Julia Greer and Emma Miller first developed a hunger for telling women’s stories in undergrad. The two met as freshmen in the Drama Department at Kenyon College, where a conversation about the lack of work being produced for and by women quickly became the driving force behind a budding campus company.
After the young women graduated and moved to New York City, they were eager to tackle women’s underrepresentation in theatre in the real world. And so, in 2016, on the heels of the Presidential election, Greer and Miller launched The Hearth. Their inaugural production was Beth Hyland’s For Annie, and the mission statement was simple and clear: strive for gender parity through the hiring of more female artists on all sides of production, and nurture and celebrate female and non-binary artists.
The “nurture and celebrate” element of their mission is where, in two short years, The Hearth has found its niche. Recognizing that there weren’t enough artistic homes where young women could hone their voices, Greer and Miller focused on providing a space where emerging underrepresented artists could develop and grow together. “We want to create a community for and give support and resources to emerging female and non-binary artists,” says Miller, co-artistic director of The Hearth and a director in her own right. Among those resources, The Hearth offers private workshops, closed and invited readings, and week-long or day-long developmental rehearsals. Last spring, the company invited a group of playwrights away for a weekend of writing, relaxation, and collaboration in Connecticut.
“There’s a lot of freedom and support with the only end goal in mind being the improvement of the play,” says Greer, an actor, and co-artistic director of The Hearth. “It’s about listening to what the writer feels they need.”
In the beginning, they sought out the artists they wanted to work with, but word spread quickly, and before long they received scripts by emerging playwrights and established writers passing along the work of younger artists who inspired them. As they had set out to achieve, The Hearth was already seeing the growth of an exciting community of writers.
Among them is Gracie Gardner, a Brooklyn-based playwright and another Kenyon alum. Gardner is the recipient of the 2017 Relentless Award, the prestigious prize for an emerging playwright established in honor of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gardner won the award for her play Pussy Sludge, the story of a young woman who is also an oil well, and a raw and darkly funny exploration of what it means to be exposed. Winning the award has been “completely life-changing” for the young playwright; Pussy Sludge will be developed around the country, and The Hearth will produce the world premiere of her play Athena (which the Hearth commissioned prior to her winning the award).
Athena, which stars Greer and is directed by Miller at JACK in Brooklyn (February 15–March 3), is about two adolescent fencers training for the Junior Olympics. They practice together, compete against each other, and spend their lives together. They wish they were friends. It’s a play about ambition, anger, and the intimate growing pains of being a teenage girl. “These two characters feel like they’re adults, but everybody views them as children,” says Gardner. “It’s about the specific kind of anger that comes with being totally out of control.”
Gardner, who was a fencer herself at age 17, says the initial impulse for the play was to see two women sword fighting onstage. “I had this visual of two people who are diametrically opposed while being tied to separate things,” says Gardner of the play’s two fencers: Mary Wallace and Athena. While they practice, the girls wear electrified vests which keep them tethered to separate sides. “In general I’m interested in a feminine sense of body horror,” says the playwright. “The characters are undergoing these physical changes that they can’t control.”
For Greer and Miller, Athena was in line with their mission to produce plays featuring complex female characters while simultaneously challenging preconceived ideas around what “a story about young women” might be. “Something that always excited me about the play is that, at its heart, it’s a story about young women who get to be taken seriously,” says Miller. “The plays we love are a nuanced take on womanhood.”
“The stories are about women who exist without pretense and without the context of men or other things that are put upon women [are ones] … we want to add to the conversation about women in theatre in a way that feels exciting and nuanced,” adds Greer.
Which is where The Hearth’s mission becomes threefold. With each work, Greer and Miller aim to challenge stereotypes, interrogate ideas about feminism, and expand perceptions of what it means to be a woman. The timing couldn't be better.