Women’s Voices on D.C. Stages

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If you’re a Washington theater fan and you want to find out just how big of a theatrical ocean there is out there in the region, check out D.C.’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, right here and right now, continuing through September and October and a little beyond.

The size and range of the festival are ambitious, the bottom line being what many theater people already know: women (especially playwrights, in this case) rock the theater world all across the city — and the country, for that matter.

The festival will showcase, produce and present 50 world premieres in theaters and venues big and small and everything in between. If there are Washington-area theaters missing from this enterprise, they’re hard to find.

Yes, every single play was written by a woman.

It’s all meant to showcase women and the fact that on Broadway and in many major urban areas productions of plays by women — despite their talent and diversity — are still far fewer than those of plays by men.

The festival itself is the brainchild of the artistic directors of seven of the leading theater companies in the area.

“We had been getting together on a regular basis for brunch or lunch, talking about theater issues, problems to solve, things we should be doing,” said Paul Tetreault, artistic director of Ford’s Theatre. “And we were talking about the need for a festival. We’d done the big Shakespeare citywide festival, we’d done Sondheim and Tennessee Williams. We thought that this would be fantastic to not only showcase women playwrights, but showcase the theater community, that it would be a huge opportunity for collaborative efforts.”

The seven directors — Tetreault, Molly Smith of Arena Stage, Ryan Rilette of Round House Theatre, Michael Kahn of Shakespeare Theatre Company, Eric Schaeffer of Signature Theatre, David Muse of Studio Theatre and Howard Shalwitz of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company — reportedly have made it a mission to see all the plays in the festival, which should be quite an undertaking.

Maggie Boland, the managing director of Signature Theatre, said that “this is a very broad festival. Some of the plays are season-openers for some of the theaters, others will appear later in the festival and continue after it. There is a great opportunity here, too, to examine ourselves — there is a little self-criticism at work also. The hope is that these plays will have an afterlife, that what we’re doing here is creating a body of work that will be looked at by producers, directors and theaters across the country and in the region.

“To me, and I think the women in this festival, it has to be all good,” said Kathleen Akerley, the director of the Longacre Lea company. “I’m a self producer, but I think for all the playwrights, this is a tremendous opportunity. The plays themselves are original, different in their outlooks. They are not women’s plays, but great plays about the human condition. It’s an opportunity for audiences to discover the talent and the different viewpoints here, men and women alike. It’s a bold thing.”

Akerley’s “Bones in Whispers” was an early starter for the festival, opening Aug. 12 on a double bill with Miranda Rose Hall’s “How We Died of Disease-Related Illness.” Her “Night Falls on the Blue Planet” opens at Theater Alliance Sept. 3. Reading about her plays, you get a sense of a sensibility that mixes funny with dark, the tragic with the hilarious, something that a fellow by the name of Shakespeare did pretty well too.
“I believe in that, really, the proximity of tragedy and comedy,” she said. She has a pretty hearty laugh to go with that belief, and if the titles of her plays are an indication (“The Oogatz Man,” “Goldfish Thinking,” “Pol Pot & Associates” and “Banquo’s Dead,” among others), she has a fearless approach to theater.

The Washington theater community has always had strong female leadership. To look at the careers of Zelda Fichandler, the founder of Arena Stage, and Molly Smith, Arena’s current artistic director, as well as those of Joy Zinoman at Studio Theatre and Frankie Hewitt at Ford’s Theatre, is to rediscover a major part of theatrical history in this city.

Not to forget, there is Venus Theatre in Laurel. And long before that there was Horizons Theatre, which operated for a long time out of Grace Church in Georgetown, a classy, original company run by Leslie Jacobson, with plays more often than not written by women and stocked with some of the best directors and actresses in the city.

From a complete listing of plays and dates, visit womensvoicestheaterfestival.org.

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