There’s a delicate, dangerous moment in artists’ development when they can see only the mistakes in their creations.
Women’s Theatre Festival artistic director Ashley Popio is brooding over brunch, shortly after the close of the festival’s second summer season. She founded North Carolina’s first women’s theater festival last year, organizing hundreds of volunteers to produce an audacious series of plays, readings, workshops, and panels.
Then she started making good on a promise, after the first season, to learn from its inevitable mistakes. In this year’s season, which ran June 30 to August 20, Popio, managing director Bronwen Mischel, and the company’s board made encouraging improvements. Shrinking the festival’s footprint from five cities to two and halving the number of fully staged productions eased logistical stress and gave more resources to each show. Further opening the festival to nonlocal playwrights and giving its artistic director more say in programming benefitted curation and production values in the Occupy the Stage mini-festival and on the main stage.
No one expected the festival to clear $5,000 in profits in its first year or to at least double those profits in the second year (the receipts are still coming in), but that’s what happened. This will enable it to begin paying staff and artists at least a token sum next year.
Despite these successes, Popio clearly feels the weight of responsibility for the cancellation of season closer Miss Lulu Bett. While the production’s top liaisons with the festival were out of town and Mischel was giving birth to her first child, a series of mishaps, including the departure of a cast member for medical reasons, marred the final days of rehearsal. Director NaTasha Thompson quit the production on opening day, demanding that it never open. Though the festival could have gone on without her, Popio didn’t think it should.
“When a woman says stop, should a women’s festival go ahead?” she asks rhetorically. The board agreed to cancel.
The festival is making restitution to the Durham venue, Walltown Children’s Theatre, and giving the Miss Lulu Bett cast a chance to show its work in two staged reading benefits. In December, the festival will produce its annual holiday production of Little Women at Walltown and Sonorous Road Theatre, as part of an initiative to expand its regional presence year-round. Next season, the company will consult an entertainment lawyer on individual contracts.
Popio resolutely lists other necessary changes in the works, including main-stage productions by women of color and more support and supervision for devised works like Licked Cupcake, which may tour in 2018. Coming this fall is the release of the local-theater gender-equity study the festival commissioned from researchers at Duke and N.C. State. The agenda is daunting. But as she glances at figures proving the festival is growing despite its difficulties, a momentary smile suggests Popio is glimpsing more than just the mistakes.