, or Hansberry, as well as their one opportunity to be introduced to contemporary writers like Ruhl, Wohl, Nottage, Zacarías, Laufer, Lin, and Parks.
The seven productions in our 40th season continue this approach:
Fences by August Wilson, directed by Kamilah Forbes
Row After Row by Jessica Dickey, directed by David Bradley
Arthur & The Tale of the Red Dragon: A Musical Panto book by Samantha Bellomo and Pete Pryor, music and lyrics by Michael Ogborn, directed by Pete Pryor
The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov, adapted by Emily Mann, directed by Abigail Adams
Biloxi Blues by Neil Simon, directed by Samantha Bellomo
How To Write A New Book For The Bible by Bill Cain, directed by Abigail Adams
Stella & Lou by Bruce Graham, directed by Pete Pryor
As part of our family “Discovery Series” we will also present Glasgow-based Visible Fiction’s production of Jason and The Argonauts by Robert Forrest, directed by Douglas Irvine.
It is a thoughtful, celebratory, ambitious season, filled with giant heart and profound humor. Four new works. Three iconic classics. Two family productions. It is a season that fully expresses our artistic and civic vision, yet recognizes the bottom-line tendencies of our subscribers, single ticket buyers, and donors. From the standpoint of gender equity, however, the results underwhelm: eight credited male writers and three credited female writers; four credited female directors and four credited male directors. Pending funding, we plan to add another presented event: a limited run of a solo theatre project by a female singer/songwriter with a male director. One step forward. One step back.
Our new play development activities suggest a more balanced future. They include a workshop of a new site-specific piece by Lisa D’Amour, Katie Pearl, and Mimi Lien that is part of our partnership with Longwood Gardens, as well as six workshops of commissioned plays by our New Play Frontiers writers Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Karen Hartman, Kate Fodor, Dominique Morisseau, and Kathryn Petersen.
The visible metrics of gender equity in the director/playwright categories, however, were simply not our top priority compared to our desire to include very specific women in our season. In fact, six of our seven productions were selected due to the leadership, advocacy, and participation of women artists. Ironically, the one not included in this mix—Row After Row, which was most championed by me and the director, David Bradley—was written by a woman, Jessica Dickey.
Commitments and Priorities
From the earliest discussions about our anniversary, we made a commitment to feature our resident company of artists. Nine of these artists are on staff as part of our “Artistic Cabinet.” Three of whom (two women, one man) can dramatically impact the candidacy of a play through their desire to direct or act in a production and their articulation of a vision for that production that resonates with our mission, values, and economic parameters. Another roughly thirty company members at People’s Light do not operate under a contract with us and are not guaranteed employment, but they are at the psychic forefront of our institution. Some members were part of our founding. Many others were part of our significant growth in the 1980s and 90s. Now in their fifties and sixties, these talented women and men made People’s Light their artistic home while contributing to the live-arts renaissance throughout the Philadelphia region over the past two decades. We can never hire them enough, pay them enough, but we can prioritize them.
Throughout the planning process there was no better way to spur interest than to say, “This play has a great role for Alda.” “Marcia would be amazing in this.” Indicate that Stephen, Tom, or Peter might be a match and the script vaulted over others for attention and response. To me this is an example of radical inclusion. I recognize our audiences are aging and regional theatres will go the way of the dodo if we don’t consistently engage multi-generations of theatregoers. Equating that need, however, with some necessary neglect of the movement’s founding generation of actors would be a tremendous mistake. For our 40th that was one mistake we refused to make, especially in the face of recent shifts in foundation funding in our region that risk decimating our local artistic community.
Another priority became our effort to bring David Strathairn back to Malvern. David previously appeared in two People’s Light productions and has worked with Abbey Adams at other theatres as well. He is a longtime friend and was deeply involved with my former company, Epic Theatre Ensemble, as an actor and board member. David also participated in numerous early readings of my play, The Harassment of Iris Malloy, which also came up for season consideration.
Iris, an anti-fable about parenthood in our jackpot culture, was originally an Epic commission. The artistic staff at People’s Light had read an early draft before I joined the theatre three years ago. Talk of a production was heavily in the mix, not contingent on David Strathairn’s participation, but aware of the possibility. Iris was not the only contender, however, for David’s affection. In 2011, Abbey and I had spoken with him and Mary McDonnell about a production of Emily Mann’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard for our 2013–14 Season. It is a play that speaks directly to Abbey’s personal experiences and the dramatic evolution of our region; it would also reunite longtime friends Emily, Mary, and David, whose Hartford Stage production of A Doll’s House was one of the experiences that made me want to be in the theatre. All of us were euphoric about this in concept, but television shooting schedules proved impossible to accommodate. Talks were on hold and then schedules shifted. We rebooted when David became available for 2015. We began to flirt with new possibilities for the 40th: Shakespeare, Churchill, Pinter, Williams, Wilder, Foote.
These were productions of greater scale than Iris. Productions for our 340-seat Haas Stage rather than our 160-seat Steinbright Stage. Productions with large casts and numerous strong roles for company members. This wasn’t simply to leverage David’s profile. It emerged from conversations where David indicated how much he loves to be in a rehearsal room with our veteran artists and how he would miss that with a smaller play. Nevertheless, we could never seem to land on a work that offered mutual enthusiasm despite an earnest volley of proposals for nearly nine months.
We had done it to ourselves. Enamored by the idea of anchoring our anniversary season with a “classic” that featured David and the company, we had effectively put the entire season in flux: all the other play considerations were in limbo. This one selection would have implications about company casting, budget variables, the production calendar, subscription strategy. Each year we select a production or two for which we offer free tickets to 3,000-plus students as part of our “Arts Discovery High School” program. This aspect of season planning was now also on hold.
In the meantime, the artistic cabinet and various resident company members lobbied for particular considerations. Two urged we produce Neil Simon for the first time in the theatre’s history. They pointed to audience exuberance for recent summer comedies and their individual success with Simon at smaller local theatres. Two others promoted Stella and Lou by Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham. One of our company stalwarts participated in a very successful reading at another theatre and Bruce raved about her performance. Another company director championed Jessica Dickey’s Row After Row, a play that sparked enthusiasm from our entire cabinet after we presented an informal reading of an early draft in 2012. It too had roles we believed we could fully cast in-house.
In the end, I had eight pages of excel spreadsheets with potential seasons, some that included a “Strathairn Classic,” some that didn’t. Over thirty different plays filled the eight slots. Each possessed budget data about royalty estimates and Equity contracts (each Equity contract is essentially $10,000 per production), as well as projections for earned and contributed income. There were also notes about casting, mission intersect, season diversity and balance. Each carried stats about number of women playwrights, roles for women. Ultimately, on these pages were some insane math that was genuinely driven by artistic vision, but looked more like that unprovable formula in Good Will Hunting with no Matt Damon in sight.
Iris was among many of the iterations, but through this process we had made it no longer a candidate for David’s participation. With a noncompany director attached, and no company members a clear fit for the play, Iris was now without any priority attribute outside of my authorship. Its fate lay in whether there was an available slot in the season that didn’t need to accomplish our lead goals of resident company inclusion.
Done In by Chekhov
In late October, which coincides with the final lap of season planning, we had just about resigned ourselves to try to push through one of the “non-Strathairn” seasons. We anticipated an internal battle over the financial viability of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s At Seven: a terrific vehicle for our older company, but throughout the building there were wildly different opinions on whether the play retained relevance and would attract sufficient income. We contemplated sacrificing a multi-actor classic by a male writer for a new solo piece by a female writer to balance the budget, but this would lose at least one major company role, and we would need to make another artistic compromise to assure that company member didn’t disappear from the season. It also would undercut the intangible consideration of “gravitas” that we felt a 40th season needs to possess.
Insomnia had kicked in. So had a bit of resentment. There are so many amazing plays, deserving plays, and here we were struggling as if there were some scarcity. I reflected back on how we got to this place, increasingly conscious that the bar we set two years earlier with our original exchanges about The Cherry Orchard might have skewed all the considerations that followed.
This sparked me to send one of those emails you send at midnight that you would never send at ten in the morning. I wrote Mary McDonnell and asked whether she would reconsider The Cherry Orchard if we could make the dates work around her shooting schedule. I woke up the next morning to her reply, “Yes. Let’s do it.” She could be available for nine weeks between January and March 2015. I immediately contacted David. Amidst jokes about Nostradamus and whiplash, he agreed to the same time frame.
Before lunch that day, my two colleagues who lead our production calendar process had modeled a season with these dates for The Cherry Orchard. It required we produce seven plays and find a self-contained presented piece instead of an eighth production due to build/load-in/strike time lines for our production staff. We determined we could move August Wilson’s Fences from our traditional winter/spring Arts Discovery High School slot to the fall if key schools would be on board and our company actress tagged for Rose was available. We could program Bill Cain’s four-hander How To Write A New Book For The Bible in a June Steinbright slot if our company actress who played the lead could agree to the dates. We decided to move forward with Row After Row, Stella and Lou, and Biloxi Blues to assure the participation and excitement of a number of other company members who did not have roles in The Cherry Orchard. They were also plays we could select without running into the expense concerns of some of our other considerations. This left no room for my play as well as many other deserving contenders who similarly possessed fewer opportunities for our priority artists.
If we can highlight these existing inclusions, then our future conversations about how to improve representation at our leading theatres may come more from a place of shared impulses than antagonist assumptions.
The journey to our 40th season is quite specific to People’s Light. I wonder, however, what invisible inclusions exist at other theatres that mirror ours. The kind of inclusions that may not visibly address our field’s longstanding discriminations against women and people of color, but possess the foundation for future progress and parity. If we can highlight these existing inclusions, then our future conversations about how to improve representation at our leading theatres may come more from a place of shared impulses than antagonist assumptions.
During this time of violent dehumanization across our planet, many of us crave a theatre that is the antidote: in practice, process, and product. A theatre that is our most remarkable HPS: a Humanity Positioning System. To help us locate ourselves. Globally. Internally. Politically. Emotionally. Given this HPS aspiration, season planning will always take on symbolic magnitude. I recognize the challenge this poses for my fellow playwrights and artistic leaders. I doubt I will ever be able look at a season I program or those of my colleagues and not see our continual failure to counterbalance ongoing discrimination against women and people of color. I only hope that as we plan our forty-first at People’s Light, and my colleagues plan their fifteen to sixteen seasons, we can be more open about the nature of our maps, our routes, and our desired destinations.
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How aptly titled. The irony here is in the omission of any narrative or acknowledgement whatsoever on how women are part of this season selection process, other than a vague reference to unnamed "colleagues". (With the exception of Ms. Adams.) May I suggest that it is decidedly un-feminist to obscure their contribution to the process you describe while you laud your own arduous efforts? Unless of course your female "colleagues" have little or no voice or agency in the selection process. If that is the case, perhaps the crusade for gender equity starts closer to home.
Sorry, Valen, that I missed your comment three months ago. Somehow didn't get the alert. It's true I opted not to name my colleagues central to the process - men or women -- outside of Abbey Adams. Our Artistic Cabinet (9 members) and Senior Staff (9 members) are all critical to constructing our seasons -- and in my essay I indicate various key contributions -- but they were not authoring this piece and ultimately not held accountable for our season selection in the way Abbey and I are. Given this, it would have been inappropriate to name any without naming all, and naming all would possibly have put many in the position of having to answer to my personal opinions and experiences when really I should be the only one under that light. I think if you talked to, well, anyone who knows me -- female or male -- the concept of my hoarding the limelight over the work of female colleagues and collaborators would be quite amusing. But I genuinely appreciate the flag you raise and the inclusions you seek.
Thanks for sharing an honest portrayal of the creation of a season. As a 30 year veteran, wonderful to see the next generation so passionately engaged in the future while holding respect for the artists that paved the way.
Zak, I want to add my thanks for your willingness to stand before your wider theater community and present the wild course of events that leads to "a season." I hope other theaters might pick up your baton of bravery and share their own stories. I also hope playwrights will read this and find it a useful glimpse into the season planning process. We are all prone to off the cuff commentary on what theaters SHOULD do. You've brought in to light that it's not so simple as we armchair quarterbacks might like to imagine. Bravo.
Thank you, Beth. I confess I initially proposed writing this because my/Abbey ultimate decision not to produce my own play allowed me a unique bi-lens window into the playwright experience I wanted to share. It evolved from there and if it fosters further openness from others -- playwrights and artistic leaders -- then hoorah.
Thanks for this post - I don't know much about People's Light, but am now very excited that I live close enough to come see a show. I love that you're honoring and respecting the artistry of the company that made People's Light while still making strides towards an equitable future.
Thank you, Jessica. Do visit. I often refer to us as a "hidden gem".
A wonderfully readable, exhilarating, heart-breaking piece all in one. A thrilling center-piece to a season with master actors of screen & stage coming to Malvern to join a totally enfranchised acting company fully involved and invested in planning and so well represented on the People's Light's two stages! McDonnell and Strathairn doing Chekhov? Nirvana! Six workshops of commissioned plays by Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Karen Hartman, Kate Fodor, Dominique Morisseau, and Kathryn Petersen? And you're hand-wringing about "gender equity?" Please! Your cup runneth over! The heart-break is for IRIS MALLOY and her Harassment and your authorship of this ever-timely political play. If not you, who? And if not now, when? Next season? Can we agitate? Can we demand? We Want Berkman's Best! Not just his wisdom; his binding instincts; his spread-sheets and his conscientious new math. We want his Voice and Vision conjoined with Production (more than a Bruce Graham, who belongs to many and elsewhere)! The questions that resonate here aren't about empowerment and equity so much as determination and balance and self-abnegation and a producing director's light touch and our collective heavy heart. Because something's missing from what could have been. That's the Invisible EXclusion. No one will really know what's missing from the animating core of the theater company. Only now we do. The season's the richer and the poorer because of the painful process that so involved you at the center. But it's a long arc. Season 40 will beget Season 41, and the writing of a new history in the life of People's Light with a male feminist in the middle of it all.
Oh Ari, thank you for this. You know all about the artistic, institutional, personal juggle that can happen with both the swords and feathers we toss into the air and try to grab before they clang or waft away. Perhaps IRIS will take her first breath in our "real world" soon, but I am also conscious of the many voices -- often with epic scope and wild imagination -- whose journey to the stage includes surreal twists and boulders. This is why kind words, insightful words, even when production is not the outcome, can be hugely meaningful. Again, something you know well.
Thanks so much, Zak, for laying it all out like this. Open, honest, fraught.