The Women’s Voices Theater Festival currently wrapping up in Washington, D.C., featured over 30 theatrical productions written by some of the country’s pre-eminent women playwrights. From world premieres to second and third productions of works by female playwrights, nationwide festival-related activities and a variety of other events for theater artists and audiences, the festival seeks to ignite discussions around gender parity in theater.
In its first year, the festival showcased 52 world-premiere plays by female playwrights at over 50 theaters, demonstrating the breadth of local artists and companies and expanding conversations about gender parity in theater. The 2015 inaugural event was declared “inspired” by The Washington Post and “an energizing showcase” by The New York Times.
Coordinating Producer Nan Barnett set out to ensure that this year’s iteration would further build on that legacy. Executive Director of the National New Play Network, the United States’ alliance of 110 nonprofit professional theaters, Barnett is a new play developer and advocate for theater-makers. “I’m a huge proponent of just by making people stop and think about it, we’ll see a change, and that certainly happened the first time and we’re anticipating that it will with this one as well,” she told Ms. “I feel it is very important that people hear the stories of others and doing it in a room full of other people makes it seep into us. Theater artists have always been a part of that [activism] throughout history, whether it’s done subtly or whether it’s done in a very impactful way. It’s hard to leave a theater without being changed and those changes are what start movements and motion.”
Playwright Julia Cho’s Aubergine was performed through March 4th at the Olney Theatre Center; playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Jefferson’s Garden played through February 8th at Ford’s Theatre.
Both are well-respected and critically-acclaimed playwrights whose work has been produced on Broadway, in the West End and around the world. Both plays explore issues of personal, political and national identity. Aubergine revolves around Ray, a classically trained French chef, who leaves his job to take care of his dying father, a Korean immigrant. The play explores the tension between father and son and food’s ability to divide and connect Ray to his memory, identity and heritage. Jefferson’s Garden centers around Christian, a Quaker pacifist who fights in the American Revolution, and Susannah, an enslaved women who is tempted to fight for the British in exchange for freedom. All characters in the play are forced to confront the contradictions between the ideals and realities of freedom in America.
Ms. spoke with Cho and Wertenbaker about gender parity in theater and the kinds of stories that inspire them.
What aspects of having your play performed as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival are most rewarding to you?
JC: When I was writing Aubergine, I assumed it was impossible to produce. The casting is deceptively difficult. For various reasons–demographic, cultural, etc. — it is extremely hard to find an actor who speaks Korean fluently enough to play the Uncle. And so the fact it’s being produced at all feels like a major victory. It’s also very rewarding to know that the play, despite being very specific to my own culture and growing up, resonates with people who seem, at first glance, so different from me. That’s enormously reassuring and hopeful.
TW: The most rewarding aspect of being part of the Women’s Theatre Festival is being in the company of other women playwrights. I haven’t met them but I know they’re there. It’s an invisible companionship that brings great strength.
What elements of playwriting do you find especially rewarding and effective at exploring complicated issues?
JC: I think playwriting is a great way to pose questions because so much of drama is driven by people who are struggling, questioning or grappling with issues or situations. And it’s a very forgiving medium when it comes to structure and resolution. Plays can be messy and not provide any neat answers. And so when looking at a complicated issue or event, you can approach it through multiple voices with multiple perspectives and not worry so much (though of course you still do some) about providing a solution or an answer.
TW: A theatrical performance is a dialogue between the play and the audience. We need complexity, not oversimplification and there’s no better place for complexity than in the theatre.
Which themes you explore in your play are most relevant today; and how do you hope your play will inspire your audience to gain new perspectives and reflections regarding contemporary American society?
JC: I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer that. I think readers, theater makers and audiences members could better tell say what themes are relevant to the world and themselves. I do believe that telling your story is maybe the work of our lives. And we all do it in whatever medium we work. So, I suppose if anything, I hope the play inspires those who see it to think of their own stories and their own lives — and to see the value and relevance in them no matter where they come from or who they are.
TW: It took me a long time to write this play. I couldn’t predict that it would come to Ford’s in Washington D.C. at such a time. What is happening now is a direct consequence of what happened when this country was founded. It seems to me that the consequences of historical decisions are more acute in America than in many other countries because it was founded with such deliberation.
How do you hope the Women’s Voices Theater Festival will contribute to expanding the kinds of narratives that we share?
JC: I think the more different narratives we see, the more open we become to even more different narratives. It doesn’t happen quickly, but over time you can see how the first story about a new subject can seem radical and unique, and then a dozen iterations later, it’s become almost the norm. It’s 2018 and yet there are a lot of stories women have yet to tell. There is still work to be done and I think a festival like this is part of that work.
TW: We haven’t heard enough of women’s voices in the theatre for the simple reason that there aren’t enough productions of plays by women. To this day, we don’t know all the possibilities of those narratives. Theatre is a living form and needs constant renewal. What better way than with the perceptions and stories of women playwrights?