Today's guest blogger is Terry Shea. Terry and I went to Classical High School in PVD together back in the day and (like so many other people) we keep up via Facebook. As a matter of fact, that's where I first saw something about Terry's involvement with Festival51. Read on to find out what it's all about and why you need to go.
Did you know that of all of the plays produced in theaters all across America, only 17% are by women playwrights? That figure, even if it were slightly incorrect, is still staggering, given that women make up 51% of the population. Are there too few women playwrights? Certainly not, just as there is no shortage of women Directors, actors and designers. However, even though Theater would seem to be far more egalitarian than other institutions where the glass ceiling is still mostly impenetrable, the inequities still exist. As a white male active in Rhode Island theater, it’s easy for me to forget that on the acting front alone, as we age, the available parts for men actually seem to increase whereas women find it to be slim pickings. This may be due, in large part, to the fact that the majority of plays produced are written by older white men. And, if the author’s mantra is “write what you know”…well, the results speak for themselves.
Are there exceptions? Of course. Even George Bernard Shaw (who may, in fact have been born an old white man) wrote fantastic parts for women in his day, but it is telling that most of those parts were about strong women who had to *prove* their strength in a male-dominated society and not just simply enter stage left and begin knocking heads with brotastic witty dialogue. However, there does seem to be a shift (albeit a subtle one) towards changing that equation. Here in Rhode Island, playwright Sara Ruhl (a Brown alum) is getting her unique plays produced seemingly every other week and new Directors like Kira Hawkridge are forming their own companies (www.outloudtheatre.org ) and producing all-female Shakespeare extravaganzas.
However, Shakespeare was still a man last we checked and updating his work is not quite the same as producing new plays by women authors and directed by women. Back in the mists of time (the 90’s), the sadly defunct Perishable Theatre in Providence used to host the annual International Women’s Playwriting Festival. That institution continued as long as Perishable did, but I had a moment of naïve, and yes, probably arrogant misguidedness in 1994 when I and a theater colleague produced “Men’s Stories”, a male-centric playwriting festival at NewGate Theatre in Providence as a response to the Women’s Playwriting Festival. We beat our chests and grunted snarky congratulations to each other as we curated, and directed and acted in plays about Vietnam vets and fathers and who knows what else. It was meant to be slightly cynical and in 1994, no one that I recall gave us too much grief over the concept. Today, we would be rightfully chastised for such an idea…or would we?
The inequities that existed then are still with us today. Women playwrights are still woefully underrepresented. (This article by Dr. Juli Parker in Motif magazine sums it all up quite nicely: motifri.com/the-female-playwrights-issue-takes-center-stage.) So, when a colleague of mine, Leann Heath, mentioned the idea of resurrecting the Women’s Playwright Festival idea, it resonated immediately. Long-simmering guilt over my “Men’s Stories” folly? Not really, since if I felt guilty about everything I did in my 20’s I would never leave the therapist’s office. However, I did see a chance not only to help Leann make the festival happen, but to stop paying lip service to an idea and actually do something about it. As a result, July 31st – August 15th at Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket, we are producing Festival51, a Women’s Playwriting Festival.
After whittling down several excellent submissions, we’ve selected four wonderful plays (and another short one that will be filmed and shown at each performance). We’ve also hired four up and coming women directors for the pieces since men, not surprisingly, tend to dominate that area as well. An Artists’ Auction fundraising event at SEEN Gallery in Pawtucket on July 7th will help cover expenses (we hope!) and rehearsals are about to begin. Are all of these plays exclusively about women? No, they are about people. And that is the ultimate lesson to be learned from my well-intentioned, but misogynistic mistake of “Men’s Stories” – to see playwrights as exclusively male or female is beside the point. Every writer will have their own point of view based on their life experience, but whether or not they espouse some sexist agenda – male or female – is entirely up to that author, not their gender as a whole.
So, why do we still need a Women’s Playwriting Festival in 2015? Because the gap is still too wide and the need for positive action to get underrepresented voices in the Arts heard is still very real. It’s lazy and simpleminded to call something like Festival51 a feminist gesture. It’s a humanist gesture, where all people deserve to be raised up to the same level. As a man, I don’t face the same kind of resistance getting my voice heard or my stories told. If I ever start to feel that way, I can muscle through ten minutes of Entourage and I’m quickly over it. Visit www.festival51.org or see us on Facebook if you think you’d like to support the festival or buy tickets to attend a performance. We’d love to see you there.
Click here to see more about Festival51.
More About Terry
Terry Shea is a RI-based actor, director, sound designer and theater critic for Motif magazine as well as sometime voiceover talent for 990WBOB internet radio. He has been active in Theater since the 1980’s and manages a day job in IT when he’s not lurking around a dark theater somewhere. A father of two daughters, he also hopes for a world in which their voices are clearly and easily heard.
Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Terry Shea.