The Women’s Theatre Festival Drums Up Unprecedented Support for Gender Equality on Local Stages | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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The Women’s Theatre Festival Drums Up Unprecedented Support for Gender Equality on Local Stages 

click to enlarge Ashley Popio, Lorelei Lemon, and Bronwen Mischel with the cast of Little Women at Sonorous Road Theatre

Photo by Ben McKeown

Ashley Popio, Lorelei Lemon, and Bronwen Mischel with the cast of Little Women at Sonorous Road Theatre

It's rare for an organization receiving an Indies Arts Award not to have existed at the start of the year in which it was honored. But few of the Women's Theatre Festival's unorthodox achievements in its first year have gone by the book. After its founder, Raleigh's indefatigable Ashley Popio, posted on Facebook in early March calling for volunteers to produce the state's first festival devoted to a full spectrum of female stage artists, from playwrights to technicians, the region responded with an unprecedented outpouring of support.

In just six months, more than 250 women and allies donated time, resources, money, and talent to propose, staff, and produce eight mainstage productions, eight hands-on workshops and panels, and twenty-two staged readings—seventy-three events in all, in four cities during the month of August. Eight regional theater groups and venues donated rehearsal and performance space. Another eleven independent "sister shows," unaffiliated with the festival but meeting its criteria for inclusion, went up the same month.

The Women's Theatre Festival also departed from the routine financial script in its first outing. In a field where ticket sales regularly fail to cover production costs, the one-month exploit cleared all expenses and reported a profit of $5,000, which has been reinvested into the festival's future.

"For years, we've needed more women on stage, and there have always been articles and comments floating around that we need more than the occasional female playwright and director," says Judy Dove, a board member with the North Carolina Theatre Conference. "Finally, someone said, 'Let's do it.'"

Johannah Edwards, a teacher and director at Raleigh Little Theatre, calls the festival "the best idea anyone here has had in the last ten years. It's changing careers and giving people chances to work that they didn't have." Since the festival, playwright Carol Torian has seen more companies looking for women's work. "I wasn't seeing this volume, this level before," she says.

Four months after the festival, Popio thinks one of its most important achievements was to connect a group of people who had never been in contact before. After she figured out how regional theater works—"relationships frequently determine who gets cast, who designs and who directs," she says—the festival helped form many new relationships. The result is "a giant theatrical network of people they know now," Popio says. She sees the ongoing results in a continuing stream of social media posts from participants "setting up shows and companies, going to classes together, and asking can I use this space or that prop."

The degree of crossover in the festival's productions strengthened those relationships. In some cases, says Evelyn McCauley, who is helping the festival with development, a lighting designer on one show would do something different in another, and play another role in a third. Actor and dancer Ra'Chel Fowler says she's used to the temporary liaisons among performers that last no longer than a production, but to her surprise, when her WTF production of Music and the Mirror closed, "the bond was still there."

The group has been a hive of activity since August, establishing professional links with regional theater conferences, assembling a board, and seeking official status as a nonprofit organization. But the main work is to assure the festival's sustainability. Looking back, managing director Bronwen Mischel acknowledges that WTF's first iteration lacked the proper infrastructure.

"We knew how to put on a play, but we didn't know how to put on a festival," she says. Now, people with experience in needed areas are coming forward. "Once you've shown you're serious, people who are serious are more likely to show up. There's still a million things to do, but a task that seemed daunting when Ashley and I were doing the majority of the infrastructure now seems much more achievable in a sustainable way."

The company's current show involves another step toward sustainability. Following the examples of other successful regional companies, WTF is now staging its first holiday production, a new adaptation of Little Women, at Sonorous Road Theatre. The performances incorporate high tea. The goal is to help fund shows during the rest of the year, and it appears to be working; the production became profitable by the second day of its run. Ultimately, the festival aims to provide year-round programming.

McCauley has worked in development long enough to know the struggles of building a nonprofit. "It's always tenuous," she says. But she sees in WTF what she once saw in the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, which started on a smaller scale and grew to something greater.

"[WTF] has a huge amount of potential," McCauley says. "It depends on who they can partner with and the community support, the financial support, and the artistic support they can get."

Popio says the blowback a regional women's directing initiative received last month (read the story, "Slings & Arrows," in our Nov. 23 issue) demonstrates that gender equity in the theater remains controversial. The November election left Popio convinced that people still aren't listening to women.

"I couldn't help but think that hearing women's voices and stories was more crucial than ever, that women have to tell the truth and be believed—and that the theater is a good place to start," she says. When a new group moves the gender-parity needle further in ten months than established companies have in years, that's a good start indeed—and this group is far from finished.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Boys club begone."

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