Assessing the First Outing—and the Future—of the Women's Theatre Festival | Arts
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Friday, September 9, 2016

Assessing the First Outing—and the Future—of the Women's Theatre Festival

Posted by on Fri, Sep 9, 2016 at 12:27 PM

click to enlarge Courtney Christison and Dustin Britt in Thunderbodies - PHOTO BY ELIZABETH ANDERSON
  • photo by Elizabeth Anderson
  • Courtney Christison and Dustin Britt in Thunderbodies

Our region had never before seen anything like the Women’s Theatre Festival. In an organized grassroots revolt against long-term local and national gender inequity in playwriting, directing, casting, and technical design, the fully crowd-sourced endeavor produced seventy-three events in four cities over five weeks. It mounted eight mainstage productions—and eight hands-on workshops where dozens of women received an introduction to disciplines including stage combat and set design.

During one intensive, participants learned arc welding while constructing a set piece that would be used during the North Carolina Dance Festival. In front of live audiences and viewers on the Internet, panels took on the challenges of cross-gender casting and breaking through marginalizing physical stereotypes. All in all, it was a truly impressive portfolio of achievements for an enterprise that began as a single post on founder Ashley Popio’s Facebook page six months ago.

“We set out to empower women to do things they’d never done before, and in that we succeeded,” Popio says.

But the passion that drove the burgeoning group through its first year was qualified on several fronts by its inexperience. None of its members had put together a women’s theater festival before; no one in the region had. As the group felt its way forward through early, lengthy—and nonhierarchical—organizational meetings, Popio spoke candidly in an early spring interview. “We know we’ll get some things right, and we’re going to make some big mistakes,” she said. “We’ll learn from them and do better.”

The monthlong season, which wrapped with the final performances of Sarah Duncan’s Music and the Mirror last week at Sonorous Road Theatre, bore out both parts of that prediction.

The instinct to open a sparkling new endeavor with a grand, audacious gesture was understandable. "Occupy the Stage" rallied more than a hundred artists and 250 spectators in a twenty-four-hour marathon of staged readings and children’s theater workshops. But the occupation exhausted a number of the troops it intended to gather, while limiting the potential audience for works like award-winning playwright Adrienne Pender’s More Than Anything, which ran at five in the morning on Sunday. Also problematic was an eye- and mind-numbing aesthetic, like the one that plagued Burning Coal Theatre Company’s recent Shakespeare marathon, where people simply sat or stood behind music stands for hours while reading out loud.

A number of participants wrote on social media and in other public forums about transformative experiences in classes like Dana Marks’s “Wall of Sound,” in which women literally tried to find their own voices. One was a transgender youth simply trying to figure out what they wanted to sound like as a person in their everyday life. Another was a twenty-six-year-old who wasn’t being taken seriously by a roomful of male executives in her professional world. “I don’t know if there could be a more emblematic representation of the festival as a whole than that,” Popio says. “I don’t know if they would have had this opportunity if the WTF didn’t exist.”

But the festival’s mission statement—“to create, produce, and promote extraordinary theatre by women”—encountered difficulties elsewhere. A mentorship project pairing first-time directors with seasoned stage artists didn’t prevent the glaring blocking errors and other beginner’s difficulties witnessed in an otherwise notable production of Sarah Treem's The How and the Why. And the crowdsourcing that energized so many sectors of this endeavor ultimately contributed to the festival’s greatest shortcoming: problematic script selection in the mainstage, workshop, and staged reading series.

Given the slender production time women playwrights have historically received, women’s festivals have the added burden of demonstrating that women’s writings are equally brilliant—equally worthy of production and praise—as men’s. They can do this, in part, by making a public place for some of the best work by women playwrights of the past, reversing decades or centuries of silence.

That didn’t happen during the festival’s first year. Its curators had the chance to define meaningful artistic standards for their festival’s mainstage, balancing historic masterpieces and thought-provoking contemporary works against the best selections from promising regional playwrights. That would have left the staged-reading and workshop series to nurture younger, less developed artists.

But when the crowd chose the works, local playwrights took twenty-five of the season’s thirty slots, eclipsing the entirety of women’s drama written before 2010, along with most works from professional playwrights outside of the region. And half of the works selected for marquee slots weren’t ready for full production. Only the workshop production of Kate Tarker’s absurdist Thunderbodies, and the more qualified successes in Treem’s The How and the Why and Meredith Dayna Levy’s Decision Height, fully made the artistic case for their inclusion.

“Just as we erred on the side of giving new directors a chance, we also erred on the side of giving new and local playwrights a chance,” Popio acknowledges. “Sometimes that succeeded brilliantly, but sometimes we could have benefited from more experience.” The festival will reconsider its selection process in its second year.

The best news is that there will be a second year—and perhaps a little money with which to start it off. Personnel currently working the final figures believe the festival made a slight profit, and the group is proceeding with plans to seek legal nonprofit status. Streamlining processes already in place—and taking a full year instead of five months to organize the second iteration—will likely herald significant changes for the next WTF in 2017. Having taken the stage, these women have no plans to relinquish it.

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