At a North Raleigh restaurant, producer Ashley Popio is ticking off the milestones of an ambitious new theater festival launching this weekend. It all came together in a few months, after Popio reached out to female theater artists (and their male allies) in a Facebook post in March.
"We've signed the contracts with every single venue," she says. "We're producing not one or two but eight productions, and that's not counting our sister shows. We've just sent the program to the printer."
Her eyes close for a moment as she savors a bite of a sushi roll. When they open, she says, "It's going to happen. We're actually having a women's theater festival."
North Carolina's first festival devoted to female playwrights, actors, producers, designers, and technicians is calculated to challenge and change statistics from last season, when less than a quarter of regional productions were written by women, and less than a third had female directors. These dismal figures mirror a national gender-parity problem that has sparked similar women's theater festivals across the country.
Women's Theatre Festival begins Saturday morning with Occupy the Stage, an audacious around-the-clock marathon of staged readings, full productions, workshops, and an ad hoc slumber party at Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh.
"It's the best deal in town," Popio says. She has a point: a mere sawbuck to see twenty-one works in twenty-four hours. They include mini-festivals of ten-minute plays at ten a.m. and ten p.m.; a new work by Adrienne Pender (whose historical drama, N, will open Theatre in the Park's 2017 season); and a haunting Appalachian tale by noted actor Rebecca Bossen.
Then, every weekend through Sept. 3, the festival will open new mainstage productions in Raleigh, Carrboro, Sanford, and Burlington.
Meanwhile, around the Triangle, there are eleven "sister shows," local independent productions that meet the festival's criteria—plays written and directed by women, with women making up at least half of the cast and filling many tech and design roles.
"In general, men seem so willing to say, 'I can do that' with things they've never tried before," observes senior project manager Bronwen Mischel. "But a lot of women don't step into different roles because they feel they're not prepared. The festival lets them take that risk, because they feel safe, encouraged, and supported, and if they need help we'll find them the resources."
The result, Mischel says, is "the opportunity for yes, and helping each woman achieve that yes."
WTF is a fully crowdsourced theater festival—the first of its kind as far as its leaders know. Regional theaters have often used crowdsourcing for production costs, but WTF also used it for soliciting scripts and project proposals, auditions, staffing, rehearsal spaces, costumes, and props.
More than 250 volunteers proposed, evaluated, and staffed twenty-nine shows and the infrastructure to stage them for five weeks. Twenty-five of the playwrights are local. Five women are making their public debuts as playwrights, ten more as directors. So many new directors might give seasoned theatergoers pause, but it's part of an agenda to effect change in the local theatrical ecosystem—not just for a month, but permanently.
"If you're trying to get a directing job in this town without any experience, forget it," Popio says. "And there are virtually no opportunities for women to get that experience locally."
In response, the festival includes a sort of boot camp for first-timers, and people at various levels of experience will staff almost every play. For example, veteran actors Rozlyn Sorrell and Carly Prentis Jones and designer Miyuki Su work with noted actor—but first-time director—Diana Cameron McQueen in the scientific drama The How and the Why.
Popio, who is enthusiastic about the eight mainstage productions, calls Men Always Leave a fascinating look at betrayal and trust among women and the men who are their allies. It's paired with another one-act, The Traditionalists, which explores the unexpected banality of day-to-day life for a woman trapped in a domestic violence situation.
The drama Bruisers overturns theatrical stereotypes of college-age women by making each character a real person with individual problems.
Decision Height concerns bravery, sacrifice, and calm under pressure during wartime. "Since women are rarely depicted as having these things," Popio says, "it's a portion of the female voice that we don't often get to hear."
At a time when people are taking the law—and firearms—in their own hands, Katy Koop's The Amazing Cunt and Lil' Bitch contrasts comic-book vigilantism with starker real-life implications.
"All of us would like the statistics on rape to be much less staggering," Popio says, "but this shows how vigilante fantasies can go wrong."
Music in the Mirror uses choreography as storytelling in a cabaret of famous Broadway songs. At times, the characters illustrate and affirm the lyrics; at others, they tell a very different story.
The political satire Thunderbodies combines the blunt absurdism of Alfred Jarry with the social criticism of Bertolt Brecht, probing comedy's potential to destroy as well as create.
And in The How and the Why, two accomplished female scientists square off over different findings about the biological evolution of women—and the meanings they've given to love, career, and family.
The gender disparity this lineup aims to correct is partly the consequence of gaps in artistic education, say Popio and Sarah Duncan, director of Music and the Mirror.
"We were taught to dissect literary works and taught the Stanislavski method," Popio recalls. "But no one taught us how to produce. I've had to learn that as I go."
From her degree in dance, Duncan learned how to rehearse, perform, and choreograph, but not how to structure and manage a production, secure a venue, or market to donors and audiences.
"They were just sort of invisible things that happen behind the scenes in college," Duncan says. "Then you graduate and you realize you have no idea how to do them."
Though once convinced she didn't have the skills to stage her own work, she is now more confident that she can. Popio hopes that, by the festival's end, she won't be the only one.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Women on the Verge"