Inaugural Baltimore ParityFest aimed at bridging gender gap in theater

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
ParityFest Baltimore 2015 aims to narrow the gender gap in the theater, showcasing new plays by women.

After becoming the first woman elected mayor of a major Canadian city in the 1950s, Charlotte Whitton summed up the gender issue neatly.

"Whatever women do," she said, "they must do twice as well as men to be thought of half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult."

What remains difficult, though, is getting men to notice. Consider the world of theater.

Female playwrights might not find it difficult to write works equal in merit to those penned by men, but you might not know that — of the 10 most-produced plays in this country during the 2014-2015, two were by women, according to American Theatre magazine. Women wrote only a couple of the 11 new plays seen on Broadway this season.

To help people appreciate what they've been missing in their theater diet, nearly two dozen troupes have signed on to offer readings of four dozen new works by female playwrights during the inaugural ParityFest Baltimore 2015. The festival opens Wednesday and runs through Aug. 9 at venues spread all over town.

The idea for the venture was sparked last year by the widely publicized release of a list of 46 new plays by women, a list compiled by the Kilroys, a self-described "gang of playwrights and producers in [Los Angeles] who are done talking about gender parity and are taking action."

The Kilroys produced the list after seeking recommendations from artistic directors, producers, dramaturgs and other industry insiders around the country.

"That list generated so much conversation, through social media especially," says Brad Norris, founding artistic producer of Cohesion Theatre Company, launched in Baltimore in 2014. "There was no one on my Facebook feed who wasn't talking about it. What the list says is: 'Here's the best of the best; no more excuses.' You can't say you just can't find a female playwright."

Norris wanted to go beyond discussing the list. He wanted to experience the plays.

"In my mind," Norris says, "the next step was to put these plays before audiences so we can take away another excuse from companies — 'We don't know how people will respond to these plays.' I thought, 'Let's provide the quickest, easiest, most accessible way possible: Readings.'"

Alicia Stanley, Cohesion's other founding artistic producer, succeeded in controlling Norris' enthusiasm just long enough for their company to get its first season up and running. That season is winding up with the Baltimore premiere of a work by a woman, Anna Moench's "The Pillow Book," in a co-production with the Strand Theatre Company.

Stanley and Norris decided on a summer festival of play readings that would be based on the next salvo from the Kilroys, the 2015 list, which was released last Sunday. Planning began long before then.

"We put feelers out last fall," Stanley says, "and started in earnest in January. I did two months of Googling to find as many theater groups in the area as I could. There were many I didn't know about. I met one of them at a poker game. We had tons of meetings at tons of places, explaining and discussing what the festival would be."

Some of those meetings involved some extra explaining.

"We had to first spend time," Norris says, "answering the question, 'Who are you and why are you organizing a festival?' My mindset from the beginning was: Let's show the region what Baltimore theaters can do. This town and this community is exactly the place where a festival like this can grow and thrive."

Those signing on to the festival include such organizations as Center Stage, Arena Players, Vagabond Players, Fells Point Corner Theatre, Single Carrot Theatre, Iron Crow Theatre, Spotlighters Theatre, Strand Theatre Company, EMP Collective and the recently formed Small Batch Theatre Company.

In addition to buildings owned by the participating companies, performances venues will include Baltimore Theatre Project, Creative Alliance, the Chicken Box and Maryland Institute College of Art.

The Strand Theatre fits especially well into the festival.

"Our mission is to do female-centric work," says Strand's managing director, Elena Kostakis. "When we were approached by Alicia, it made sense to collaborate. A festival is the way to go, to show that people who think there's no pipeline of female playwrights are wrong. And I'm personally grateful that this is not a small fringe festival. It encompasses the whole theater community, and we don't have enough of that."

Stanley asked companies to express their preferences in terms of script topics, number of characters and the like, so festival organizers could match up performance groups with plays as soon as the list came out.

This year, the Kilroys compiled 53 plays, the top 7 percent of the recommendations made anonymously by 321 nominators (people who had read at least 40 new works during the previous year). ParityFest will showcase 48 works, a couple of them from the 2014 list.

Rosiland Cauthen, artistic director of a group called Kuumba Artists, volunteered to direct any play from the Kilroys list by an African American woman.

"I wanted that voice to be heard," says Cauthen. "Being a woman theater artist myself, I totally recognize the lack of women represented in theater. Every season, there are always a lot of male playwrights or directors. So I'm really glad Cohesion Theatre is doing this festival. I'm super-excited to be directing a play by Lynn Nottage, which I'll be doing with Arena Players, the oldest continually operated African American theater in the country." 

Norris has been pouring through the Kilroys list since its release.

"Every play I've read so far I've been blown away by," Norris says. "They are so captivating in so many ways. And there is so much diversity on the list in terms of ethnicity and subject matter."

Working out the logistics of scheduling the presentations of the plays — most will be readings; a few will be staged with costumes and props — may not be finished until well into the festival. Updates will be posted online as events are finalized.

"I don't think anyone has done as comprehensive an effort [as ParityFest]," says playwright Annah Feinberg, one of the Kilroys. "There have been some parallel efforts in different cities, but this attempt in Baltimore appears to be the largest."

The ultimate goal of the list is to encourage fully staged productions of the recommended plays. Of the 46 plays on the 2014 list, 28 have now been produced, some more than once, Feinberg says.

"It feels like there's a real momentum behind [the list] and in front of it," she says.

Renewed interest in addressing the gender parity gap in theater seems to be building. The Mid-Atlantic region is making a particularly notable effort.

The Women's Voices Theater Festival in and around Washington, starting in September and running into November, will showcase premieres of plays by women, produced by more than 50 companies (Single Carrot and Strand Theatre, the latter in a coproduction with Interrobang, will stage works during the fall as part of the festival). The Columbia-based Rep Stage will devote its entire 2015-2016 season to works by women. Three out of the five plays on the Center Stage 2015-2016 season are by women; a fourth is an adaptation of a novel by a woman.

Although Everyman Theatre's lineup of playwrights is all male next season, the company has featured plays by women for the past several years.

Still, given the record throughout the theater world, there is likely to always be a need for reminders of the work being created by female playwrights.

The reminder being provided by ParityFest will be economical, if all goes well.

"People [are] giving of their time and some playwrights are waiving fees," Norris says. "We came up with a figure of $3,000 we might need. We already held a fundraiser in June, and there are lots of ways we can meet expenses we might incur."

Those ways will not involve set ticket prices.

"It is important to us that there be a pay-what-you-can policy for everything." Norris says. "This is probably the cheapest, largest festival that Baltimore has ever put on."

The marathon of new works written by women also promises to be one of the most interesting local festivals.

"Anything that can put these plays in the brains of people is always exciting," Feinberg says. "That's really the goal, to have these voices heard, and this festival in Baltimore is one incredible way to do it."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

ParityFest Baltimore 2015 opens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday with a staged reading of "Feathers and Teeth" by Charise Castro Smith at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Pay what you can. For the remaining schedule of the festival, which runs through Aug. 9, go to cohesiontheatre.org.

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