"We Want to Start a National Movement," Say the Founders of the Women's Voices Theater Festival

News   "We Want to Start a National Movement," Say the Founders of the Women's Voices Theater Festival
 
More than 50 of the Washington, D.C. region's professional theatres are joining together to present world premiere productions of works by women. The artistic directors of the originating theatres tell Playbill.com why the festival is needed in 2015.

Michael Kahn
Michael Kahn

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The Women's Voices Theater Festival presents an eight-week run of world-premiere works by women beginning in September. The festival, which marks the largest collaboration of theatre companies working simultaneously to produce original works by female writers in history, will feature a world-premiere play by a female dramatist at each of the participating theatres.

Women make up 61 percent of the theatregoing audience in Washington, D.C., and 68 percent of the Broadway audience, according to the Broadway League.

The artistic directors of each of the seven originating theatres shared with Playbill.com why they became involved in the festival and what they hope for the future of women in theatre.

Michael Kahn, Artistic Director for Shakespeare Theatre Company Please share your thoughts on why this festival is necessary and how it feels to be participating in it.
It is thrilling for me to be part of the group that inaugurated this festival. I'm eager to see new works by many writers who are new to audiences, and I'm excited for the thriving and diverse theatre scene in Washington to be showcased in this way. This is a historic festival, to be certain, and it will result in a greater awareness of female voices, not only here in the nation's capital but around the country.

At a time when there are questions throughout the theatre world about gender parity in our profession, those questions demand a bold, big response — and the festival is one of the boldest, biggest ways we could envision to say, "There are talented women writing for the theatre who need to be heard, and we will make certain they are."

Was there one incident, occurrence or comment in particular that motivated you to get the festival going? Over the past several years, I have been so taken by the work of writers like Annie Baker, Lisa Kron, Katori Hall and Lynn Nottage. Fortunately, they are produced regularly, but as data have emerged showing the overall paucity of works by women being produced in the American theatre, it was clear that the next Bakers or Nottages aren't getting the exposure they need to hone their craft.

Talking with my colleagues about raising the visibility of Washington theatre, and about the issue of gender parity, made the festival seem like a great step forward we could take together.

What change do you hope it will effect, both short and long-term?
In the short term, Washington will be more aware of the diversity and richness of its theatre community and of the work of the women who are writing today. In the long term, my hope is that theatres all over the country will replicate this idea in their own communities so that women everywhere will have the opportunity to see their work performed. Audiences here will see that women are creating works that are funny, outrageous, linear, nonlinear, classic adaptations and more. Women's voices are many, varied and exciting — and that's something audiences everywhere need to see and hear for themselves.

Why is gender parity still an issue in the theatre in 2015, and what can theatregoers, as well as people in the industry, do to help effect change?
Much of the change that needs to happen will come about with a generational shift in the industry. As leadership changes in the field, more women will be moving into positions as artistic directors, managing directors and directors. I'm sure we'll see a greater inclusion of women in all aspects of theatre as a result.

Molly Smith
Molly Smith

Molly Smith, Artistic Director for Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre

Please share your thoughts on why this festival is necessary and how it feels to be participating in it.
We live in a sexist society. Only one play in five is written by a woman playwright in the U.S. as far as plays produced in our country. This is a festival that will shine a spotlight on over 55 women writing today. The impact won't be felt for at least five years when we see how many of these plays receive more productions and if theatres in Washington D.C. produce more plays by women in the future. We want to make sure this moment is not just a blip on the screen.

Was there one incident, occurrence or comment in particular that motivated you to get the festival going?
No. A group of seven artistic directors got together over brunch and began talking about the challenges we face as a theatre town. Even though D.C. is considered second or third in the country as far as theatre communities, we're often invisible because of museums and politics. We began talking about a citywide festival and this was the first and most powerful idea. The decision was brilliantly unanimous. It was two years ago.

What change do you hope it will effect, both short and long-term?
Answered above.

Why is gender parity still an issue in the theatre in 2015, and what can theatregoers, as well as people in the industry, do to help effect change?
The theatre reflects the society we live in. Women still don't make as much money as men. Fewer plays by women are being produced. Fewer women run large theatres. Fewer women run major organizations — sexism is at every level of our society. This is a moment where we've chosen to focus on women to open the eyes of our audiences, the field and the press.

Howard Shalwitz
Howard Shalwitz

Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Please share your thoughts on why this festival is necessary and how it feels to be participating in it.
Washington, DC is one of the largest and most influential theatre communities in the nation, and so it's both natural and very exciting that we're exerting some collective leadership in relation to a problem in the national field — the under-representation of plays by women on our stages. Personally, I'm excited to see what we learn about women playwrights by seeing 50 new works all at the same time. Is there an overall difference in tone or style or subject matter that emerges from our (admittedly small) sample of 50 plays? Is it just a question of representation, or will a distinctly feminine perspective appear? For Woolly, our goal was to pick a play — Women Laughing Alone With Salad by Sheila Callaghan — that takes a challenging feminist (or perhaps post-feminist) perspective. The play is a wild comedy, loads of fun, but I think it will spark a lively conversation.

Was there one incident, occurrence or comment in particular that motivated you to get the festival going?
In the initial meetings among seven artistic directors, the idea emerged in two parts. First was the thought of doing something across the entire city that would draw greater attention to DC as one of America's major theatre centers. The local theatre community often feels overshadowed by the famous government buildings and monuments and museums that Washington is famous for — and yet our cultural sector is equally big and influential. The follow-on thought — that we should devote the festival to new plays by women — probably arrived within seconds. There has been a lively national dialogue about gender parity in the theatre over the past decade, and this seemed like an area where we could set a useful example.

What change do you hope it will effect, both short and long-term?
I think it will heighten our consciousness about gender balance in the plays we select, certainly in Washington, and hopefully somewhat across the country. But just as important, I hope it serves as a model for how a single theatre community can come together to provide leadership and create excitement and lively dialogue for theatregoers.

Why is gender parity still an issue in the theatre in 2015, and what can theatregoers, as well as people in the industry, do to help effect change?
Gender parity and fairness is an issue throughout our society, and the theatre should be leading the way to draw attention to it and help effect change. One of the central functions of theatre is to hold a mirror up to society, to ask hard questions, and to model a way forward. But that means we also have to be critical of the theatre itself. In terms of gender parity, the theatre is probably doing better than many fields, but that's not good enough. We need to examine all the systemic factors that stand in the way of gender fairness — who's in the leadership positions of our theatres, who is making the decisions about what plays get produced, what writers are we commissioning, what audiences are we trying to market our plays to, who is being admitted to our graduate programs, etc. Changes in all of these factors will lead to changes in the plays that appear on our stages.

Ryan Rilette
Ryan Rilette

Ryan Rilette, Artistic Director for Round House Theatre

Why is this festival necessary and how does it feel to be participating in it?
Women are the largest consumers of theatre, but female playwrights represent only 22 percent of the work on our stages nationwide. We need to change that, and we hope that this Festival will help kick that change into high gear, both locally and nationally. I hope these plays will get produced throughout the country, and that other cities will follow our lead and find creative ways to celebrate the work of female playwrights.

We are thrilled to be part of the team leading this historic festival, and can’t wait to see all of these amazing plays!

Was there one incident, occurrence or comment in particular that motivated you to get the festival going? 
Eric Schaeffer invited Molly Smith, Michael Kahn, Paul Tetreault, David Muse, Howard Shalwitz and me to brunch at his home in spring 2013 to talk about a variety of issues, including ways we could all work together to strengthen the DC theatre community. We started talking about the idea of doing a festival of some sort, and the first idea that came up was world premieres by female playwrights. Molly asked a bunch of us the other day if anyone remembered who first mentioned it, and none of us could. It was one of those rare moments where everyone was immediately on the same page. We threw out a few more ideas but always came back to world premieres by women.

What change do you hope it will effect, both short and long-term? 
I hope this festival is the match that starts the parity fire here in DC. Nationally, only 22 percent of the plays on our stages are written by women. Here in DC, that number is closer to 30 percent. We know that because of the Festival, our numbers will rise significantly for the 15-16 season, but we can't let it drop back down in subsequent years when we don't have a festival.

I also hope that the works we produce here will see a future life at theatres throughout the country.

Why is gender parity still an issue in the theatre in 2015, and what can theatregoers, as well as people in the industry, do to help effect change? 
The most important thing we can do from within the industry is to hold ourselves accountable. As an artistic director, I've directed and produced many plays by women and always thought of myself as someone who championed women's writing. But while I was applying for this job three years ago, I added up all the work that I had produced in the 14 years prior to joining Round House and found that only 25 percent were written by women. Recognizing that fact helped me realize that I needed a structure in place to ensure greater gender equity. That's what I've done at Round House, and as a result we've had gender parity — with at least 50 percent of our plays written by women — for the last two seasons. And that's something every artistic director and board member can do: Examine your theatre's record, and if it's not reflective of your community and your values, put a mechanism in place to fix it moving forward.

Audiences can help drive this change by voting with their wallets. It's really pretty simple: Support the theatres that are championing diversity on the stage and avoid those who are not.

Paul R. Tetreault
Paul R. Tetreault

Paul R. Tetreault, Artistic Director for Ford's Theatre

Please share your thoughts on why this festival is necessary and how it feels to be participating in it.
This festival is necessary for several reasons. There are so many impressive women out there creating wonderful, exciting new work, and we absolutely should celebrate them! Ford's is proud to be a part of the vibrant DC theatre scene and one of the over 50 theatres participating in the festival. It speaks volumes about the leadership of our theatrical community that we saw an issue of inequity, came together and committed to take steps toward being a part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Does this mean that the problem is solved? Unfortunately, no. It is our hope that this festival creates opportunities for women not just during the festival's tenure, but also on a much larger and permanent scale.

Was there one incident, occurrence or comment in particular that motivated you to get the festival going?
…Another important reason why this festival is necessary is because, well frankly, we are still at a place where we have to have festivals to ensure that women are being given equal opportunities as their male counterparts. It is not that there is not great work out there created by women. That work IS out there, but all too often that work is not produced. We can do better than that — we must do better than that.

What change do you hope it will effect, both short and long-term?
In the long-term, we have to make sure that this festival is not just a blip on the radar. Women need to be given the chance to have their work produced and shared with a larger audience. This festival shouldn't be the one and only time that female playwrights get this amount of work. I hope it makes all the producers and artistic directors out there look at who we are programming, and makes us take action to give opportunity and voice to all those whose work is still underrepresented.

Why is gender parity still an issue in the theatre in 2015, and what can theatregoers, as well as people in the industry, do to help effect change?
As far as why gender parity is still an issue in 2015, I wish there was an easy answer to that. But theatregoers and people in the industry can help change the landscape by first noticing the landscape of the world in which we live, and demanding that landscape be shown in the work they see onstage. Our society is not homogenized, and theatre and art have to reflect that. In order for theatre to continue to progress and to stay relevant, it must showcase stories about and by the spectrum of people living in our world. And at least 50 percent of these people are women, so we have to fix this inequity.

Eric Schaeffer
Eric Schaeffer Photo by Christopher Mueller

Eric Schaeffer, Artistic Director for Signature Theatre

Please share your thoughts on why this festival is necessary and how it feels to be participating in it.
I think it's important as leaders in the American theatre to feature women playwrights in our seasons and the stories they need to tell. It is an exciting time in Washington with over 50 world premieres by female playwrights within an eight-week period. I know of no other city that is championing these voices in such a dynamic way and it's exciting to be able to be part of this historic event.

Was there one incident, occurrence or comment in particular that motivated you to get the festival going?
A bunch of artistic directors got together for brunch to just catch up and check-in with each other. Out of that conversation, the idea of the women's voices festival was born. What has been great is that the artistic directors continue to meet and discuss ideas in theatre for washington and the country.

What change do you hope it will effect, both short and long-term?
We don't want this festival to be a one-time event. We are really working to move the needle and make sure that women playwrights continue to have a strong presence in our seasons ahead. No one wants this to be a one-time event — we want to start a national movement to increase the number of plays and musicals being written by women to be produced on all the American stages.

Why is gender parity still an issue in the theatre in 2015, and what can theatregoers, as well as people in the industry, do to help effect change?
No one really knows why it still is an issue but the good thing is that we are doing something about it. The best way to make change happen is with action, and hopefully this festival will raise awareness and give new voices a chance to be heard. The most important thing is to continue the charge so that in seasons ahead, we have America represented on our stages in all forms. That will continue the change and challenge us all.

David Muse
David Muse

David Muse, Artistic Director for Studio Theatre

Please share your thoughts on why this festival is necessary and how it feels to be participating in it.
The growth in the output and sophistication of DC theatre in the last decade is astonishing, especially with respect to new play development. It's time for us to band together towards two common purposes: further exposing the city and the country to the range and strength of theatre production in Washington, and shedding light on a problem confronting our industry by doing something in an attempt to address that problem. Like all of the participating theatres, I'm proud to participate.

Was there one incident, occurrence or comment in particular that motivated you to get the festival going?
Inspired by festivals like Humana, Edinburgh, Pacific Playwrights, Steppenwolf First Look, and others, I had been thinking about a DC festival of new plays for years. It was during a gathering of artistic directors that the ideas of a festival and the idea of doing something to address gender issues in the American theatre came together for us.

What change do you hope it will effect, both short and long-term?
I hope it will highlight the range and quality of theatre in Washington for audiences in the area and around the country, create dialogue around an important series of issues, inspire others to take the issue seriously, and hopefully move the gender imbalance needle a bit.

Why is gender parity still an issue in the theatre in 2015, and what can theatregoers, as well as people in the industry, do to help effect change?
I don't frankly know all of the reasons why gender parity is still such an issue for the theatre — I'm shocked when I hear statistics. One of the reasons I'm excited about the festival is that it will make me, and hopefully many others, pay more attention to the issue and engage in conversation about why it's happening and what we can do about it.

Visit womensvoicestheaterfestival.org for more information about the festival.

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