Parity, Politics, and Survival: WiTFESTNYC 2017by Martha Steketee
This June, the Women in Theatre Festival (with its creatively capitalized WiTFESTNYC tag) will unfurl its second year of programming, helmed by Project Y Theatre Company artistic director Michole Biancosino.
Project Y, which Biancosino co-founded nearly 20 years ago in Washington, DC before moving the company to NYC, offers a full array of development and producing opportunities, from a fifteen member Playwrights Group and a reading series where long-term commitments to playwrights are forged, to workshop productions of new plays in development and full productions at venues such as 59E59 Theatres, the Cell, Theatre Row, and Atlantic Stage 2.
WiTFESTNYC grew out the company’s work in gender parity. “We had a gender parity reading series where we required plays to have 50 percent or more women in the cast or be written by women,” Biancosino explains. “We’ve been trying to facilitate opportunities for women theater artists and to encourage the creation of roles for women as people and not just props within a larger male story.”
The 2016 inaugural Women in Theatre Festival was held for a total of three weeks over two months and in several venues. Biancosino recalls that “we curated things, put two pieces against each other, to have them speak to each other.”
This year’s festival, which will take place over four weeks in June in the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres on West 53rd Street, will again present invited curated and commissioned pieces side by side. But for the first time, the Festival is commissioning new work: a pair of one act plays by playwrights Crystal Skillman and Chiori Miyagawa.
“Why don’t we pay someone to do the work, so you have an exchange where we value what you do? We want you to create something for us, and we want to pay you,” Biancosino recalls the company’s reasoning to begin commissioning. “I started to think about playwrights whose voices represent ‘the other’ in some way and have a unique perspective on the world. And right away Chiori and Crystal came to mind.”
Biancosino has known Crystal Skillman for years, following her career and then including her play Pulp Vérité in a Project Y reading series in 2016 focusing on epic plays – plays about big ideas with big casts. “Crystal came to mind because she writes often about war and individuals fighting larger forces beyond their control,” Biancosino explains. “I’ve known her longer than she’s known me because I like her work so much. Her work has a sort of gut-punch to it, with rebellious characters who happen to be women who are struggling against political systems or against society.”
Chiori Miyagawa experiments with form in a compatible way, says Biancosino. “She writes huge cast magical realism plays. I know that her take on the world would be different than anyone else’s.” Miyagawa, a New Dramatist alum, recalls that she was approached by Project Y staff after they read a copy of her Noh-inspired play This Lingering Life in the New Dramatists library. “They were doing a series of readings that had to do with religion, and they were looking for non-western inspirations,” she recalls, smiling at the recollection of this old-school on-paper initial introduction to her work.
As Skillman and Miyagawa recall the commissioning process, the charge from Lia Romeo, Project Y’s literary manager, was very general: What is it like to be a woman in American today? This question was split wide open by the anxiety and tensions leading up to and immediately after the November 2016 Presidential election, which affected the process and the timing of their commissions.
Miyagawa notes that the process from late fall 2016, just before the election, through February 2017 was very fast for her: “I can think about a play for a long time before I even write a word. In the past, I’ve thought about something for two years before I write it.” Skillman recalls that they engaged with each other more than usual for a commission. “I’ve never been in play process where we’ve talked so much, and this infected what we were writing about, because we knew the DNA of each other. Our friendship had grown through the conversation. The idea of the collaboration came first, and the ideas were organically spoken about.”
A conference call conversation about the upcoming election kicked the process off. “By that time there was an urgent feeling. By the time we talked, the mood was tense,” recalls Miyagawa. “The commission charge was to write something contemporary about what it means to be a woman. And I said, I can’t even think about that until the election is over, until we hear the outcome.”
Post-election, they agreed to write about the before-and-after of this seismic event. “The election results threw all of us for a loop. How do you respond to the world you’re living in when you don’t recognize the world and the people around you? Write a play about what is of the moment in the world in my community, and then suddenly: what the hell happened to my community, what the hell happened to my world?” recalls Biancosino. “We took some time, we had lots of conversations, we talked through things, and we started to push each other. These plays were fleshed out through those discussions, and through the support of being able to talk through ideas with each other and to see how these plays would live in relationship with one another and an evening.”
Skillman notes that there may be something particularly female in HOW they negotiated their commissions through the emotional unpacking of the fall elections. “I don’t know if it’s gender related, but women have a great sense of: let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about how we feel. And rather than ‘Oh gosh, we’ve got to write this in three months,’ we really got to say: ‘I don’t even know what I’m going to write about right now because I’m feeling so lost. I’m feeling confused. I’m feeling frustrated,’” Skillman recalls. “There was so much fear coming in the conversations we were having. I’d had them before all fall with friends. But I think there was a little twittery, it’s never going to happen kind of feeling. ‘I’m worried.’ That’s an interesting phrase that started to emerge from our friends’ own worries. ‘I’m worried’.”
Miyagawa remembers that they kept in touch, and Skillman completed a draft first: “It was really good to be able to read it. It’s a very different play, stylistically and content wise. But there’s a kind of energy when writers write together, even long distance.”
Skillman, a veteran of several play development programs and commissioning programs, observes that their constant communication through the creation of the plays has been unique. “Normally you are the playwright and there’s a production of your play, or you are in a festival and you don’t talk to other playwrights because everyone is so separate. But because we had talked about these issues, gone away and birthed these plays, then talked about how they worked together, we’re in it together.”
Great Again is the program title for the pair of one-act play commissions. Skillman’s play, The Test, is set in a fall 2017 high school classroom in which two bright but distracted students and two teachers (plus a violent society outside) work though preparing for PSATs and the waves of resentments and mistrust stirred up by the 2016 political process. Miyagawa riffs on multiple events for which people find themselves queued in In the Line, discovering—amidst disappointments, mansplaining, and other annoyances—how one can still find hope in the end.
The playwrights selected their own directors. Skillman knows her director Jessi D. Hill well: “She worked on a play that I wrote called Open that’s still being talked about. She and I have really good shorthand.” Miyagawa worked with her director Kristin Horton on a play they co-wrote called Dream Acts. “I know that she is going to take care of me.”
The pieces are being rehearsed separately but will be presented together in a single evening. “We’ve been together enough that it will be coherent,” Miyagawa notes,” even though the two plays are very different. I think the audience will see thematic connections between the plays.”
The lineup for the 2017 Festival is packed with various elements in addition to these commissioned plays. Staged readings of interpretations of the play Dulcitius by the 10th century nun Hrosthvitha of Gandersham—the first modern female playwright—will kick off the Hrosthvitha Project that plans to commission adaptations of all of Hrosthvitha’s plays over the next five years. The Festival is also hosting other women-led companies to produce whatever they want – some readings, some productions.
It’s community Biancosino seeks. “In DC I always felt such a sense of community. Last year it was great to have other companies come in, take over the space, support each other’s work, share their work with our audience, have their audience come and just be in the space with us.”
The second annual Women in Theatre Festival, WiTFESTNYC, will take place June 1 – 24 at the A.R.T./NY Theaters (502 West 53rd Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further information: witfestival.projectytheatre.org.