Parity or Better, but Usually Better

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season. 

Coffee, representation on the stage, and really good plays with Something Something Theatre Company’s founding artistic director Joan O’Dwyer and founding director Whitney Morton Woodcock.

by Leigh Moyer

Something Something LogoSomething Something Theatre brands itself as theatre by women for everyone. Their mission is “Parity or better,” founding Director Whitney Morton Woodcock explained over coffee. “So fifty percent or better, but we usually have more than fifty percent of our season written by female playwrights.”

This mindset started with their first season – not as a fluke, but also not exactly on purpose – driven instead by feminism and the realization that there was a lot of good work that was too often overlooked. It started when three fierce women, Joan O’Dwyer, Whitney Morton Woodcock, and Esther Almazán, saw a gap in the Tucson theatre community that became their niche. “There are just so many plays written by women, and women are really finding their voice right now. And they’re young women and they’re brilliant,” Joan O’Dwyer gushed, “And they’re not just writing about homely things, they’re writing about war and injustices to women and women in different countries and their experiences which nobody has ever heard before and I just love that.”

I have to say, I agree with her. But that doesn’t make doing theatre by women easy. While it was a woman who was the most-produced playwright in the United States in the 2017-2018 season and second most-produced in 2018-2019, this is a distinctly modern phenomenon. (That playwright is Lauren Gunderson, playwright of Something Something’s first production of the season, The Revolutionists.) Historical restrictions limited women’s opportunities to write and kept women’s work from the stage for a long time, which means staging women’s plays now is often a choice to focus on contemporary work rather than well-known classics. It doesn’t faze the women of Something Something, but producing a significant amount of new or unknown writers is a risk. Women may be finding their voice now and using it to tell amazing stories, but we have ground to make up.

But boy, are we. O’Dwyer and Morton Woodcock are faced with the best kind of problem when selecting plays: there are almost too many great plays by women. Selecting the next (and next, and next) season is a process of narrowing down the choices, and then amending that list as new plays are written and produced. And if they do a play by someone of the male persuasion? “Well,” Joan quipped, “if the play is written by a man, it has to be a really good play. They have to work five times as hard if they want to get in– for half as much pay!”

Oh, how the tables have turned. And while it is important to the Something Something artistic team to have representation, like all theatres, the point isn’t that the play was written by a woman, but rather that the play is meaningful, inspiring, challenging, or simply entertaining. (The point, I would add, is that women playwrights are writing great theatre prolifically, not in isolated cases of genius.)

Morton Woodcock explains, “It is more about the story and how we think the audience will feel. What it comes down to is that it is a good story and there are good roles. And liking the characters. Like in The Aliens, those guys are so… they’re so incompetent sometimes, but they’re also so funny. They are likable.”

“They’re sexist,” O’Dwyer interrupted.

This didn’t slow Morton Woodcock down for a beat, “But likable.” And so goes theatre. So goes storytelling. You don’t always want to be friends with the characters in a good show. She continued, “We pick plays about humans, humans who should be represented on the stage, but also humans who are flawed. We choose scripts that address those flaws, call out the bad behavior, but sometimes you just have to let the characters be the characters. I wouldn’t do a play that portrayed someone who was really horrible in a positive light and of course we aren’t going to do plays that endorse problematic people.”

“You have to feel empathy for these people,” O’Dwyer added. “But it is going to have to be handled delicately.” That is, after all, what good theatre is: showing people new perspectives and challenging them to reflect and take new perspectives out of the theater and into the real world. A lot of characters are morally gray.

While some plays this season present characters that force the audience to consider a new view point, others take on issues that are often overlooked or downplayed in a male dominated culture, like the decision to become a mother, go back to work, breastfeed in public, or seek help for postpartum depression. Cry It Out focuses on women connected by the experience of new motherhood and the challenges that come with it, something that struck close to home for Morton Woodcock as a new mother. She is also the director of Cry It Out and can relate to the women. “It isn’t sexy or fun to discuss,” she admitted, “Like, maternity leave, ohhh. But it has to be discussed. They talk in the play about how people judge the choices you make, about deciding to have a baby at all. Everyone, other moms included, has an opinion and everyone feels like they are right and if you do it differently, you are a monster. I cried when I read the script.”

I asked both if they had a show they were most excited about. Without hesitation O’Dwyer answered, “I’m really excited about Cry It Out. It has something we don’t often see on stage: new mothers and they are all different.” Cry It Out goes beyond the stereotypes of never getting enough sleep or complaining about changing diapers.

Woodcock Morton also has a favorite: “The one I think is important for people to see it Martie’s play Transformations. This topic, the concept of transgender and gender fluidity, is something that has been growing in the public eye in terms of celebrities and media and people talking about it more but a lot of people still don’t understand. Martie is not giving a lecture or sharing what can be googled; she is sharing people. She is funny and it is well written and she gives each character she plays their own persona that you can relate to. I’m not sure that people realize that representation matters. The types of stories you see, the types of characters you see, impacts your world view. We consume stories to explain our lives, or who we are, but it also normalizes new or different perspectives.”

The 2019-2020 season, Something Something’s fifth, brings five plays, all written by women, to the stage. And Joan has a point, they aren’t just writing about homely things, they are writing about revolution, being human, pride and pain, motherhood, and even boys being boys.

This season is a lot about people you think you know, but are presented in a different way that makes you question yourself and those notions. Confront what you think you know at Something Something Theatre. The season is listed online and below. You can become a season ticket holder now and catch all five performances for $75.00 or purchase single tickets for $25.00 each by calling their box office at (520) 468-6111.

Something Something 2019-2020

Something Something Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson
September 12 – 29, 2019
Set during the height of the French Revolution, four women – a playwright, an assassin, a spy and an empress – bond to tell the story of their turbulent times for future generations. It’s a comedy. Guillotines may be involved. 

TransFormations by Martie van der Voort
October 31 – November 17, 2019
Local actor and playwright van der Voort performs all twelve transgender characters, their close relatives and significant others at a group therapy session. TransFormations’ has been performed to acclaim in Tucson and in cities around the nation, but this will be its first full run!

Apples in Winter by Jennifer Fawcett
November 27 – December 15, 2019
We are with a woman baking a small pie in a kitchen not her own. The room is bare, institutional. There are no chairs, and a knife is attached to the work table with a wire.  This is the story of a mother’s deepest love and most grievous pain.

Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler
February 13 – March 1, 2020
Metzler’s sympathetic yet brutally honest play brings characters to the stage not normally seen. Three women, diverse in all ways… except hat they have all recently given birth and are coping with everything that comes with being the main caretaker. Funny and uniquely insightful, written by a young mother.

The Aliens by Annie Baker
March 26 – April 12, 2020
Something Something Theatre produced Body Awareness, another of Baker’s ‘Shirley, Vermont plays’ in our second season. Dramatists Play Service describes The Aliens so darn well that we’re simply forced to run their synopsis here: “Two angry young men sit behind a Vermont coffee shop and discuss music and Bukowski. When a lonely high-school student arrives on the scene, they decide to teach him everything they know. A play with music.” – Dramatists Play Service

Perfectly Imperfect Women’s Stories in 20th Century Blues

by Gretchen Wirges

I had been perusing the playbill for 20th Century Blues while waiting for the show to begin. I noticed the image of four women, standing in solidarity, walking toward a camera. The sounds of Motown and 70’s anthems played in the background. As the lights rose on Invisible Theatre’s season-ending production, my feminist spirit was ready to see what playwright Susan Miller, and directors Susan Claassen and Fred Rodriguez had in store.

P.J. Peavy as Sil, Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby, ToReeNee Wolf as Mac, and  Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

P.J. Peavy as Sil, Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby, To-ree-nee Wolf as Mac, and Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

The play begins with Danny, a woman in her 60’s, delivering a TEDTalk about her photography. Just as we’re about to see a retrospective of photos of her closest confidants over the 40 year span of their friendship, the scene transitions to four months prior, when she and her friends Sil, Mac, and Gabby were gathering to take their final photo.

I felt myself exhale more and more as each woman entered the set, styled as a New York City loft. Designed by James Blair and Susan Claasen, the set looked polished and professional. It was believable, without being over the top.

Having met 40 years ago, the characters have an obvious history and chemistry that evolves with the play. While discussing the photos, the women take us on a journey through their relationships, and 40 years of politics and cultural struggle. They flit from Civil Rights to Transgender issues to the ERA to the Black Lives Matter movements. At first, I was frustrated that they covered too much, instead of spending more meaningful time on one issue. But what I realized is that these women are a cultural timeline personified. They take us on a journey through that timeline in a way that also allows us to see their triumphs, fears, and desires.

It’s not often we get to see four older, diverse female actors on stage together with meaningful, powerful dialogue. The women talk to each other with a directness that we rarely get to witness. They talk about sex and race and gender and their aging bodies with brutal honesty.  One of the characters, Mac, played by To-ree-nee Wolf, is African American, and a lesbian. Mac often calls out the others for privilege and for asking her speak for “her people”. A few of the topics discussed made the audience cringe just a bit, which I absolutely loved. The playwright didn’t care if the honesty pushed buttons. In the time of #metoo and #timesup, we need to tell women’s stories without abandon or apology. 

Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny, ToReeNee Wolf as Mac, P.J. Peavy as Sil, and Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny, To-ree-nee Wolf as Mac, P.J. Peavy as Sil, and Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

While some of the dialogue felt a bit rushed at times, I attribute that to being one of the very first performances. I was impressed with the cast as a whole.  Molly McKasson (Bess) and Cole Potwardowski (Simon) were brief parts of the story, but gave us some touching moments. Geri Hooper Waram (Danny) delivered an earnest performance, and concludes the play with a powerfully delivered monologue. PJ Peavy (Sil) was able to transition deftly between her great comedic timing and the ability to ground the tender moments elegantly. Susan Cookie Baker (Gabby) gave the production a lightness with her humor and affable portrayal of this quirky character. And then we have Wolf (Mac), who in my opinion, was the standout of the show.  Wolf took my breath away. She was acting down to her fingertips. Her physicality, facial expressions, and patience on stage was such a beautiful thing to watch. She was the one that truly made the production come alive with her obvious aura of heart and grounded acting.

I felt strong connections in the cast between the women, especially between Sil and Gabby, and between Danny and Mac. I think that as the performances evolve and the run of the show continues, the chemistry between all four women will deepen and provide even more believability to the relationships between the characters. One of my favorite moments was when all four women had a mini-dance party filled with laughter and a nod to their long history.

The importance of these friendships and their conversation throughout 20th Century Blues is expressed beautifully during one of my favorite moments of the play. Danny tells the women, “You’re rock and roll, the space launch, civil rights. The decades that chronicle the most sweeping changes in everything. Style. Music. Literature. You’re my sundial, my alphabet, my guide to better living. You’re my memorial to all that.”

This play isn’t perfect but I’m able to overlook the imperfections to see women of color, women over 50, women who are queer, women who are artists, women who are afraid of loss, women who are struggling with their bodies, women who are celebrating their bodies, and women who just plain love and support each other.

20th Century Blues is playing at Invisible Theatre now through May 5th. Tickets can be purchased online at www.invisibletheatre.com or by calling their box office at 882-9721.

Sweet Calendar Girls

by China Young

Calendar Girls by Tim Firth is a sweet story about love, friendship, and female empowerment. But when I say female empowerment, I don’t mean radical feminism, bra burning, or Women’s Marches. The production, currently performing at St. Francis in the Foothills, offers its audiences a sweeter, subtler version of girl power. Although, it does still involve the removal of bras.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo by Gretchen Wirges, courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The story, based on real life events, takes place in England. Annie (played by Gretchen Wirges), is married to John (played by Mike Manolakes), a delightful man that everyone in her women’s group (WI) adores. John quickly loses a battle with Leukemia, and the women all share the grief of his loss. However, this grief is quickly transformed into a fundraising project. Annie’s friend and fellow WI member, Chris (played by Colleen Zandbergen), strategizes a way to honor John by raising funds for a new settee in the local hospital waiting room in his memory. She hopes to accomplish this through the the sales of the annual WI calendar. In an effort to make the calendar more appealing than usual, Chris convinces the women to pose nude, using various objects to hide behind. The women debate over their fears and excitement about the idea, but their enthusiasm, comradery, and mutual love of John win over and they decide to do it. The calendar turns out to be a hit, giving the women tons of public exposure, in more ways than one. However, fame does what it does best and eventually leads Annie to question Chris’s true motives for helping John, and their friendship falters.

I decided to Google the true story behind Calendar Girls and discovered that there was in fact a schism of friendships that took its toll on the actual group of women. There remains a permanent split, with some more in the public eye than others. The fracture of trust between Chris and Annie mirrors this real-life split. Despite the real Calendar Girls being unable to make amends, this production leaves the audience with feelings of warmth and love.  

First, I’d like to note that out of the 20 people listed in the program, 14 of them were women with 9 on stage and 5 off stage, including a female director, Samantha Cormier, and female producer, Cecilia Monroe. Though the men were fewer in number, they were essential in helping the production bloom and are certainly not discounted. The only thing that would have elevated it would be more ethnically diverse representation. Director Samantha Cormier notes that the production is “another example of how women need to help each other out and be there for each other.” She is absolutely right, especially when it seems as though women have a tendency to see each other as threats instead of kindred spirits. This story is about the power of coming together for a cause that is important. In that way, it’s much like the Women’s Marches and can be used as a tool for change. For me, those protests promoted awareness of the intersectionality of women and minorities, and this show provides the perfect vehicle to share the same message through theatre.

Of course, sometimes a play is just a play, but as an artist, I always appreciate when a much larger message is presented profoundly within the simplicity of a beautiful show like this. Even so, this cast represents the essence of community and the power that love and kindness can have on all of us. Not to mention how vulnerable it must have felt being literally naked in front of an audience. Their encouragement of one another to fearlessly liberate themselves was truly powerful. This production reminded me of the strength and power that women can have to change the world through simply supporting one another.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo by the Pima Community College department of theatre, courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

Cormier and her cast create a fun and high energy environment that envelops the audience, literally. Many entrances were from the back of the house, inviting the audience to be a part of the action. To further enhance that quality, the stage was set up as a thrust with audience on three sides. While there were often enough people on the stage to provide nice stage pictures from all angles, I felt there were lost opportunities to take advantage of diagonal angles when fewer characters were on stage or when one character took focus. I also found the high energy of the women to sometimes be a bit chaotic and in need of a little more focus. All that said, the joy the performers had with this show and the heart that they brought to it overshadowed those few technicalities.

Gretchen Wirges as Annie was a pillar of this production. She grounded herself and her character beautifully. Even in the moments she wasn’t speaking or taking center stage, you could sense her internal life holding its own. She had moments of vulnerability that wrecked my heart, as well as moments of strength and fortitude that I could admire. The other “Calendar Girls” included Colleen Zandbergen, tragically convincing as she channeled Chris’s hubris, Ellie Vought, bringing a ton of fun and sass to her character Celia, Sue Bishop, giving Ruth a genuine innocence that turns rebellious, Pat Timm, delivering unapologetic bluntness as Jessie, and Nancy French with her skilled piano playing and hilarious punchlines.

The cast is rounded out by Jan Aalberts Waukon, Ina Shivack, Naima Boushaki, David Zinke, and David Gunther, all of whom did more than their share to create a production that is sure to lift your spirits. In lieu of revealing the most touching moment of the production, I encourage you to take the opportunity to experience the magic it summons, making every single person in the room feel loved and appreciated. I left humbled and inspired by the mark it left in my heart.

Calendar Girls runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3:00pm through March 24th. You can purchase tickets online at www.artmeetsheart.com or by phone at (520) 329-2910.