The Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, the event last fall during which more than 50 Washington theaters produced new plays by female playwrights, was considered such a resounding artistic and morale-building success that a second installment is being considered for the 2017-2018 season, according to multiple theater sources.
Discussions are still in the preliminary phase, but according to officials, the second Women’s Voices festival would occur as a mid-season feature, possibly running in January and February of 2018. While it’s unclear how plays might be chosen in this go-round, one format change being considered would involve paring down the number of participating theaters, sources in the theater community said. Involvement in the event could be limited to theater companies in the region that are willing to commit resources to marketing and other essential aspects of the venture.
In the performing-arts world, topical events of the scale of the women’s festival tend to be one-offs. They’re created and dismantled and then an idea for a festival on an entirely new theme is developed; the previous citywide festival occurred in 2007 when the focus was “Shakespeare in Washington.” So the notion of a Women’s Voices 2.0 is itself rather unique.
Planning for a new festival had been kept under wraps until last week’s annual conference of the Theatre Communications Group, the organization representing more than 700 non-profit theaters across the country, held this year at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington.
During a workshop in which theater administrators from the District talked about the results of a 10-year study of audience behavior at seven major theater companies in the region, Michael Porto, chief marketing officer of Shakespeare Theatre Company, disclosed that a festival was being considered for the 2017-2018 season in the city. He did not reveal the subject. Several others in the theater community, who did not want to speak for the record because they are not empowered to do so, confirmed the subject of the proposed event.
Porto’s remarks came as the workshop’s leader, Jill Robinson, president and chief executive of TRG Arts, a Colorado-based arts consultancy, presented data showing that traditionally there isn’t a lot of audience-sharing in Washington’s theater community, an obstacle to growth. The statistics revealed that for the seven theaters participating in the ongoing study — Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Studio Theatre, Ford’s Theatre, Signature Theatre and Theater J — only 15 percent of playgoers attended more than one of the theaters in the latter years under study, 2009-2013. in other words, a full 85 percent of theater households patronized one theater only.
Regionwide festivals seek to raise awareness not only of the work being produced for the event but also to foster collective action within the industry. On that score, the women’s festival was considered a useful exercise, said the panelists in the TCG workshop.
On an artistic level, there were notable achievements in the festival, held in September and October. A world premiere festival production of “Salomé” at Shakespeare Theatre Company by director Yael Farber was the runaway big winner at this year’s Helen Hayes Awards. Other plays that made debuts during the event such as Sheila Callaghan’s “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” at Woolly Mammoth and Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound” at Round House Theatre, have gone on to major productions in Los Angeles and New York.
The potential exists, of course, for a second women’s festival to shift its focus, to bring on, for instance, more female directors, or perhaps look more actively for playwrights of color. In any case, the preliminary talks indicate that Washington’s theaters are viewing collaboration as an ever more vital tool.