Friday, April 20, 2012

Black Women Playwrights' Group Looks to the Future

Karen L.B. Evans, Founder
Black Women Playwrights' Group
For the third installment of our series on the movement for equity for women playwrights, we're profiling the Black Women Playwrights' Group, a Washington DC-based group that expanded its activities to the national level in 2008.

The group was founded in 1989 by Karen L.B. Evans, a playwright who has received fellowships from the NEA and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and had numerous publications and presentations of her work.  Its core activities are monthly meetings for its members to workshop new material and share information about playwriting opportunities, and both emerging and established playwrights are welcome.  In addition to the monthly meetings, there are networking events with producers, directors, designers, and actors. The members also co-produce and produce their own work in the DC area, and they have collaborated with The DC Black Theatre Festival, The New York Theater Workshop, Primary Stages, The Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Dramatic Publishing Company, and many other organizations.

While Black Women Playwrights' Group (BWPG) continues its traditional activities in Washington DC, it is also participating in some exciting new programs that place the group at the forefront of new trends in theatre.

Theatre and Digital Media:  In 2008, BWPG held the first national meeting of women of color writers in Chicago, where members identified three areas of interest: digital media, university residencies and productions, and the world of presenters. Following talk with action, the group decided to explore digital media, and held another conference in Chicago in April 2010, Linking Platforms: Theater and Digital Media in the 21st Century.

The outcome was a partnership with Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center to design a content and delivery program focused on theatre and its expansion into digital formats. Through this project theatre companies will work in pairs to choose and produce three plays by living playwrights. Each chosen playwright will write additional scenes, monologues, and character studies that extend the world of the play, and these will be made available online in an interactive environment designed by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon.

This extension of the world of a play across multiple media platforms is called transmedia storytelling.  The goal is to engage the audience in an interactive, contemporary way.

The first partner theatre in the project is Wooly Mammoth Theatre, a D.C. company founded in 1978 with the mission of producing bold and innovative new works. In February 2012, Wooly Mammoth, BWPG, and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) held a presentation of projects that included CMU grad students and playwrights discussing transmedia. Playwright Lynn Nottage spoke about her play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, which she initially conceived as a transmedia story. The play, which premiered in 2011 at New York's Second Stage Theatre, is about an African-American film actress from the 1930's who played the roles open to her at the time - maids, slaves, and mammies - roles that she might have played in real life in another time.

By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, whose very subject crosses media genres - a play about a film star - is an appropriate piece to expand into new digital platforms (additional material will include clips from Vera Stark's films). It is also appropriate because it looks back at the history of a marginalized population - African American women - and simultaneously brings this history alive in the future, using new technologies to share the story with contemporary audiences.

Though the BWPG-CMU transmedia theatre initiative is not specifically focused on women or women of color playwrights, BWPG's leadership in this project is significant because it places women of color at the cutting edge of new developments in theatre. They will work with the CMU team to design cross-media platforms to enhance the work of playwrights and the experiences of audiences. Women's involvement in the early stages of new developments in technology and the arts is crucial to creating new platforms that not only include women participants, but fully embody women's perspectives and concerns.

Oral History Project with StoryCorps - In keeping with its interest and involvement in cross-platform media, BWPG recently collaborated with StoryCorps, National Public Radio's oral history project, to interview senior citizens in Brookland, a diverse neighborhood in the northeast quadrant of Washington, DC. BWPG conducted the interviews, then used the material to write a short screenplay (a skill they learned for the project) about the neighborhood, called Brookland, Not Brooklyn, which follows a boy whose family flees Montgomery, AL during the Bus Boycott of 1955.

The film will be produced by BWPG and StoryCorps, and will feature footage from the resident interviews at the end. BWPG held a fundraiser in November 2011 that included a preview of the film, dramatic readings by BWPG members, and opportunities for attendees to record their own stories with StoryCorps representatives. This collaboration with StoryCorps to create a cross-platform examination of the history of a neighborhood is right in line with BWPG's dedication to being involved in new and exciting technologies, while bringing the stories of African Americans to a wider audience.

Black Women Playwrights' Group has a long history of activism for women of color playwrights and effective support and advocacy for its members.  It is especially inspiring that they are now initiating cutting-edge projects to make sure that the voices of women of color will continue to be heard in the future. Find out more at

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Congratulations to SWAN Festival Bulgaria

Rumyana Tancheva, Nevena Gadjeva
& Dessi Dimova
Congratulations to the organizers of SWAN Festival Bulgaria for their second four-day SWAN celebration. The efforts have been led by musician Dessi Dimova of Art Nova Foundation.

Dimova worked closely this year with Rumyana Tancheva of Wonderland Events and Nevena Gadjeva of City Center Sofia Mall where many of the events were held. She also formed partnerships with the American Embassy in Bulgaria, Les Fleurs Hotel, the Sofia Municipality, Social Me (check out the cool graphics on their site), and Fresh Swing Dance.

This year's celebration focused on the active participation of
the audience by offering workshops in several styles of dancing, puppet theatre, candle-making,creating batiks, knitting, painting with watercolors (for children), food carving, and food photography.
Lemon from Food
Carving Workshop

They also offered their first "SWAN Academy," a one-week free "boot camp" in documentary film-making led by Minnesota-based U.S. filmmaker Melody Gilbert of Frozen Feet Films.

To see the complete schedule of SWAN Festival Bulgaria, please visit:  Note: This site is in Bulgarian, but if you go to Google Translate you can enter the link for the site and Google will translate the Bulgarian to English and many other languages.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bringing Theatre Women Together for Change: The 50/50 in 2020 Movement

Join 50/50 in 2020
As a follow-up to last week's post on the Los Angeles Female Playwrights' Initiative, this week we'll be taking a look at the movement that spawned the West Coast group: the New York-based 50/50 in 2020 initiative. Created in response to the 2009 Sands Study, which confirmed the 2002 statistic that fewer than 20% of professionally produced plays in the U.S. are written by women, 50/50 in 2020 is a participatory movement with the goal of achieving parity for professional women theatre artists by the year 2020.

50/50 in 2020 was created by three women who have extensive firsthand knowledge of the theatre community and what it means to be a woman working within it: Susan Jonas (NYU), whose 2002 NYSCA Study, Report On The Status Of Women: A Limited Engagement? brought the abysmal statistics on women's representation in theatre to the attention of the theatre community (her 20% statistic had not changed as of the 2009 Sands Study); Melody Brooks, Artistic Director of New Perspectives Theatre Company; and Julie Crosby, Producing Artistic Director of Women's Project. Allied with The League of Professional Theatre Women, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the movement's founders set the goal of achieving full representation for women in theatre by 2020.

The movement supports works written, directed, and/or designed by women in the professional theatre, and advocates for more opportunities for women to be involved in professional productions, as well as equal pay for women in theatre. Although the official initiative began in 2009, it builds upon years of work by the women - and their organizations - who decided it was finally time for a national movement.

Women's Project, founded by Julia Miles in 1978, is the oldest theatre company in the U.S. dedicated to producing and promoting theatre created by women. An impressive lineup of playwrights and directors have gotten their start at Women's Project, including Eve Ensler, Lynn Nottage, and Paula Vogel. The company has staged over 600 mainstage and development projects and published 11 anthologies of women playwrights. Now under the Artistic Direction of Julie Crosby, Women's Project continues to produce plays by women and offers a free, two-year development lab program for mid-career playwrights, directors, and producers. The lab offers artists the opportunity both to develop their craft under the mentorship of accomplished women theatre artists, and also to network with each other and create community, which is vital to the advancement of women in theatre.

New Perspectives Theatre Company (New York, NY) was founded in 1991 by Melody Brooks with the goal of developing and presenting new works not only by women but also by playwrights of color, particularly works that have a strong social justice component or deal with social issues. Like Women's Project, New Perspective also has a lab development program for women playwrights, Women's Work, to help advance its mission to showcase "a range of voices that reflect the true diversity of contemporary America." 50/50 in 2020 seems a logical outgrowth of this mission.

The League of Professional Theatre Women was another logical partner for the 50/50 in 2020 movement. For 30 years, the organization has advocated and promoted opportunities for women in the professional theatre, as well as provided a community for networking and mutual support.

The cornerstone of 50/50 in 2020 is Works By Women, a group that goes to see productions written, directed, and/or designed by women in New York. Any woman can submit a show for consideration for listing on their blog and for a possible group outing, though shows must be on Broadway, Off-Broadway, or Off-Off-Broadway. Works By Women also profiles women theatre artists and their shows in articles and interviews on the blog. They organize theatre-going events through a Meetup group organized by director Ludovica Villar-Hauser, and the group often receives discounts on tickets from producers and theatres. These group trips to see shows by women are wonderful opportunities for women working professionally in theatre (as well as interested supporters) to meet each other, network, and create community while demonstrating that there is an audience for works by women.

One can't help but envision similar groups springing up around the country, as one already has in Los Angeles, as the 50/50 in 2020 initiative grows. Why not start one in your community?

And if you are in New York and interested in getting involved, visit the 50/50 in 2020 Facebook page to meet up with the movement.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative Brings Local Focus to National Movement

Click here to download a free FPI Badge

The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, or LAFPI, was formed almost 2 years ago by playwrights Laura Shamas and Jennie Webb as a local, West Coast branch of the national movement for gender parity in the world of American theatre. Shamas and Webb started the LAFPI as an outgrowth of the East-Coast-based 50/50 in 2020 movement (which will be the subject of a future WomenArts blog post), which was formed in response to the findings of the Sands Study

Released in 2009 to media hype that skewed and obscured its salient findings, the study confirmed prior research that only approximately 20% of plays produced in American theatres are written by women, and that this fact stands in apparent opposition to the fact that many of the most successful plays (financially and critically) are written by women.

On their website, the LAFPI provides a great summary and analysis of the study, which concludes that producers conceive of works by women as less likely to be successful, and therefore works by women are held to much higher standards than works by men. Because of this "prophetic discrimination," women receive far fewer opportunities to develop their craft than men do. And because their plays are not produced until they reach a level of craft that is difficult to achieve without the chance to have their work produced, many leave the profession before they have the chance to truly develop as playwrights. (For a comprehensive overview of the problem, see our collection of articles about Women's Employment in Theatre).

The LAFPI began by commissioning a study of women playwrights in the Los Angeles area, and found that the national 20% statistic was true at the local level as well. They began working on a number of different fronts to address this paradox, with an infectious enthusiasm for their members' works and a positive, action-oriented attitude toward the field as a whole. These women know that they are making a difference, and they are excited about doing it.

Through their informative website and monthly newsletters, the LAFPI provides their members with information about submission opportunities of interest to female playwrights (similar to our WomenArts playwright funding newsletters, with a regional focus). They also have a Resources page that includes links for women playwrights to organizations around the country working for gender parity in theatre, as well as links for L.A. theatregoers and theatremakers, including a list of LAFPI member playwrights with links to their websites. The inclusion of resources for playwrights, producers, and audience members all on one page is representative of the LAFPI's desire to create a community in which playwrights, producers, and audiences work together to make the L.A. theatre scene more interesting and diverse through the production of more works by women.

The LAFPI also actively promotes plays by women that are being produced in the L.A. area, through e-mail blasts and their calendar of Women At Work On Stage, making it easy for audience members to find out what plays by women are being produced and where to see them. Member playwrights benefit from the LAFPI's promotion, and so do theatregoers.

Membership in the LAFPI is free and open to anyone who wants to be a part of the movement. Members can download the LAFPI logos to show their affiliation on websites and print communications, and the group even has merchandise such as T-shirts and hats so members can show their solidarity.

In addition to facilitating and promoting the production of plays by women, the LAFPI is engaged in ongoing conversations about women's representation in the field. Their blog features articles written by different playwrights about their work, the plays they're going to see, and the experience of being a female playwright.

Finally, the group organizes in-person meet-ups to discuss the movement and foster community. Their latest discussion, The Collaborations Conversation, was scheduled for March 25, 2012, on the occasion of SWAN Day. Organized by Ella Martin, the LAFPI's Study Director and the Artistic Director of Theatre Mab Town Hall, the event was open to "all theatre artists - male and female - who are interested in fostering new work for women theatre artists" and included a panel discussion with women theatre artists and professionals. Although this event had to be postponed due to torrential rains, there will be future events designed to bring playwrights, artistic directors, producers, and other collaborators together to form new partnerships for the future.

With their spirit of openness and inclusiveness, along with their incredible motivation, the LAFPI is taking action to ensure that L.A.'s women playwrights - as well as producers and audiences - have the opportunity to be part of the creation of a richer, more diverse theatre scene.

Find out how you can get involved at