That throat-clearing you hear is the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an unprecedented wave of world premiere plays by women that has already begun to take over Washington’s stages. It’s a coordinated attack on the nagging gender gap that no city has tried before, with 46 theaters offering 52 full productions of new works by women.
“As far as I know,” says festival co-producer Nan Barnett, “there’s never been anything this intensely focused, in this kind of time period, on full productions.”
Plays are already up and running at Venus Theatre Company and Longacre Lea, with more shows rolling out every week for the next two months. First lady Michelle Obama chairs the honorary committee; the bold-faced names on that committee range from TV stars such as Allison Janney and Tea Leoni to Pulitzer-winning playwrights Beth Henley, Quiara Alegria Hudes and Lynn Nottage.
The festival itself, though, is hardly a parade of name brands — but then Nottage and Sarah Ruhl don’t need an event such as this to get their plays produced. Hard numbers illustrate that arts and entertainment programming continues to be rigged against women, and the imbalance is watchdogged as never before:
●In the classical music community, lists have been floated to rebut the sense that women composers don’t exist.
●In Hollywood, 4 percent of last year’s major studio releases were directed by women, and the American Civil Liberties Union has asked for federal and state investigations into film and TV hiring practices.
●In Europe, culture ministers adopted a resolution this month to combat inequities in film and TV.
●In New York, the Manhattan Theatre Club just endured a public outcry against announcing seven plays, all by white men.
Only 22 percent of the plays produced from 2011 to 2014 were written by women, according to “The Count,” compiled by the Dramatists Guild of America and New York’s Lilly Awards (named for Lillian Hellman). In 2014, The Kilroys, a group of theater artists (mostly writers) based in Los Angeles, released its inaugural version of “The List,” compiled of 46 plays by women culled from hundreds of nominations, just so artistic directors couldn’t complain that there are no plays in “the pipeline.”
Three of those plays and five of the cited writers are in this festival. Is “The List” an ongoing thing?
“Yeah,” says Kilroys member and co-founder Bekah Brunstetter, sitting in a coffee shop near Bethesda’s Writer’s Center, where her play “The Oregon Trail” premieres Sept. 3 with Flying V Theatre. “Until we don’t need it anymore.”
The WVTF has been more than two years in the making, instigated by seven of the area’s biggest companies: Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Signature Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The idea was partly modeled on the 2007 “Shakespeare in Washington” festival, which involved organizations across the city of six months’ worth of Shakespearean stagings. Coordination on a civic scale was possible, and the basics of Women’s Voices seemed simple, if slightly risky: invite local troupes to produce a premiere by a female playwright to launch the 2015-2016 season.
The festival budget is just over $500,000, according to WVTF producers Barnett and Jojo Ruf (the executive director and former associate executive director of the National New Play Network, respectively). That includes in-kind donations, such as the contribution of the National Museum of Women in the Arts for the splashy Sept. 8 kickoff event. The primary cash outlays: the gala and marketing. The marketing budget is $315,000, including in-kind contributions.
WVTF is promoting two “industry weekends” in October with hotel discounts, convenings and social events for visiting theater professionals. Locally, a festival pass is available free to anyone buying a single ticket, offering discounts to other shows.
“This is not just about Arena’s audience staying at Arena,” Ruf says. “It’s about cross-pollination.”
The ad campaign hasn’t been terribly visible yet, though, and cross-pollination isn’t rampant, at least so far. The event is inevitably fragile: local playwright Ally Currin had not one but two plays withdrawn when Doorways Arts Ensemble couldn’t find a venue, and when Factory 449 lost a chunk of funding after commissioning Currin to write “The Weight of Water.”
“The play wouldn’t exist if not for the festival, so that’s cool already,” Currin says.
Other wrinkles: A few readings and weekend-only runs may stretch the definition of “professional” and “full production.” The WVTF Web site’s search functions are quirky, alphabetizing writers by first name (or under “a,” for “adapted by”). Some fear that the kickoff party is geared more toward big theater donors than to playwrights..
As for lasting parity, only one of the seven originating theaters — Round House — has programmed a 2015-2016 season featuring at least 50 percent women playwrights.
Talk to the writers, though, and they’re extremely excited, even if they resent needing a festival. Here are some of their voices.
●Bekah Brunstetter writes for TV’s “Switched at Birth,” and her “Going to a Place Where You Already Are” premieres next spring at California’s South Coast Repertory.
“I’ve had my plays talked about in ways that felt offensive and strange, but I feel like I’ve been fortunate. What we’re after is parity. One out of six is not enough.
“ ‘The Oregon Trail’ had been read at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, at the Atlantic Theatre Company — nobody was producing it. You never really get a ‘no.’ It just kind of doesn’t happen.
“I’m sure all the playwrights feel this way: I want more for this play. Now that I’ve finally figured it out, I want it to keep happening. And I hope other cities copy this.”
●Miranda Rose Hall was raised in Baltimore and studies drama at Yale. Her play “How We Died of Disease-Related Illness” is on a double bill with Akerley’s “Bones in Whispers.” It’s her first professional production.
“I’ve always assumed I’m never going to make a living from writing and that the life will involve a profound amount of insecurity. But I feel better knowing I’m in the company of others.
“Having been on the inside of theaters programming their seasons, I hear a lot of the arguments for doing the old boys club plays as being, ‘We gotta sell tickets, gotta spoon-feed our audiences.’ I think it takes demand from the masses as well as decisions from up top as to what gets done.
“This seems like a fantastic opportunity for playwrights to talk to each other and see each other’s work — or the perfect storm of everybody being in tech week, and not being able to see anything else.”
●Karen Zacarias and Caleen Sinnette Jennings are established D.C. playwrights. Zacarias is the founder of Young Playwrights’ Theater, and her works have been produced at Arena, which is staging her “Destiny of Desire.” Jennings is a founding member of the playwrights’ collective The Welders; Theater J is producing “Queens Girl in the World,” and the Kennedy Center is staging her adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’s “Darius & Twig.” They spoke together on the American University campus, where Jennings teaches.
Jennings: “I sense things are changing. The attitude about who’s in charge, how we work collectively, and who has something important to say, has shifted. There are men here who get it, and have for a while.”
Zacarias: “This is a town of activists. You move to D.C. to change the world, whether it’s in policy or the arts. It brings in a certain kind of person who believes that art can make a difference, can change opinion as a source of dialogue. . . . It feels like Awesome Playwright Women Olympics to me. And we’re all on the same team — no country. We’re all pumping iron.”
●Jennifer Hoppe-House is a Los Angeles-based writer working on “Grace and Frankie” for Netflix. Her first play, “Bad Dog,” is part of a rolling world premiere that started at the Orlando Shakespeare Company; it’s at Olney Theatre Center starting Sept. 30.
“I was ignorant, so I wrote a completely unproducible play — eight characters, and seven are women over 40. Orlando had a company of actors, and a lot of women in the cast thanked me. The women who interest me have been through a lot. That’s what I wrote about.
“You can’t get a movie produced even with an Academy Award-winning woman. You don’t want to attach a woman first because it has no credibility. It’s maddening.
“I thought my rise would be faster in film if I were a man, but we don’t talk about it much. It’s a tough place. There’s no crying in television. At ‘Grace and Frankie,’ the copy room is labeled the Crying Room. If you want to cry, you go in there.”
●Gabrielle Fulton spoke from her home base in Atlanta; MetroStage is producing her historical drama “Uprising,” set in the aftermath of the Harper’s Ferry raid.
“It’s been very difficult to get ‘Uprising’ produced. I started writing it in graduate school in 2009, and there have been lots of workshops. I was told it couldn’t be done, it wouldn’t sell, but that a contemporary play about black people would sell.
“There is interest in women’s plays. But my experience is when it comes down to it, they don’t get the financial and artistic resources. It’s taken a great push.
“I cannot see a downside [to the festival]. I’m so grateful they’re doing this. I hope there are Women’s Voices Festivals across the nation.”
●Sheila Callaghan is an L.A.- and New York-based writer and original Kilroy whose plays have been seen here at Woolly Mammoth and Catalyst Theatre; Woolly is producing “Women Laughing Alone With Salad.” She spoke from New York.
“It’s annoying there has to be a festival to get people to pay attention. . . . It should be retrograde, but unfortunately it isn’t.
“We are starting to see just how many women playwrights are out there. The ideal outcome is that people get interested in the plays and start producing them around the country. Ideally, this does the trick. We don’t do men’s festivals.”