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Women’s Theatre Festival aims to make women’s voices heard

Craig Lindsey.
Craig Lindsey. newsobserver.com

Armed with only a continually sunny disposition and a beaming, Keira Knightley-ish smile that makes you wanna give her everything you have, Ashley Popio lists off some alarming statistics about women in contemporary American theater.

“When I first started my research into the equity balance in theater, I was dismayed because only about 22 to 24 percent of the shows produced nationwide are written by women,” says the Green Bay, Wisc.-born, North Raleigh-based Popio, 34, who’s also a writing instructor at Shaw University. “That means that, really, we’re only heard about 1-in-4 to 1-in-5 times. It means we’re only paid about 1-in-4 to 1-in-5 times for our artistic work. So, that’s clearly not equal – it should be half and half.”

This info is a bit unnerving for those who casually know about theater. You’d think that women would represent a large part of the American theater community when you consider we have a slew of Pulitzer Prize-winning female playwrights (Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Suzan-Lori Parks), as well as accomplished female directors (Julie Taymor, Susan Stroman) and, of course, peerless on-stage talent (Audra McDonald has won six Tonys!). And, yet, Popio says that’s not the case. “We’re actually a little bit more than 50 percent of the population, and we’re about 72 percent of the ticket-purchasing population when it comes to theatrical endeavors nationwide,” she says. “So, the fact that we’re such a large purchasing body – and, yet, we’re so badly underrepresented – it just seemed unfair.”

So, Popio did something about it by starting the first annual Women’s Theatre Festival, which is going on this month through September 2. “I heard about the (Women’s Voices Theater Festival in D.C.) and I went online to see what they had put together, and it looked like a really good idea,” she says. “It looked like, statistically, something that was necessary for equitable representation in theater.”

What originally began as Popio writing a Facebook post earlier this year, speculating who would be up for a feminine-fueled fest, soon morphed into a full-fledged movement when 200 women showed up at the first meeting. The fest started in late July with an “Occupy the Stage Event” at Umstead United Church of Christ for 24 hours, putting on an eclectic series of plays (including work written by Popio). “We made over $2,000 and had about 250 attendees,” says Popio. “We were just so thrilled that people were willing to come out at three o’clock in the morning and support work written by, directed by and acted by women.”

Sunday, audiences can either head over to Sonorous Road in Raleigh to catch the dance revue “Music and the Mirror” or the ArtsCenter in Carrboro to see “Decision Height,” based on the stories of WWII Women Air Force Pilots (WASPs). Other productions have already gone on during the festival – there’s one about anti-rape vigilante superheroes whose title I can’t even say in this paper. But Popio hopes that people, especially men, won’t be scared off by the fest’s pro-female aesthetic.

“I believe that our subject matter has a wide appeal,” she says. “Just because it’s written by women doesn’t mean it’s written solely for women, just like works written by men aren’t written solely for men. I believe we’re capable of producing works that appeal to everybody across the board.”

Men are just as involved with the festival as women. Popio says more than three dozen have provided their services on and off the stage. “I want men to be included because this is their struggle too,” she says. “Having women’s voices heard at the same level as men’s is important for men as well, so that both sides of the story can be heard.”

Of course, Popio would like to make the Women’s Theatre Festival a yearly thing. But she also wants some equal balance in the Triangle theater community.

“We’re trying to promote a 50/50 equity balance in writing, directing, casting and designing by 2020, and I think it’s doable,” she says. “For one thing, businesses in the Triangle have already made a great deal of progress toward making that goal. And I think that they can do it. I think that, by our very existence, we make people think that, when they’re looking at planning the next seasons, well, gee – did I include half-female-indentified writers or is it all men?”

Women’s Theatre Festival

Shows are at various venues. To see the full schedule with play descriptions, dates, times, locations and ticket prices go to womenstheatrefestival.com.

In addition to the festival, other companies are running shows this month adapted by or directed by women or that have a cast that’s 50 percent female. These sister shows can also be found on the festival’s website.

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