Ashley Popio knows that comedy is more than just entertainment, a coping mechanism, or a strategy for navigating problematic work environments. It can also be a devastating weapon.
"It's dangerous to be laughed at," says Popio, the founder and artistic director of the Women's Theatre Festival. "That's why tyrants have no sense of humor. When people in power look ridiculous, you're less likely to do what they say." Comedy can be a potent form of resistance. "It's freedom," she concludes.
This weekend, the festival opens its second year with the feminist sci-fi farce Space Girl and Occupy the Stage, a twenty-four-hour mini-fest of new plays, at the newly relocated Sonorous Road Theatre. This kicks off a month and a half of comedies written, directed, and staged primarily by women in Raleigh and Durham. Mounting an all-comedy season wasn't about ignoring the current climate for women in the U.S.; it was a direct response to it, a "visceral reaction," Popio says, to the depression that descended on so many women after Trump's election.
"Everything seemed so dark and hopeless," she recalls. "We needed a light to fight for."
Despite the rise of comedians like Kate McKinnon, Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer, and Tina Fey, useless stereotypes persist about women in comedy. WTF managing director Bronwen Mischel notes the lingering perception that feminists take themselves too seriously.
"Plus, people have the impression that feminist theater isn't fun to go see because it's all about rape and domestic violence," she says.
"Or rage against the patriarchy," Popio chimes in, with an exasperated eye roll. "But when we can combat that stereotype with a romp through alien lesbian roller derby, in Space Girl, then we have the chance to change some hearts and minds."
Audiences will note several strategic changes since the festival's inaugural season. After staging seven productions in venues from Burlington to Sanford last year, the group has reduced the number to five productions in four theaters in order to direct more resources to each show. The festival's productions and fourteen short courses in technical theater, dance, puppetry, and artistic-career management are scheduled so they don't compete with one another.
The script selection process has also undergone significant change, after works by local playwrights—some clearly not ready for main-stage production—dominated last season. Popio selected two of the five main-stage shows: Space Girl, which was a hit during last year's Occupy the Stage, and Miss Lulu Bett, which Popio discovered while researching award-winning women dramatists of the twentieth century. Zona Gale became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama after she adapted her own best-selling novel into a play that premiered on Broadway in 1920.
While many of the works Popio perused were dated or no longer relevant, Miss Lulu Bett portrays, if in a somewhat exaggerated form, a realistic family and problems that still exist today. The play shines an intriguing light on another time in our culture. The title character is a disempowered spinster with a quick wit but few options, living on the crust of humility as the unappreciated cook and housekeeper for her sister's family, headed by a supercilious husband. But fortunes reverse, first when his brother marries Lulu and again when he subsequently disappears.
Director NaTasha Thompson says that the comedy lets us ask what happens when we finally "stop feeding the machine," enabling relationships and social structures that work to our disadvantage. Thompson also reminds us that, when the work was created in the 1920s, it was a time, like ours, when the country was on the verge of major change. In its initial production, Miss Lulu Bett was so controversial that the playwright was forced to change the ending.
"Originally, Lulu walked out into a life of her own, and viewers were appalled," Popio says. Gale ultimately had to write an alternate conclusion in which a suitor swoops in at the last minute to marry her—a change scholars still refer to today as "the happy ending."
Popio is keeping mum on which ending the festival will present. But she's smirking as she talks about the work, clearly already in on a joke that she can't wait to share with the rest of us.