eliza berkon is a features writer and jazz musician based in washington d.c. 

Women’s Voices Theater Festival pulls back the curtain on gender parity

When Signature Theatre and six other Metro-D.C. area playhouses launched the Women’s Voices Theater Festival in 2015, Maggie Boland says, they hoped their united front would better achieve a shared mission of parity for female playwrights on the nation’s stages.

“One of the great things about this community is that the theaters of every size in town really believe in collaboration here, as opposed to competition,” says Boland, Signature’s managing director.

As the festival returns this month for its second incarnation, it brings with it more than two dozen plays written by women on topics ranging from Guantanamo Bay to the Trojan War. Hosted in theaters from Baltimore to Alexandria, the showcase includes recently written shows and world premieres.

“We believe we are as good as New York or Chicago, if not cooler from a theatrical perspective, and we really wanted to do something together that would bring attention to that—and also that would shine a light on a real issue for our field, which is that of gender parity where playwrights are concerned,” Boland says.

Among the festival’s special events is International Women’s Voices Day on Jan. 21, honoring the one-year anniversary of the 2017 Women’s March. Together with the National New Play Network and New Play Exchange, the festival is inviting theaters worldwide to host readings of not-yet-produced works by female playwrights. And several theaters are partnering with institutions such as Howard University and Arlington Public Schools to commission monologues about gender, with selections performed during the festival and at Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Feb. 28.

Boland says she hasn’t personally experienced a disadvantage in the theater world because of her gender, noting the “robust leadership presence” of women in area theaters. Yet she says there’s still work to be done.

“We haven’t moved the needle as far as we need to in terms of our programming, both as a field and inside our own theaters in D.C.,” she says. “And that’s a place where I want to make sure that my voice is loud.”

Festival Information

Dates: Jan. 15-Feb. 15
Number of Plays: 26
Special Events: International Women’s Voices Day, Young Women’s Voices Monologue Competition

Gender Parity

For the past several theater seasons, Olivia Haller and Gwydion Suilebhan—producing associate and marketing director, respectively, of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company—have conducted demographic analyses of shows in the Metro-D.C. area. Suilebhan is also a member of the Dramatist Guild Council, an advocacy group for dramatists’ issues.

Describe the current state of gender parity in the D.C. theater scene.

Haller: The overall result is that we’re still not at parity. We are getting closer in terms of the results that Gwydion and I have compiled. I joined up on the project for the past three years of data collecting, but it was started by Gwydion back in 2012. And every year, I think we get a little bit closer.

Suilebhan: Badly. We are significantly far from 50/50 even in the years where we’ve devoted significant resources locally to hosting a Women’s Voices Theater Festival. If you look at the numbers for D.C. that we have calculated, we look like we are far ahead of some of the other cities around the country, which is a small measure of pride for us. But the parity is happening in D.C. at the smaller theaters, and the larger theaters are generally speaking benefiting from the parity. In other words, a disproportionate amount of the resources, financial and otherwise, are still going more to men than to women.

What data have you examined?

Haller: We look up the gender, the ethnicity and the region for all the playwrights and directors of all the shows being produced in the D.C.-Metro area for this particular season.

How has the scene changed over the years?

Suilebhan: There’s so much variability from year to year, but there has been a clear trend since 2012 toward parity in D.C.

Q&A: Voices from the Festival

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

4,380 Nights 
Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington

Annalisa Dias, playwright
producing playwright, The Welders; co-founder, Washington DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice

Give us a summary of the play.

There’s three different storylines in the piece: one about a detainee at Guantanamo and his lawyer, another about the French occupation of Algeria in the 19th century, and another that is sort of a nod to the Scheherazade myth, so that one is in a timeless period.

Do you think being a female playwright has made it more difficult for your work to be respected?

Yes; it’s almost double for me because I’m also a person of color. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of a token, like “Oh, we have a female playwright in our season now” or “Oh, we have a person of color.” Or since I’m both of those things, people can just check two boxes. There is sort of this commodification of identity that happens.

Kathleen Akerley, director
artistic director, Longacre Lea

What drew you to this play?

The play deals in some ways with the shape of history, and it’s interesting that the original play took place in one room. The work [Dias has] done to expand it both in terms of its substance and its structure travels out from that room into the shape of history in a very intriguing way.

Is it performed in three acts?

It’s in two acts. [We’re] trying to show actually how one of them would not happen without the others. It’s hopefully structurally going to excite the audience’s ability to think about historical ramifications, not just look at this scene from the past and now look at this scene from the present. In a way, this scene from the past is still happening in the present.

The Trojan Women Project
Brave Spirits Theatre, performs at The Lab at Convergence: 1819 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria

Rachel Hynes, devisor-playwright
producing playwright, The Welders; artistic associate, Banished Productions and Brave Spirits Theatre

Tell us a little about the play.

It’s a devised theater project, so its writing is dependent on the ensemble. I have an incredible ensemble of 16 actresses of different shapes, sizes, colors, religions, thoughts, ages, proclivities. I’ve done a week of workshop developments where I got a bunch of really interesting people in the room, and we took apart the text. At the time, the last presidential election had occurred, and we were talking about “What did that mean for women?”

It sounds like the takeaway message will depend on the experience in the room.

I think that’s so. In terms of age, race, religion—all these different things to try and dissect what it means to be an American woman. There’s also larger questions about, “Oh, it’s this biological fact of having a vagina that makes us all women.” But we see with trying to represent trans women that that’s not the case either.

What female playwrights have inspired you?

Marina Abramović, Pina Bausch. I think it’s really important to have a full emotional palette, especially in a world where women are conditioned to be pleasant and nice. To be able to talk about things that are not necessarily pleasant or nice is a real gift.

Charlene Smith, producer
producing artistic director, Brave Spirits Theatre

What’s your connection to the Trojan Women project?

I came up with the idea of putting William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in [repertory] with The Trojan Women. It started off very much being about two plays that deal with war from very gendered perspectives, so Coriolanus is very masculine and Trojan Women, though written by a male playwright, has been seen as an expression of what war means to women.

How would you describe the relevance of this production in the current climate for American women?

This project feels more and more relevant because it just feels like the attacks on women are coming from all directions, and I think there’s a lot of questions that have come up within the last election cycle about voter blocs. Situations are simplified by assuming that all people that share one specific characteristic also think alike. So I think we’re interested in exploring the individuality of women’s experiences.

Queens Girl in Africa
Mosaic Theater Company: 133 H St. NE, Washington, D.C.

Caleen Sinnette Jennings, playwright
theatre professor, American University; co-founder, The Welders

How does Queens Girl in the World differ from Queens Girl in Africa?

Queens Girl in the World was about my going from a predominately black neighborhood and being transferred into a predominately white, Jewish, very progressive school in Greenwich Village—with the backdrop of the 1965 civil rights movement—and how I’m processing this as a young woman going back and forth between two very different cultures before they had the term “code-switching.” Queens Girl in Africa takes me from arrival in Africa to three years later when I went off to college.

Why have you referred to D.C. as an “incubator” for female directors and playwrights?

To this day, I think that the rest of the country is asleep when it comes to what a powerhouse D.C. is in terms of the arts. Kennedy Center is an incubator for artists: Page to Stage, Millennium Stage. It’s not just the various roadhouses; it’s the theater institutions that understand that the cultivation of local talent and emerging talent is important.

Paige Hernandez, director
founder, B-Fly Entertainment

How will the play be staged?

My aesthetic is pretty minimalist; I really try to lean on physical storytelling. They’ll also be surtitles, which means that the deaf and hard of hearing audience is able to enjoy it. So that brings a whole other level of just comprehension and enjoyment to the production.

What are the takeaways for the audience?

I really hope that they can do several things: One is draw parallels to what’s going on currently. Two, to really understand and take away the work that is a solo show. I’m a huge advocate and proponent for solo work. It’s not an easy job; there’s a lot that has to go into it, especially with this show, which has multiple accents and a dozen-plus characters.

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