In the fall of 2015, the inaugural Women’s Voices Theater Festival, showcased 62 female-penned world premiere plays. The festival was a rousing success, garnering interest in the playwrights and inspiring other women to write for the theater. According to the festival, 13 productions by 17 playwrights went on to enjoy subsequent performances.
Beginning this month, the second Women’s Voices Theater Festival will highlight 24 plays (13 world premieres and 11 American or regional premieres) produced in the greater Washington, D.C. and Baltimore areas over a two month period. Two local playwrights will bookend the festival. Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ Queens Girl in Africa opened at Mosaic Theater January 4th. Nu Sass’s production of Hope Villanueva’s The Veils, at Anacostia Arts Center, closes March 4th.
Events will be focused around the official date for the festival: January 15 – February 15, 2018.
The artistic directors of the seven original theaters who, together, provided the initiative for the 2015 festival are all onboard again: Molly Smith (Arena Stage), Paul R. Tetreault (Ford’s Theatre), Ryan Rilette (Round House Theatre), Michael Kahn (Shakespeare Theatre Company), Eric Schaeffer (Signature Theatre), David Muse (Studio Theatre) and Howard Shalwitz (Woolly Mammoth).
Nan Barnett, executive director of the National New Play Network, will serve as the festival’s coordinating producer, as she did for the first festival, with support from theatreWashington, led by its president, Amy Austin.
“This is where we’ve arrived. The thinking was this was an important, groundbreaking festival, and it was important to do it again,” Austin says. “It’s collaborative work among 24 institutions and we are working in the middle trying to organize and provide sensibility to the overall festival piece of it and working with them all on this important, critical, collaborative process.”
WVTF Selection Criteria
All productions must be either World Premieres, American Premieres, or have had no more than 2 previous professional productions and open during the festival – between January 15 and February 15, 2018.
Plays must be either by a female-identifying playwright or have at least fifty per cent of its credited generative team be female-identifying artists.
Productions must include, in addition to the writer, at least one major female artistic contributor.
Plays must be fully produced (rehearsal period of at least two weeks; sets, lights, costumes as deemed necessary by the playwright; etc.) and stage a minimum of 16 performances of the production.
All participating companies are strongly encouraged to have the playwright in the rehearsal process and playwright contracts must include housing and transportation for the playwright to see at least one performance. Exceptions will be made only if the playwright’s schedule does not allow participation, and the theater must then make all efforts to include the writer in the process via other modes of communication.
“We ended up with this amazing selection of work because the theaters who are participating are diverse as the playwrights writing the plays,” Austin says. “We really wanted as many participants as possible.”
Naturally, one’s mind might go to the #MeToo Movement as a catalyst for this year’s festival, but these plays were written before that came about and Austin notes that movements like that aren’t new, but what’s new is the hashtag and having some people discover how rampant sexual harassment is for all women.
“The Festival is a response to the problem that women’s voices are often diminished in many ways, including in theater where men are produced at a much more rapid rate,” she added. “Our community is saying, ‘we’re going to do something about this and we’re going to do it together so there is more recognition of the problem overall regionally and nationally.”
Hope Villanueva, whose work, The Veils will be the last play of the festival period, directed by Angela Kay Pirko for Nu Sass Productions.
“I love that I get to be a part of this. I really am an emerging playwright and this is my first full production,” Villanueva says. “To see my show up there next to playwrights who I have admired and artists I know, I feel incredibly fortunate.”
She is thrilled that the D.C. theater community is bringing so much attention to women’s writing and women’s stories and the importance of having equity in the industry.
The Veils follows the story of Mel, an active Marine Corp translator, whose father dies while she’s on deployment. When she finally makes it home, Mel is haunted by nightmares of both what she has experienced and the prospect of returning to the family life she once had.
“Just before I moved to D.C., I started dating a marine and he had just gotten out, so during the early part of our relationship, I saw him going through the struggles of returning to civilian life,” Villanueva says. “There was not a whole lot I could do to help, which was very frustrating. He just couldn’t seem to get his feet under him, psychologically or financially. I wanted to write something about that struggle.”
In addition to the struggle, the story also involves Mel planning a wedding—a scenario which the playwright opined was almost opposite in tone to the seriousness of the other major part of the play.
“I made the marine a woman and while she is dealing with wartime PTSD issues, she is planning her wedding with her sister and her mom,” Villanueva says. “Any one of those issues would make a person crazy, and when you put them on top of one another, you have drama.”
Villanueva serves as sound designer for Nu Sass and came to the leadership one day asking them to give her script a read. They liked it, and did a reading of the script at the Kennedy Center for the New Voices Festival and then the theater decided it would be a great piece to run as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Other featured playwrights taking part in the festival include Walking Dead favorite Danai Gurira (Familiar at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company); Theresa Rebeck (The Way of the World at Folger), creator of NBC’s Smash; and Pulitzer nominee Sarah DeLappe (The Wolves at Studio).
“There are at least 10 local playwrights and I am looking forward to shepherding those women who are around us and having their voices be heard,” Austin says. “This is a great way to show how much local talent we have in our community.”
The plays follow a wide range of topics—everything from the immigrant experience of Iraqis (by Heather Raffo’s Noura at STC), to the Black Lives Matter movement (Rabbit Summer by Tracey Conyer Lee at Ally Theatre Company), to a Cherokee lawyer fighting for the autonomy of her Nation (Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty at Arena Stage).
Each Friday night during the two months of the Festival, theatergoers are invited to Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle in the upstairs bar starting at 10pm for informal post-show conversations with playwrights, actors and audience members.
For a complete list of shows and theaters taking part, visit WomensVoicesTheaterFestival.org.
Women playwrights don’t disappear from the scene with the close of the festival. Venus Theatre, the Laurel, MD based women’s theatre company, begins its full season of plays by women with the comedy This Little Light by Jennifer Faletto.