Raleigh actor-director Ashley Popio had an in-the-shower moment last year after yet another theater audition where twice as many women as men showed up for a play with mostly male roles. “If there are so many women wanting to participate,” she remembers wondering, “why aren’t there more roles for them?”
It turns out there are copious roles being written for women – by women playwrights. But the majority of plays being produced, from Broadway to the Triangle, are by men with few female roles. The fact that women are rarely hired to direct only adds to the imbalance.
Popio decided she’d just have to right the balance herself. She announced a meeting in March 2016 to gauge interest in a women’s theater festival. To her surprise, around 60 women attended, and nearly 200 came to the follow-up meeting. Such intense responses from women of all ages, racial backgrounds and theatrical experience confirmed the need for action.
Through Popio’s astute delegation of publicity, fundraising and production duties to the wealth of talented volunteers, the 2016 festival ended $5,000 in the black. For a first-time venture with eight main-stage productions and dozens of additional events, it was a near miracle.
Now Popio is hard at work overseeing the second annual Women’s Theatre Festival, which begins Friday, June 30, and runs through Aug. 20 at venues in Raleigh and Durham.
This year’s festival offers five main-stage productions, each playing two weekends. Popio chose two of the shows: Mora V. Harris’ 2015 “Space Girl,” about an alien young woman trying to fit in on planet Earth, and Zona Gale’s 1921 “Miss Lulu Bett” (the first Pulitzer Prize-winning play by a woman), about limited marriage options for women at the time. For the other three shows, female directors proposed plays written by women, which then were winnowed to six finalists. The public voted online for the final three.
Fifteen years of playwriting experience helped recent Triangle transplant Maribeth McCarthy’s “Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams” to be selected. McCarthy will also direct the show, which is set at a baby shower and illustrates how people need to accept that there are different ways of doing things. “I’ve written seven female characters ranging from ages 20 to 60, with varying ethnicities, sexual orientations and body types,” says McCarthy. “As a self-proclaimed larger woman, it’s always important to include roles that are made for people like me.”
“Licked Cupcake” is a collaborative piece by director Johannah Maynard Edwards and her cast, which looks at the way structured religion affects women’s and girls’ views of themselves. “The idea came from talking with a woman about her Mormon upbringing,” Edwards says. “At age 12, a teacher told her that if she let a boy lick the icing on her beautiful cupcake, then no others would want her cupcake because it would be ruined.” The show consists of similar stories from the cast’s experiences.
Edwards, with a drama degree from New York University’s prestigious Tisch School, had to step away from her directing career to raise a son who’s on the autism spectrum. She’s grateful that one of the festival’s tenets is making sure being a mother doesn’t prevent participation. Children can be brought to auditions, board meetings and rehearsals.
Steffi Rubin is thrilled that her first play, “The Woodstock Tontine,” was a winner. She first got involved with the festival designing its posters and then began writing a play based on long-term female friendships she’s made. It follows five women who all contribute to a large cash prize that goes to the last one surviving. “The feisty, funny and edgy conversations I enjoy with my friends formed the quirky characterizations in the piece,” Rubin says. Director Lucia Foster, whose background includes theater education and public management, says she was drawn to the play specifically because it had parts for women over 50.
The festival is particularly committed to diversity and innovation. Every show in the season includes diverse performers.
Recent UNC-Greensboro graduate NaTasha Thompson was tasked to direct “Miss Lulu Bett” with a multiethnic cast to add a contemporary viewpoint. Sisters Katy and Sarah Koop, both recent Meredith College graduates, applied to co-direct “Space Girl” because they both respond similarly to the play’s absurdist, nihilistic undercurrent.
The festival has quickly become a haven for women to share their various talents. Boston University theater major Maxine Eloi read about auditions for last year’s “Little Women” but saw no reason to go. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, a play for white girls in a white family,’ ” she says and laughs. But director Popio encouraged her to try out, and she was cast. Since then, Eloi has been volunteering her production company to shoot the festival’s promotional videos and publicity shots. Similar responses have come from women like Evelyn McCauley, a noted area performer, whose graphic design and administrative background come into play as the festival’s board chair and marketing plan designer.
And lest it seem the festival is a “women only” club, men are also involved, both on stage and off. St. Augustine’s University graduate and actor Chris Acevedo said he is back for a second year because he appreciates what the festival is accomplishing. “I’ve been greatly influenced by women in my theater endeavors,” he says. Acevedo will be performing in “Occupy the Stage,” the festival’s 24-hour kickoff event.
Douglas Kapp, who’s been acting for three decades but is now dealing with degenerating eyesight, found an accommodating home with the festival’s “Little Women” production. “I’ve worked with women directors over the years and Ashley is at the top of the list,” Kapp said.
Popio’s goal is to make the Women’s Theatre Festival the top such festival in the United States. There are a few others around the country, but they can be biennial (Memphis) or run only a few days (Philadelphia), present only solo artists (Los Angeles) or have recently shut down (Boca Raton and D.C.). With eight weeks of performances and a 24-hour event to kick off this summer’s season, Popio’s goal already seems well within reach.
Women’s Theatre Festival of N.C. 2017 Season
▪ “Space Girl” by Mora V. Harris: 8 p.m. June 30, July 1, 6-7; 3 p.m. July 2, 9, Sonorous Road Theatre, Royal Bakery Building, 3801 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
▪ “The Woodstock Tontine” by Steffi Rubin: 8 p.m. July 7-8, 14-15; 3 p.m. July 9, 16, Burning Coal Theatre, 224 Polk St., Raleigh
▪ “Licked Cupcake” devised collaborate work directed by Johannah Maynard Edwards: 8 p.m. July 13-15, 20-22; 3 p.m. July 16, 23, Sonorous Road Theatre, Royal Bakery Building, 3801 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
▪ “Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams” by Maribeth McCarthy: 8 p.m. Aug. 3-5, 10-12; 3 p.m. 6, 13, Studio Theater, Jones Hall, Meredith College, 3800 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
▪ “Miss Lulu Bett” by Zona Gale: 8 p.m. Aug. 10-12, 17-19; 3 p.m. Aug. 13, 20, Walltown Children’s Theatre, 1225 Berkeley St., Durham
All Tickets: $17
The opening night event, “Occupy the Stage,” runs from 8 p.m. June 30 to 8 p.m. July 1 at Sonorous Road Theatre.
For more information or to order tickets, call 919- 740-2736 or go to womenstheatrefestival.com.