North Carolina by Jacqueline E. Lawton
When The Count was published in the November/December 2015 issue of The Dramatist, it confirmed what many of us already knew: Women playwrights do not receive as many productions as men, and women of color receive even fewer productions than white women. The study, which analyzed productions over a three-year period, was funded by the Dramatists Guild and The Lilly Awards. It found that only 22% of productions in the American theatre were written by women.
The study was powerful, thorough, and well-executed. The solid data gave those of us advocating for access, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the American theatre necessary tools to continue our efforts. What’s more, it was a direct call to action that ricocheted across the nation. Three months later after The Count was published, in March 2016, Raleigh based actor-director Ashley Popio formulated a plan. She held two community meetings, which gathered close to 300 women theatre artists from around the Triangle. The response was clear: We must come together to address gender parity, diversity, and inclusion in the theatre community. From there, the foundation of the Women’s Theatre Festival (WTF) of North Carolina was set.
Now in their third season, the WTF has met with much success and only slight pushback. Dramatists Guild member Johannah Edwards, who is also Managing Director of the WTF, feels the WTF “is an opportunity to begin work that is specifically tuned to the experiences of women. Women are the bosses and women decide which stories get told.” This year’s theme was “Women Are Heroes” and featured plays by Guild members Danai Gurira and Melanie Marnich. While no NC-based women playwrights were featured as part of the mainstage this season, they have been in the past and were a show of force during the powerful, politically charged “Occupy the Stage” event.
In partnership with the Wake Forest Renaissance Centre for the Arts, the Women’s Theatre Festival (WTF) presented 24 hours of staged readings of short plays from playwrights all across the country. Additionally, they offered a series of panels, professional development workshops, and devised theatre performance. Not only that, but there was even a two-hour session to promote “hero work,” and provided theaters and theater artists an opportunity to meet with local and national organizations to partner with in pursuit of social justice.
In just three years, the Women’s Festival has already been transformative for playwrights in North Carolina. Dramatists Guild member Marilynn Anselmi, whose play was a part of “Occupy the Stage,” speaks to the challenges that a lack of parity presents: “Unfortunately, we must have this type of targeted opportunity to assure our words are included in theater. It’s also been very useful for me in terms of semi-local exposure and the opportunity to meet other women artists.” Dramatists Guild member Shelley Segal also had a play in the “Occupy the Stage” event. Her play focused on parenting, societal misperceptions, and discrimination. When I asked her thoughts on the festival, she said that she hopes that “people witnessed what we’ve known all along: When women get together, things get done. Creatively.”
Dramatists Guild member Rebecca Welper, whose play explored the difficulty of breastfeeding, has a clear vision for the Women’s Festival. She wants “audiences to be excited about new work by talented local artists. I want them to notice the still unfortunate gender and racial gaps in playwriting and other areas of the theatre and to support all women artists.” Her thoughts brilliantly sum up why this festival and those like it are essential to the American theatre, and why I hope even more pop up across the country.