Gathering Round The Hearth: New Theater, Strong Women, and Fiery Playsby Billy McEntee
“In this musical we were working on, there was a piece about a hearth,” Julia Greer tells me.
“Anthropologically,” she continues, “men evolved socializing in lines without having to talk to each other—like how they’d go out to hunt or into baseball games. Women evolved around a hearth, or in a circle, needing community and fostering it. Being the fireplace and warmth for a community. This felt like it fit with what we were trying to do.”
The Hearth, Greer’s new theater company that she co-founded with Emma Miller, is doing just that: creating a fire for female artists to gather around. Or, more literally, “The Hearth tells the stories of women,” as the company’s website states.
The Hearth launched just before the 2016 election, the results of which skyrocketed the company’s urgency. The website cites a 2015 survey from the League of Professional Theatre Women that found less than half of the jobs on a given production in New York theaters are held by women. “We’re sick of these statistics,” the website says. “So we’ve set out to do something about them.”
Though this 2015 survey catapulted Greer and Miller into action, the two had laid the seeds for The Hearth years earlier—before the company found its name or footing.
“Julia and I went to college together and ran a company on campus with a similar mission; it was like a junior version of The Hearth,” Miller says. She and Greer met as freshman at Kenyon College and, even before graduating, both knew that this was something they wanted to pursue further.
The pair, co-artistic directors of their company, graduated in 2015 and started rehearsals the following year for Beth Hyland’s For Annie, The Hearth’s first full production. Staged at Manhattan’s Lucid Body House in late 2016, the performances took place in the somber period post-election and pre-inauguration. The play’s topic? Sexual abuse.
For Annie zeroes in on the aftermath of a deadly campus relationship between a star student and her abusive boyfriend. The Hearth’s debut project was a feminist anthem—a battle cry responding to the zeitgeist and voicing its mother company’s credo. Though performed in a venue off the beaten path, major outlets took notice of The Hearth’s work; the Village Voice’s Miriam Felton-Dansky said Hyland “writes with compassion” and that the realities of campus assaults “make thoughtful artistic investigations of the subject—especially driven by women artists—much-needed.”
The Hearth’s momentum snowballed from there. The company has a free, open-script submission policy and accepts works by female artists, including trans women, and Miller and Greer often attend new plays and readings to get a sense of what their next project or who their future collaborators could be. But as promise shimmered, a larger question loomed: How does a small company stay financially afloat?
Like many twenty-something artists, Greer and Miller balance their passion project with side jobs. They work by day, rehearse by night, and are always looking for ways to sustain and expand The Hearth.
“We have a solid base of individual givers and we’re working with someone in arts fundraising, which is very helpful,” Miller explains. “Many grants that are common in New York for companies of our size require you to have some work under your belt to make you eligible. We’re now at a place of eligibility that we weren’t at before, so there’s a lot of grant writing in our future.
“There’s also a resourceful minimalism about our aesthetic,” she continues, “not just because it’s affordable but because it’s how we think about producing plays. We’re not interested in the superfluous, so we’re not trying to fund it.”
“It helps that we haven’t had to start from scratch,” Greer piggybacks. “We have a little cushion to develop new work, and we’ve been lucky that the two shows we’ve done have performed well at the box office.”
That second show that followed For Annie is Athena, Gracie Gardner’s refreshing and kinetic play about teenage fencers who come of age balancing intimate friendship and taut competition.
For her breakout play Pussy Sludge, Gardner won the American Playwriting Foundation’s 2017 Relentless Award, a $45,000 cash prize established in honor of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Greer and Miller knew of Gardner and offered her The Hearth’s first playwright commission, the results of which became the sold-out Athena.
That play premiered at JACK, a performance venue in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Athena, initially operating as a rental at JACK, was a Critic’s Pick in The New York Times and extended its run; now, it returns as an official part of JACK’s 2018/19 season for a limited engagement from September 5 – 16.
Athena follows two adolescent athletes training for the Junior Olympics, a feat that mirrors Gardner’s own childhood. “When I was in high school I had a playfully competitive friendship that ended sort of abruptly,” Gardner shares. “I was heartbroken and didn’t know what I did wrong. Although the play is total fiction, that was the kernel of the idea. Fencing seemed like a way of externalizing that relationship.”
The Hearth has an impressive, near prescient knack for tapping into society’s subconscious and illuminating unseen stories. Just as For Annie surfaced in sync with the #MeToo movement, Gardner’s play is also harnessing something in the ether and carving a vital but, until recently, relatively unexplored genre.
“Teen stories have a way of speaking to a sense of desire for belonging and becoming, and it’s meaningful for me to know young women are seeing themselves represented on the stage and screen,” Gardner says.
Athena is among a few sport-centric plays and critical darlings blazing a trail for teenage girls’ stories—ones not defined by crushes on boys but instead independence and ambition. Clare Barron’s Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-winning Dance Nation concerns a troupe of preteen dancers played by performers of all ages, and Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Wolves showcases an all-girls soccer team’s rise and fall of success. Each play explores themes of girlhood, relationships, and competition in wildly different forms, exposing the multitude of ways adolescents’ stories can and should be told.
Film, too, is echoing these narratives—Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade are just two recent examples that tap into young women’s inner lives. “I’m excited, however, to see more teen stories get the widespread attention of these movies, particularly coming of age stories that aren’t centered on suburban white girlhood,” says Gardner.
“People have an appetite for stories about a 17-year-old girl—what it feels like to be her, in her body, in the life that she lives,” Miller says. “I feel like the quality of these stories has improved. Artists are doing a better job telling stories about young women, and audiences are excited to see them.”
The remount offers The Hearth the unique chance to continue building its audience—which may now include more young women. “We don’t do these plays for middle school or high school girls to come watch specifically,” Miller explains, “but there was a night of the show where one of the cast members who teaches had told her students about the show, and they came in and made a night of it. They had printed reviews of the play. It was so exciting for young women to watch this show.”
“An incredible problem during the first run was that the play got ahead of us,” recalls Greer. “The space is small, the run was limited, and the show sold. Now we have an exciting opportunity to purposefully get people in the door and be more in control of how much outreach we can do.”
Athena has bolstered The Hearth’s young reputation, and its leaders are now looking to incorporate its success model to other projects. This includes mounting inventive productions but also granting additional commissions, dedicating not only workshop time to its artists, and giving emerging playwrights the resources needed to fully develop their works. Athena was a smash because it combined all three of these elements, establishing The Hearth as not just as a feminist powerhouse, but also a healthy incubator for new works.
But before more plays can bloom, The Hearth must turn its attention toward Athena; Miller directs the production, and Greer performs in it as the title character.
Late in the play, when one of the characters wins a medal, the girls lament the figure inscribed on the award: “They can’t engrave a woman onto these?” one of them asks. “The technology doesn’t exist,” the other says.
Soon it will; The Hearth will see to that.
The Hearth will present ATHENA, by Gracie Gardner, September 5 — 16 at JACK (501 Waverly Ave., Brooklyn). For tickets, visit www.jackny.org. For more about The Hearth, visit www.thehearththeater.com.
Billy McEntee is a freelance arts journalist whose articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, American Theatre, and Indiewire, among others. He is the art editor for Greenpointers and works at Playwrights Horizons.