Women’s Theatre Festival: Occupy the Stage
Saturday, July 30–Sunday, July 31
Umstead Park United Church of Christ

Staged readings are hardly the most glamorous side of live theater. Production values are thin—other than a clump of music stands to hold the actors’ scripts, there’s usually little or no set. Though the actors may have dressed up for the occasion, they’re generally not in costume or theatrical makeup.

So why would a new theater festival open a month of programs and productions with twenty-one staged readings? And why did sixteen volunteers, 100 regional theater artists, and 250 audience members occupy a North Raleigh church for twenty-four hours last weekend to stage and see them all?

In short, it’s because all of the playwrights were women, and if the systemic gender inequity in regional theater is going to change, it makes uncommon sense to start with the scripts.

Thus a crowd of about forty gathered at eight-thirty Saturday morning as the Women’s Theatre Festival began Occupy the Stage with a staged reading of Debra Kaufman’s twisted fairy tale, The Fairest, on the dais of Umstead Park United Church of Christ. Eighteen more readings and two workshops followed during the afternoon and evening hours and into the next morning.

Festival founder Ashley Popio marveled at the support the marathon received: more than $1,600 in ticket, T-shirt, and concession sales. When added to funds previously raised, the amount moved the festival three-fourths of the way to its full funding goal of $12,000.

Popio also marveled at the endurance of the participants on stage and in the audience. “I mean, who shows up at two-thirty in the morning to watch a play in a church? Sixty-five people did! And everybody seemed so thrilled to be there, and so happy for everybody else,” Popio recalls.

Playwright Monica McNamara, who wrote My Sun, the script for that late show, was also “shocked” at the turnout. “I had some family and friends there, but most of the people I didn’t know,” she said, calling the crowd “very warm, very receptive.”

On Saturday afternoon, a similar crowd of strangers gave actor and playwright Rebecca Bossen a lot of new information about her atmospheric Appalachian ghost story, Delilah Lee. “When my mother laughs at a line, it’s one thing, but when complete strangers who have no skin in the game react, it’s another,” Bossen says. “I didn’t find myself second-guessing their reactions as I might have otherwise.”

Occupy was a gutsy first move for the Women’s Theatre Festival, since staged readings usually mark the first, not the last, steps in a play’s public life. Audiences aren’t seeing a finished product. Instead, playwrights and producers are testing new material, hearing what a show sounds like on its feet, and finding out, frequently for the first time, the impact a script has when it’s shown.

Senior festival project manager Bronwen Mischel found “varying degrees of doneness” among the marathon’s twenty-one scripts. “Some were really done, while others needed more tweaking,” she says.

Mischel credited the directors and actors for investing heavily in their nascent texts. That was indeed obvious as small ensembles prepping for a performance of ten-minute plays turned Umstead Park into a beehive of intense theatrical activity on Saturday night, staking out classrooms, nurseries, and office spaces to get one last rehearsal in before show time at ten.

“They all worked hard on something they really could have phoned in,” Mischel says. “It made a big difference that they did.”

Playwright Mora Harris felt that director Lorelei Lemon’s cast did right by her full-length comedy, Space Girl. That’s a good thing, since the playwright had just traveled from Pittsburgh to catch the early evening show. “They tried to bring it much more to life than a standard staged reading,” Harris says.

According to Mischel, the audience embraced the work as well. “After several plays with serious women’s issues, the audience was literally weeping with tears from laughing,” Mischel says. “It was exhilarating to see such a great reception.”

That response is particularly telling, given Harris’s background as a playwright in our region. After growing up in Durham, Harris did her undergraduate work in creative writing and theater at Oberlin College. She just completed her MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon University and garnered an award from the Alliance Theatre that will provide Space Girl with staged readings this year in Atlanta and New York.

But outside of a production in The ArtsCenter’s 10 by 10 in the Triangle festival in 2013, Harris found she couldn’t break into local theater in the Triangle during the years between her degrees. “There are no auditions for playwrights,” she notes. “You just can’t show up.”

Harris found local theaters insular in that time. “I didn’t find a lot of people in the Triangle reading new works,” she recalls. “I didn’t find a lot of people who wanted to read things from people they didn’t know.”

Now based in Pittsburgh, the playwright is seeing positive moves to address gender inequity in American theater. “Theaters are starting to realize that new voices are important,” Harris says. “It’s clear a disproportionate amount of men are being produced compared to women, but festivals like these are trying to even the odds.”

Last weekend in Raleigh, that work went on around the clock. It continues this weekend when the Women’s Theatre Festival’s first full productions, Men Always Leave and The Traditionalists, open at Umstead Park.