New theatre festival tackles female representation

With an inaugural event starting July 30, the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival hopes to promote artistic and social change through collaboration with local female playwrights, directors and actresses.

Despite Philadelphia’s ever-growing appreciation for the arts, the number of roles held by women in the city’s theatre community remains considerably low.

However, over the past year, a group of women with a dedication to equality in the performing arts joined forces to create more opportunities for female artists throughout the city.

After meeting in Villanova University’s graduate theatre program, Polly Edelstein, Brie Knight and Christine Petrini created the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival (PWTF) in December of 2014. PWTF breeds, nurtures and showcases an eclectic collaboration of female thespians.

“My motivation for creating the festival,” said Edelstein, the festival’s artistic director, “was the need for a platform for women as playwrights, directors, actors, and technicians and just as leaders in general.”

The festival, premiering from July 30 to August 2 at the Asian Arts Initiative on Vine Street, maintains a dedication to artistic opportunity and shedding light on an underrepresented demographic. Among the highest grossing theatres in Philadelphia, 20 percent of plays were written by women and only 10 percent were directed by women over the last five years, according to PWTF.

“Women make up more than 50 percent of the population and women make up much more than 50 percent of the theatre-going population,” said Knight, the PWTF’s director of engagement. “Let’s face it: it’s 2015. Where is that meeting ground?”

A chief goal is to tackle the absence of women in leadership roles, which inadvertently influences the presence of women in lower theatrical roles, according to PWTF.

“We found correlation between the severe lack of women representation as playwrights and directors [in a particular theatre] and whether there is women in leadership at that particular organization, like an artistic director or manager,” said Knight.

PWTF hopes to make bold moves in fixing that issue during the upcoming four day festival. Through an application process, playwrights, directors and actresses from across the Philadelphia area were selected to participate.

“When we launched PWTF, I had a feeling it was needed but, to be frank, you never can be sure,” said Polly Edelstein. “Then we got over 100 submissions from playwrights across the country.”

According to Knight and Edelstein, another essential aspect of the festival is the diversity of the theatrical performances – which means PWTF will host Shakespeare plays, musical cabarets, and plays centered on Native American and African American oppression.

Cheryl Williams, a Shakespeare connoisseur, is crafting a piece for the festival called the Wo(men) in Shakespeare Project, which originated through Temple’s Shakespeare festival in March of 2015. As an adjunct of Temple University’s theatre department, Williams gathered eight of her students to embark on an innovative depiction of Elizabethan drama.

“Some people ask why we still study Shakespeare, and I think doing it with all women, that in and of itself makes it relevant and current,” said Williams. “It’s lovely to hear this female cacophony of voices.”

In a black box studio, Shakespeare’s timeless love scenes will be brought to life, giving women an opportunity to extend their theatrical experience by portraying some of the most iconic roles in history, like Hamlet and Romeo. Woven together by sounds of contemporary music, these scenes enable females to experience the essences of characters from five Shakespearean plays.

“We’re not trying to make a statement of any kind. Women bringing their own heart and experiences sheds new light,” said Williams. “We aren’t gender-bending, like changing pronouns, we are transcending gender by giving women these roles.”

For Williams, allowing women to perform these classic parts has been a prolonged dream throughout her career, and PWTF is making it a reality. After a life-long career as an actor and a teacher, Williams is now interested in creating her own work, and PWTF is providing an opportunity to talk about what she finds important as an artist, Williams said.

Sixteenth-century texts like William’s work will share the festival’s stage with newly composed scripts.

“We want to represent the diverse culture of our city and the different walks of life people come from, including seasoned artists, like Cheryl [Williams]  and emerging artists like myself,” said Knight.

The featured main production of PWTF, titled Other Tongues, is an original play centered upon 1960s Native American oppression, written recently by Alisha Adams. In the past five years, the playwright relocated to Philadelphia for Temple University’s M.S.A playwriting program.

As a descendant of Navajo missionaries, Adams was inspired by visits to New Mexico reservations and essays written by her grandfather,  a missionary during the mid-1950s and 60s. Themes of faith, translation and dreams lay the foundation for a play surrounding two women teaching at a Navajo mission boarding school.

“To me, the play is really about how we have oppressed native cultures here for many years,” said Adams. “The story is meant to explore American identity and how we’ve defined that identity against the people we have oppressed and excluded from history.”

After two years of workshopping the play in New Mexico and Philadelphia, PWTF is cultivating the work into a full-length production.

“The festival is giving me an opportunity to have my work introduced to the Philadelphia community in a more significant way than it has been before,”, said Adams. “Just having a women’s theatre festival gives more visibility to women playwrights, directors, actors. I wish it wasn’t needed as much as it is.”

With innovative technique, untold plots and new opportunities, PWTF is shifting the practice of female performance. Edelstein jokes about her ultimate goal – that PWTF won’t be needed because women in theatre will have parity. But until then, Edelstein said, PWTF will stick around to create a platform for women and encourage a larger conversation about the importance of including women.

“As a community,  we advance our society and improve our lives together. We want to celebrate the value that women bring,” said Knight. “We want to change those low [statistics]. We want to change the story.”

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