A Woman’s World: A conversation with Brenna Geffers, Lane Savadove, and Adrienne Mackey on bringing a new focus on women to Philadelphia theater

For the theme of its 2015–16 season, EgoPo Classic Theater has announced it will honor American female playwrights as a follow-up to its 2014–15 all-male focus on “American Giants” (Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill). The three plays selected for the upcoming “American Giants II: The Women” are THE CHILDREN’S HOUR by Lillian Hellman, THE WOMEN by Clare Boothe Luce, and MACHINAL by Sophie Treadwell.

During a busy rehearsal time for LULU’S GOLDEN SHOES by Philadelphia’s Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes (Flashpoint Theatre Company, July 5–August 2, 2015), Brenna Geffers—a member of EgoPo’s artistic advisory board and the director of MACHINAL—took time to talk to Phindie about the plays, their subjects, and the greater issue of the under-representation of women in theater. Lane Savadove, EgoPo’s founding artistic director, and Adrienne Mackey, founder and artistic director of Swim Pony Performing Arts (who will direct THE CHILDREN’S HOUR for EgoPo this coming season), also generously weighed in with their thoughts on the shows they’re directing and the representation of women in these classic dramas.

egopo-2015-2016-season

PHINDIE: How did EgoPo’s themed women’s season come about?

BRENNA GEFFERS: It started while we were planning this past season of big-name classic American playwrights, which consisted of three men—Miller, Williams, and O’Neill. Lane and the rest of us at EgoPo felt that women should also be represented, and decided to focus on women for the next year–a second season of American greats, this time comprised of plays by three women writers.

LANE SAVADOVE: Yes, we began the process of thinking about this at the time of our 2014-15 season announcement. Our last year had an underlying theme of critiquing the American Dream, but in calling it “American Giants” I was conscious that they were all male playwrights, so I thought about their female counterparts, who are not emphasized in the history of American theater; it became a political interest as well as an artistic one. Brenna and everyone else agreed that this was an important focus for the next season.

Brenna Geffers, director of MACHINAL in EgoPo's 2015/16 season. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist)

Brenna Geffers, director of MACHINAL in EgoPo’s 2015/16 season. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist)

PHINDIE: Was it difficult to find material, or did you know exactly what you wanted to include when you decided on the theme?

BG: I was feeling panicky at the beginning about which women to include, and which significant ones wouldn’t be represented.  We went through a lot of plays, but for the final decision process there was a concern of fitting the season together. MACHINAL, which I’m directing (April 20-May 8, 2016), was decided on first, as it fits well with EgoPo’s expressionist aesthetic. Then we invited another woman director on board—Adrienne Mackey, who is a real leader in female perspectives in Philadelphia theater, and whom I admire greatly for her talent and her ability to articulate and to promote the value of women’s work in the arts. She agreed to do THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (October 7-25, 2015) and we are very happy to have her. Between those two, Lane will direct THE WOMEN, in partnership with Rowan University (February 24-March 20, 2016). We’re also doing TRIFLES by Susan Glaspell [a one-act drama first staged in 1916, loosely based on a real-life case, in which a wife was at first convicted, then, on appeal, acquitted of her husband’s murder] for our mid-season fundraising event.

LS: The question for me became, “What was the female mirror to the male season?” So I began doing a lot of reading to familiarize myself with American women playwrights and then composed a list. I had to consider which of the women could be called “giants” and what were their most iconic works, but also which of the plays didn’t need to be done since they were recently staged in Philadelphia with great success (like the Arden’s production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN by Lorraine Hansberry).

Lane Savadove, artistic director of EgoPo.  (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist)

Lane Savadove, artistic director of EgoPo. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist)

PHINDIE: I’m not sure most audience members who are not theater professionals or scholars of theater history are aware of Sophie Treadwell or Susan Glaspell—they’re not exactly household names . . .

LS: No, but they are considered giants in all of the anthologies of American theater. If their names don’t have widespread recognition, it’s probably a direct result of gender politics, and I want to try to fix that! In addition, I wanted to mirror our three plays of last season with this year’s selection. THE CHILDREN’S HOUR is a classic tragedy, in which everything that is at first sunny begins to unravel; it parallels DEATH OF A SALEMAN, which opened our 2014-15 season, with both ending in suicide. The next play we did last year, STAIRS TO THE ROOF, is a fantastical comedy, and THE WOMEN has that same level of playful expressionism. MACHINAL mirrors THE HAIRY APE in its European style of nightmarish expressionism, seen through an antihero’s eyes.

Adrienne Mackey, director of xxx in EgoPo 2015/16 season. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist)

Adrienne Mackey, director of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR in EgoPo’s 2015/16 season. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artist)

PHINDIE: All three mainstage plays you’ve chosen date from the 1930s, and all three portray women or girls in a less than favorable light, though written by female playwrights. What women’s issues do you want to explore with this particular selection?

BG: Yes, and I wasn’t sure about that, if we should present female characters as anti-heroes. It is tempting to avoid stories that have women as anti-heroes when we are still moving towards having strong, positive female characters on stage. But we love stories about male anti-heroes and complex, dark male characters. What will be most challenging is how we can allow our female characters to move beyond the stereotype of the neurotic woman, to be viewed instead as a woman having a deep existentialist crisis. But will she be seen as such? Will she have as much leverage as a male character, like Yank in THE HAIRY APE? With THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, as in THE CRUCIBLE, the drama is driven by girls who use rumors as force.  But at the time, it was the only domain women held—the art of conversation, which could become a weapon capable of doing great harm. MACHINAL’s woman does take physical action, based on an actual event of an unhappy wife taking the drastic action of killing her husband. We can’t expect these works to be current feminist perspectives, but we can move beyond the traditional expectation that women can only take passive, indirect action.

ADRIENNE MACKEY: I usually work pretty exclusively for my company Swim Pony and don’t tend to work from a scripted starting point and even less often from one that might be considered a “classic.” That said, when I got an email from EgoPo that they were potentially interested in me coming in and proposing some ideas for the project, I read the play and was intrigued by a few different aspects of it. THE CHILDREN’S HOUR is an interesting exploration about female spaces, something you don’t see a lot of in that time period. The show is so overwhelmingly dominated by female viewpoints and concerns and I liked the fact that in it you get to see a world in which the control and shift of power are explored through that lens. I started thinking a lot about my own pre-teen and teenaged years and the ways in which society really confines what it means to be a young woman. I was really struck by the central character of Mary as a girl who is obviously smart and a little bit of an outsider, something that I think a lot of people can relate to. I think there’s a version of this play, one I find a lot less interesting, where she’s simply a bad seed. But I’m hoping instead to explore how something so casual as an accusation from a child can expose the darker forces that are woven into our culture and viewpoints. When I think of myself at that age, I know I did a lot of stupid things that I understood intellectually, but I couldn’t really comprehend the emotional reality. I think that’s what happens here; Mary is hurting and she does something mean without fully seeing the effect it will cause. But it’s the prejudice and darkness of the culture that she exposes. There are a lot of characters in this show that might be easy to stereotype–the haughty aunt, the nasty maid, the snooty grandmother–and my hope is really to pull out the humanness underneath those archetypes. Conversely, I’d like to show the world that surrounds those people is one that seems moral and just at first and is eventually revealed to be much darker and more chaotic.

LS: Just because we’re celebrating women playwrights, it doesn’t always mean that they celebrate women. We want to show women in three dimensions, it’s a much truer depiction. These plays from the 1930s portray similar worlds to the ones of last season, in which the men were utterly flawed heroes. I don’t think these women playwrights were buying into female stereotypes of their period, but just showing all types of behavior, good and bad. THE WOMEN, which I’m directing, is an entire play about awful women; even the youngest one, Little Mary, who starts out innocent, becomes awful. It’s not a critique of the women themselves, but what marriage did to women in those days; it was a capitalist system of purchase, of a man saying, “You give me your body and in exchange I’ll give you a ring and my wealth.” If you allow that, then a woman’s body is turned into an asset, her body is commodified, and then it depreciates and she’s traded in for a younger, newer model. That’s what the play is about, and it’s horrific, it makes the women behave horribly towards each other. Little Mary sees it in her elders, and is influenced by it. I think Clare Boothe Luce set THE WOMEN on the Upper East Side of Manhattan because the great wealth there represents the most extreme example of capitalist assets and commodities.  She wrote it as an expressionist play, but I also chose it because there are great, meaty roles for women, both younger and older, twenty- vs. forty-year-olds; that is the landscape of the play.

Clare Luce Boothe,, playwright of THE WOMEN. Photo By Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Clare Boothe Luce, playwright of THE WOMEN. Photo By Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy Library of Congress.

PHINDIE: For THE WOMEN, EgoPo is partnering with Rowan University. Did that have an impact on your decision to include it?

LS: With such a large cast, it is very helpful to be able to collaborate with academia. Our association with Rowan University [where Savadove teaches and serves as head of acting and directing] enabled us to do such a big show, and for Rowan students, the generational split was good for college actors, so everyone benefits from this partnership.

Actor Emilie Krause will star in EgoPos production of

Actor Emilie Krause will star in EgoPo’s production of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR.

PHINDIE: In addition to the directors, are the casts and designers in place yet for any of the shows? Presumably there will be some powerful women represented in each!

BG: We haven’t held auditions yet for the two later shows of the season. But we were committed to bringing in another director in addition to Lane and me, and we discussed some of the women directors we admire and who were a good fit with EgoPo’s aesthetic. I’m very excited to be in a season with Adrienne!

LS: To date we have cast THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, which will feature Jenna Horton, Emilie Krause, Cheryl Williams, MaryLee Bednarek, Maryruth Stine, Maggie Johnson, and Keith Conallen in the main roles. We’ll begin auditions for the next two productions this coming week, and should have our casts in place shortly thereafter.

Lulu

Flashpoint’s production of LULU’S GOLDEN SHOES, directed by Brenna Geffers, runs July 15-August 2, 2015. (Photo credit: Design by Samantha Wittchen)

PHINDIE: Are you collaborating with any other organizations to promote a focus on women’s contributions to, and opportunities in, theater in general, and in Philadelphia in particula

BG: I’m not really collaborating, though I am aware. With Flashpoint [where Geffers serves as artistic associate], I was hired as a freelance director for the company’s upcoming summer production of LULU’S GOLDEN SHOES. What is really exciting about LULU is that it is a hero’s journey, an epic tale, with a female protagonist told from a female perspective. And it’s an awesome story, surprising, dark, sad, exciting. It can be easy to whitewash feminism in mainstream storytelling, but including women’s stories means including more than the middle-class white women’s perspective. I am really grateful to Thom Weaver [Flashpoint’s Artistic Director] for including LULU in the season and am excited to continue working with Flashpoint as an associated artist.

LS: EgoPo is partnering with the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival this season to help promote opportunities for women in theater, and highlight and celebrate their artistic contributions.

PHINDIE: What is the desired outcome of shining a spotlight on the issue of women in the theater?

BG: Creating space in the room and in the conversation, remembering that women are part of the canon and should appear both on stage and behind the scenes in the theater! The rough statistics are that women playwrights comprise only about 17% of the national total, and constitute less than one-third of theater professionals in the areas of acting and directing; it’s nowhere near 50/50. Looking at the Barrymore approved non-musical, non-devised productions, you can see it is the same here in Philadelphia–less than a third.

And that’s not because women don’t have the talentor are not creating work. There is a widely held assumption that women don’t write plays, but they do, and have been, but somehow we pass them over. As a community, I believe we need to remember this legacy. With EgoPo, we’re doing this season of women, but I want a regular effort to be made to include women’s stories and perspectives; with other people taking those steps, it could result in a real change. It’s akin to the idea of going on a diet for a short time and getting healthy, only to go back to bad eating habits in the long run. I realized that I wasn’t even doing enough in my past shows, though I was consciously trying to cast more women. But the presence of women should extend to every aspect of the theater; there should be more women designers, directors, and playwrights, as frequently as there are freelance men. The visibility and opportunities for women should be across the board. If we make that decision personally, and then as a community, we can begin a discussion about what’s been uncomfortable to discuss in the past. It is not about “gimmick casting”—women are not gimmicks, though some artists and critics are thinking this—so I believe that steps need to be taken to begin the thought process. I also think that a greater involvement of women makes the art better in terms of being truly universal; there should be other perspectives besides the historic white cis-male “Everyman” to inspire a conversation and to result in a better understanding. I hope this is a conversation in small portions that will become part of a larger, broader discussion. This is just the first step!

PHINDIE: Thank you, Brenna, Lane, and Adrienne for taking a small step with Phindie to address these important issues and to preview EgoPo’s upcoming season of women.

EgoPo’s 2015/16 season

The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman
October 7-25, 2015

The Women by Clare Boothe Luce
February 24-March 20, 2016

Machinal by Sophie Treadwell
April 20-May 8, 2016

All shows at the Latvian Society [531 N. 7th Street]
egopo.org.

 

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.