Back in 2009, when D.C. actress Aubri O’Connor co-founded her theater company Nu Sass Productions, she had a prepared response when people would ask her why she focuses on giving women opportunities. “My talking point was ‘75 percent of all characters are male, and 75 percent of all actors are female,’ ” she recalls. “It’s eight women fighting for one role and two men fighting for three roles.” Nine years later, “The needle hasn’t really moved that much.”
Spotlighting female actors isn’t an explicit goal of D.C.’s second Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which kicked off this month, but it is a side effect. As it did for its inaugural edition in 2015, the festival collects shows written by women — 24 plays from 24 theaters this time around (with some running through mid-March). So the emphasis is on female writers, not actors or directors or stage managers or designers or any other roles in the village it takes to raise a production.
“I think couching the festival under the umbrella of playwrights is actually a really smooth trick,” says Hope Villanueva, who is participating in this year’s festival as the writer of Nu Sass’ play “The Veils,” about a veteran who returns home to plan her wedding, and as stage manager of “Queens Girl in Africa.” “I think women writers by nature are going to attract women directors, and are going to tell stories about women. You’re also going to attract female producers because they want to see those stories told. And in a positive version of the trickle-down effect, those female directors and producers are going to create their teams likewise.”
If that’s the case, the perpetual dearth of roles for women onstage and off might have something to do with the glaring gender inequality among produced playwrights in the U.S. According to a study from the Lilly Awards published in 2015, only 20 percent of the works produced in the country between 2011 and 2014 were written by women.
In the D.C. area, the numbers aren’t much more promising. According to a study from Gwydion Suilebhan and Olivia Haller, D.C.-based playwrights and staffers at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, a third of shows being produced during the 2017-18 season were written by women.
“This is not a new problem,” says Amy Austin, president and CEO of theatreWashington, which is co-producing the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. “It is unique that [the D.C.] community is conscious of its role and its place to try and make this world a better place.”
The numbers sound disheartening, but women in the community have found reason to hope that D.C. can lead a national effort toward gender parity in theater.
“I feel like D.C. is on the forefront of that conversation because it doesn’t have that commercial market to compete [in] like New York does,” says Nataki Garrett, who directed Woolly Mammoth’s 2016 hit “An Octoroon” and is directing Ford’s Theatre’s festival contribution “Jefferson’s Garden,” a Revolutionary War-set drama that explores what freedom meant for people other than the Founding Fathers. “Part of the reason why I feel like New York tends to cultivate fewer women or minorities is because [those theaters are] always answering to the god of commercial reality.” It’s not that D.C. theaters don’t have their own budgets to balance — it’s that those producers trust that audiences here will pay to see diverse, socially conscious stories onstage.
“There’s an appreciation for the history and the process that makes the D.C. audiences so fascinating,” says Caleen Sinnette Jennings, a 30-year veteran of the D.C. theater community who wrote Mosaic’s “Queens Girl in Africa,” a follow-up to her 2015 play “Queens Girl in the World.” Both are one-woman, coming-of-age stories that are loosely based on Jennings’ childhood, first in New York, then in Nigeria, where her family moved when she was a teenager. “It’s no accident that this kind of theater is happening here because the audiences seem to support it. … I couldn’t see [‘Queens Girl in the World’] being produced in New York — I don’t think anybody would have taken a chance.”
Part of D.C.’s willingness to take risks on less established playwrights and stories is its long history of theater companies run by women: Karen Evans has been president of the Black Women Playwrights’ Group since she founded it in 1989; Karen Zacarias founded the Young Playwrights’ Theater in 1995; Molly Smith has led Arena Stage as artistic director since 1998. “The idea of a woman running a theater is not something that is new to me,” Jennings says. In D.C., “women have always had a voice, and a well-respected voice, I think.”
In addition to having a rich history of women at the top of theater, D.C. is a fertile playground for young women in the community. Jennings, a professor in American University’s theater department, credits the handful of robust theater education programs across the city for giving women a rare advantage in the theater world.
“In universities, young women have more of an opportunity to be exposed to female mentors than in the professional world,” she says. “Many [graduates] will take a year or two, sometimes longer, to deepen their roots in the theater community, to learn a little bit more about what they personally want to do, to build their résumé.”
O’Connor, for example, founded Nu Sass when she was 26 (along with Emily Todd, now a producer emeritus at the company), after being frustrated by the relatively few opportunities for her as an actress in D.C. From back of house to front, she’s formed Nu Sass into the company she would have wanted to join: It reimagines shows to include more female roles, its production staff goes to great lengths to apprentice young women, and each show’s team must have a majority of female or transgender members. Nu Sass is one of several D.C. companies — along with Pinky Swear Productions, Brave Spirits Theatre and LiveArtDC — that put an emphasis on opportunities for women.
“If nothing else, I like being in a room with other women, because that’s the whole point of this for me,” O’Connor says. “Giving other women a space to be.”
Though perhaps working with other women doesn’t make a tangible difference in the product, it certainly makes productions feel different. “When I have worked on teams that are primarily male, the first thing that has to be settled is the power dynamic,” Garrett says. “When you’re working with women, you just start working. It feels a little bit like after Thanksgiving, when me and my girl cousins would head into the kitchen and do dishes, and we’d never talk about it because it just had to get done.”
O’Connor sees her efforts, and those of the Women’s Voices festival, as raising the profile of female writers, directors, actors, designers and production members in the city.
“Even if we don’t see the needle shifting very quickly, I think [the festival] is making changes,” she says. “It’s getting people to think, ‘Maybe I’ll look at this playwright; that was an interesting concept so when I commission something in two years, I’ll bring them in.’ Or, ‘Maybe this all-female cast isn’t such a bad idea.’ Or, ‘Maybe I’ll work with this designer in the future.’ It’s about really trying to change the way people are approaching art and the way the audiences are approaching the theater — incrementally.”