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50 local stages team for first-ever Women’s Voices Theatre Festival

Josiah Bania and Alexandra Henrikson perform a scene from "Ironbound" at Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Photo by Cheyenne Michaels)

WASHINGTON — It’s one of the most ambitious theater initiatives D.C. has ever attempted.

More than 50 theaters in D.C., Maryland and Virginia are collaborating on the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, staging world premieres by female playwrights from September through October.

The idea began two and a half years ago with a brainstorming session between the artistic directors of seven originating theatres: Ford’s Theatre; Arena Stage; Round House Theatre; Shakespeare Theatre Company; Signature Theatre; Studio Theatre; and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Their creation kicked off last week during a powerful Q&A with playwright Lisa Kron, whose Broadway musical “Fun Home” dominated this year’s Tony Awards with Best Musical, Best Musical Book, Best Original Score, Best Lead Actor and Best Musical Direction.

“If 22 percent of plays being produced are written by women, I think we can agree that’s not the natural order of things,” Kron told the crowd. “Unless we believe that men are inherently better writers than women, then there is some implicit bias that’s keeping more women from writing.”

Kron says all playwrights deserve the flexibility to fail.

“The goal of parity is for there to be as many bad plays by women and people of color as there are by white men,” Kron says. “And in this magnificent festival, there are going to be great plays and not great plays in exactly the same proportion as everywhere else. That’s what we’re going for.”

Ford’s Theatre Director Paul Tetreault echoed that sentiment.

“The reality is when you produce world premieres, half of them are not going to fly,” Tetreault tells WTOP. “We’ve gotta allow women to have the same place of expression and experimentation that we do with men. … When anyone’s working on a new play, there’s gotta be the ability for them to fail, there’s gotta be the ability for them to need further work, to need further development, and we’ve got to be able to support that and be behind those artists regardless of what the outcome is.”

In this light, Ford’s Theatre commissioned three different playwrights before ultimately choosing to produce “The Guard” by New York playwright Jessica Dickey. The show runs Sept. 25-Oct. 18.

“It’s sort of like a play within a play within a play. It starts off in a museum, and these museum guards are looking at this painting. The second scene, you’re actually at the Rembrandt studio with Rembrandt who’s painting the painting we were just talking about. And in the third scene, you’re actually in Ancient Greece talking with the subject of the painting. And then the fourth scene, we actually come all the way back to the beginning where we’re in present day,” Tetreault says.

Across town, Round House Theatre is producing “Ironbound,” written by Martyna Majok, who actually studied under Kron (pre-“Fun Home”) at the Yale School of Drama.

It follows a poor immigrant woman, whose life we watch over 20 years entirely at a bus stop. We see her just after her arrival in America in 1992, we see her in 2006, and we see her present day. Along the way, we track her three romantic relationships and the three presidencies of each era.

“I swear it’s funny,” laughs Majok, whose next project is a musical about Chernobyl. Yes, really.

As for “Ironbound,” it’s partly based on her family’s immigrant experience, moving from Poland to New Jersey when she was five years old. The bus-stop idea came to her during long work commutes.

“I was working at a job … and I was doing a four-hour commute one way in South Jersey,” Majok says. “I was crashing on a cot in random housing and I would take three trains back up to New Haven, where I had just finished graduate school. … I had a lot of time to think on the train.”

After writing the play, she took it to workshops in San Francisco, where it was seen by Ryan Rilette of Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. Rilette thought it would be the perfect play to bring back to the Women’s Voices Theatre Fest. Majok’s agent put her in touch with director Daniella Topol, and before long, “Ironbound” was up and running as a highlight of the festival.

“Often it takes about five years for a play to go from first draft to production, and the fact that this is going to production in two years is really fast,” Topol tells WTOP.

The Round House show is a welcome homecoming for Topol, who grew up in Bethesda-Chevy Chase before leaving for school at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and relocating to Brooklyn in 1999.

“(I’m) so impressed by the support and passion and commitment of the community,” Topol says of her native D.C. area. “That the theater community is vibrant and large enough to make something like this festival happen collectively, and yet not so big that so many theatres are excluded from participating, it really feels like the perfect city to kick off such an initiative.”

The festival runs through the end of October, but the theatres hope to continue the outreach.

“We do not want this to be a two-month festival and then it goes away and that’s the end of it (and) we don’t hear any more of these women playwrights,” Tetreault says.

“We want these plays to be produced in other parts of the country. … We’re hoping that we can send a message around the country, around the globe, about the value of women playwrights and the importance of producing women at an equal pace as producing men.”

Click here for the full list of participating theatres. Click here for the full list of plays. 

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