Women comprise a majority of theater patrons – and a minority of those on the stage and behind the scenes. A glimpse at the local women who are trying to change that.
It was 1999, and the three women actors were talking in a dressing room at Penumbra Theatre, where they all had roles in “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” Shá Cage said, “We had colorful conversations about what the work was like, and what we thought it should be like.” The discussion, which centered on what theater written, produced and acted by women of color would look like, continued by email. Cage, Jeany Park and Signe Harriday decided that as women of color from different backgrounds, they shared an important vision. They formed Mama Mosaic theater company, with Cage as artistic director.
The same year, a group of seven women directors, actors and playwrights gathered to talk about what they saw as the lack of opportunities for women in theater. “We were tired of what we were seeing on the Twin Cities stages,” said Stacey Poirier. The women wanted an opportunity to prove themselves, so they founded their own theater company and named it Theatre Unbound. Today, Poirier is its artistic director.
Fast forward to January 2006. Claire Avitabile called a meeting for women interested in doing women’s theater. “Forty women came,” she recalled. They formed the Twin Cities chapter, 20% Theatre Company (other chapters exist in New York and Chicago). The name comes from a study that shows about 20 percent of stage actors are women. 20% Theatre Company mounted its first production in May 2006. Avitabile is artistic director.
Each of the companies has its own niche. They’re all convinced that they’re doing cutting-edge work. Some have garnered awards and critical praise. On the flip size, they’re run by volunteers with day jobs, and they’re among the smallest theater groups in an area rich with theater companies large and small. Together, their annual budgets total somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000. Small can undoubtedly be beautiful, and while many theater companies live a hand-to-mouth existence, what does it say about women’s theater that all of these companies operate on a shoestring?
The way we were
It hasn’t always been this way, said Beth Cleary, theater professor at Macalester College. “It’s shocking how far we’ve dropped from the glorious women’s theater movement of the 1970s and 1980s, where women playwrights were getting published and their plays were actually getting produced, women artistic directors ran theaters that owned buildings or had their own space.” Space is key, she said. “That is a huge issue, access to permanent space-no space, no voice.” None of today’s women theater companies has its own permanent space.
Although there were 185 women’s theaters across the U.S. from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s and a Twin Cities women’s theater community that included Alive and Trucking, Lavender Cellar, At The Foot of The Mountain and the Women’s Theatre Project (WTP), even the “good old days” weren’t so good, said Hamline University theater professor Carolyn Levy. She was a co-founder and the artistic director of the WTP, which existed from 1980-1988. Levy recalled, “Our mission was to produce new plays by women about issues of importance to women and to employ women in the production of these plays. We produced plays about battered women, women and work, nurses, women in religion, adolescent girls, pornography, the decision whether or not to have children, and many others. … When [WTP] started, At The Foot of the Mountain [the longest running women’s theater company in the U.S., based in Minneapolis from 1974 – 1991] was in existence, but almost all of the other theaters in the Twin Cities were run by men.”
There’s nothing like a dame
Why is it important to produce stories by women, starring women, directed by women? Levy explained, “For a good part of theater history, women have gone to the theater and been asked to extrapolate something from plays for men, written by men, featuring men. Some are incredible stories. I would never say that “Macbeth” or “King Lear” doesn’t have something to say to me. …
“But [productions by men] do not tell the entire story about the human condition. [Women’s theater] can tell a different story from a different perspective.” Levy said it’s important not only for women to experience the feeling of “WOW, they’re talking to me, I recognize that experience, that feeling,” but also for men to realize, “Wow, I never got that before … maybe my mother/wife/sister/partner/co-worker has experienced that.”
Theater by women, for women-mostly
Theatre Unbound has evolved into a theater that presents only plays written by women-with some exceptions, including an all-female cast performing Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
In contrast, while you might see a man onstage at a 20% Theatre Company production, the words he’s speaking were written by a woman, Avitabile said. “We focus on … taking the script from the bottom of the pile, that was written by a woman,” she said. Or, rather, by someone who identifies as female. “Female is not limited to biological women … we enthusiastically welcome transgender, transsexual, and gender-queer theater artists [which] includes self-identified women.”
All of Mama Mosaic’s productions have been written by women-the theater members have written all of the plays produced. And it’s only women onstage, too, at least so far, said Cage.
Beth Cleary, theater professor at Macalester College, suggests that we “do the math” and start paying attention to who’s staffing theaters and productions. “Although there are wonderful achievements by well-known directors…. these ‘wins’ are exceptions.” All the more reason, she thinks, for not just women’s theater but feminist theater: “It’s urgent that women’s theater is feminist theater, with women actors, directors and designers,” she said, … “addressing questions of power, access, misogyny/sexism, which are all feminist issues.”
Looking ahead, Levy’s hopes are tempered with a good dose of reality. “In our department [at Hamline], there are always more female students than males. But in the professional world that is not the case. I refuse to be pessimistic largely because I see so many talented women, in my classroom and in the theaters around me, but I think there is still a long way to go. “I still define ‘women’s theater’ the way we did in the WTP [women producing plays about issues important to women] and I think there is still a need for it-those voices are too often silenced and need to be heard.”
Behind the footlights: a tale of three theater companies
‘The play is the appetizer’
Shá Cage wants you to know two things: Mama Mosaic is all about community. And after a two-year hiatus from performing plays, “We are the healthiest and ‘clearest’ we’ve ever been.”
That two years was spent “Dig[ging] our feet deeper in community work and formulat[ing] a new vision.” In the past, Cage said, “We were aggressive about putting up shows. We’d spend a year writing a script, then would mount that script. Our new structure is amazing, and unlike traditional theater structures [with a yearly theatrical season and prescribed number of shows per season]. If it takes two years [to write a script], that’s how long it takes.” Part of what’s ahead: “We have been writing and developing our upcoming play, ‘Women and War,’ for a year now and plan to mount it in the fall of 2008. One week in Minneapolis and two in New York.”
What hasn’t changed is their community focus. “We’re really about the community work-community development. We take taboo subjects to workshops and salons. They are sort of the glue … we use the play as the point of departure. The play is the appetizer; the real meal deal is the workshops, dialogues and discussions that precede and, more importantly, follow the play.”
Annual budget: $30,000 – $50,000
On the horizon: In March of 2008, Mama Mosaic will sponsor its second Femme Fest, a four-day community event involving playwriting, dance and music workshops, a girls’ day camp and roundtable discussions. In the fall of 2008, look for the production of its new play, “Women and War.”
Get in touch: www.myspace.com/mamamosaictheatre
Success on a shoestring
It’s hard to keep up with Theatre Unbound. In its seven years of producing theater, it’s mounted an impressive 23 productions plus a dizzying array of “24 hour plays” and “director’s gyms.” It’s clearly a leader in the women’s theater community and has received some good critical reviews and media attention, yet “We struggle to make magic with no money,” said Artistic Director Stacey Poirier.
According to its vision statement, Theatre Unbound is dedicated to producing the work of women playwrights, directed and designed by women, with challenging roles for women actors.
Annual budget: $36,000
On the horizon: From Oct. 26-Nov. 17, Theatre Unbound will present “Frankenstein Incarnate: The Passions of Mary Shelley,” a look at the creator of Frankenstein, at The Neighborhood House in the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center, St. Paul.
Get in touch: http://www.theatreunbound.com/
In touch with the grassroots
When 20% Theatre Company – Twin Cities staged its play reading of “Standards of Care,” a play with a transgender theme, the members were overwhelmed by the audience reaction. “We staged it at the Acadia … it seats 85 and we had to keep bringing in chairs,” said Artistic Director Claire Avitabile. The play was embraced by the transgender community who had yet to see their experience taken seriously on the stage. “The audience asked what would happen next; when would it come to the stage as a full production?” Because of the community response, 20% changed its production timetable; it will present a full production in May or June of 2008.
In its 14 months of operation, 20% has staged five readings, three one-woman shows and one main stage show. Though some company members and associates have experience, others do not, or are trying out new roles. “We are doing the undone! And we are giving underrepresented people with and without formal experience a chance to make theater!” Avitabile said.
Annual budget: $15,000
On the horizon: From Aug. 17-25, 20% will present “Hot ‘n Throbbing,” a raw look at sexual violence and pornography, at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage.
Get in touch: www.tctwentypercent.org