Women's Theatre Festival of Memphis celebrates broad range of contributions

“Stories From Da Dirt” will be staged by the women’s performance group Music is Spirit at 4 p.m. Friday at TheatreWorks. The play concerns three women searching for freedom from slavery and their struggles in the wilderness.

“Stories From Da Dirt” will be staged by the women’s performance group Music is Spirit at 4 p.m. Friday at TheatreWorks. The play concerns three women searching for freedom from slavery and their struggles in the wilderness.

You can point to some enduring female roles — from Lady Macbeth to Hedda Gabler — as evidence that the stage has long afforded opportunities for women. You can also make an extensive list of acclaimed contemporary female playwrights (Katori Hall), choreographers (Twyla Tharp), directors (Susan Stroman) and producers (Sue Frost of the musical "Memphis").

Yet even with the strides women have made in the performing arts, some feel that female expression on the stage still has room for growth.

Organizers of the first Women's Theatre Festival of Memphis, running Friday and Saturday at three Midtown theaters, say the event isn't about making a political statement. Rather, the event draws attention to contributions made by women, while empowering young women to exert a stronger influence.

"More than 60 percent of ticket buyers are women," says executive producer Karen Moore. "And yet only 20 percent of plays are by female playwrights. Women still need to be heard and seen."

Three venues — Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Playhouse and TheatreWorks — will host the inaugural festival, which includes nine plays, four staged readings, 10 workshops, two panel discussions and showcases of dance, spoken-word poetry and music.

A committee chose entries either written or directed by a woman, or centered on a female subject. More than 30 submissions came from across the country.

Memphis playwright Ruby O'Gray introduced the concept of a festival dedicated to women after attending the National Black Theatre Festival more than 15 years ago.

"I found that it was very difficult to have my work produced," O'Gray said. "I don't believe in blaming others for that. I've not been the most conventional person all my life. I just had to figure out my own way to get my work produced."

O'Gray, who has written more than 60 plays, co-founded the Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company, which regularly stages her work along with others at TheatreWorks.

The committee chose her 2003 comedy "Sisters of the Cloth" to be the featured production this year.

Her play is set in a North Memphis apartment complex during the 1950s and is based on a story she heard from her grandmother about women placing a voodoo hex on another whose long, beautiful hair was envied in the neighborhood.

"I took that story and put my spin on it," O'Gray said. "When we produced it in 2006, we had to turn people away because it was very popular."

O'Gray says her own struggles in the performing arts reaffirm the need to educate more women in the business and technical aspects of theater.

"We can't just depend on getting roles," O'Gray said. "We have to look at all the areas that need more female participation. We need philanthropists, producers, dancers. Young women in college don't foresee that having computer skills will help them down the road when they need to do lighting design."

Elaine Blanchard was a preacher and a storyteller before creating a one-woman show based on her life story in 2008.

The local success of her inspirational and heartbreaking "For Goodness Sake" encouraged her to become involved with the theater company Voices of the South.

"Telling my own story set me free," Blanchard said. "I felt I had been given a tremendous gift. I wondered who around here also needed to be dignified with an audience."

She went to the Shelby County Corrections Center and invited the female inmates to tell their own stories of how they got there. Her series "Prison Stories" is now in its fifth installment, and will be seen at the festival along with her original autobiographical monologue.

"I do feel like women are underrepresented in a lot of places, but it's my experience that the theater is where the power of my voice has finally been heard," she says. "The theater is where I've come to be represented. I'd venture to say that if there's something that distinguishes women's theater, it's that we do it in terms of relationships and not in terms of the final product. It allows us to feel more connected to each other."

Jackie Nichols, executive producer of Playhouse on the Square, says the theater offered so much space to the festival after seeing the enthusiasm and energy of its founders.

"An idea is only as good as its ability to be carried out," he said. "These folks are relentless. Anything that brings attention to the contributions that women make is a needed thing."

He adds that the industry is slowly changing as a whole. Playhouse now produces more plays by women "because there are more women playwrights."

"One of the challenges we have is finding ways to involve more women," Nichols said. "Historically, out of a play with 10 people in the cast, there will be seven men and three women. There's almost always more male characters, which is a problem because whenever we have auditions there are always more women auditioning than men."

Organizers of the Women's Theatre Festival of Memphis hope it becomes a national event, and it has gained the support of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tickets to individual performances range from $15-$20. A day pass, which is good for five events, is $50.

Several workshops and staged readings are free.

Make reservations at womenstheatrefestivalofmemphis.org, or by calling 901-213-7566.

Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis

Events are divided between Playhouse on the Square (POTS), Circuit Playhouse (CP) and TheatreWorks (TW), all located around Overton Square.

FRIDAY

Staged Readings and Performances

10:30 a.m. — “Bedside Manners” by Lisa Stephenson (CP)

Noon — “Who Am I? For Women Who’ve Seen the Rough Side of the Mountain” by Blues City Cultural (CP)

1 — “For Goodness Sake” by Elaine Blanchard (TW)

2:45 — “No Where to Run, No Where to Hide” by Niambi Webster (TW)

4 — “Stories from da Dirt” by Music is Spirit (TW)

7 — “Sisters of the Cloth” by Ruby O’Gray (CP)

9 — Tonya Dyson in Concert (CP)

Seminars and workshops

9 a.m. — Business of Theatre (CP)

10:15 — Hip Hop Dance with Noelia Warnette Jones (TW)

11:30 — Adventures in Playwriting with Virginia Ralph Matthews (TW)

1:30 — Directing Workshop with Gloria Baxter (CP)

3 — Acting Workshop with Patricia Smith (CP)

5:30 — Meet and Greet (CP)

SATURDAY

Staged Readings and Performances

10 a.m. — “Harriet Tubman: One Woman’s Journey” by Jackie Murray (TW)

10:30 — “Lobotomy Dreams (A Dark Comedy)” by Lurlynn Franklin (CP)

Noon — “Crazy About You” by Amber Williams (TW)

1 — “Prison Stories V” by Voices of the South (TW)

2 — “Sisters of the Cloth” by Ruby O’ Gray (CP)

2:30 — WTFM Dance Showcase (TW)

4:30 — “I Bet They’re Sleeping All Over America” by Natalie Parker-Lawrence (CP)

5 — “I Am Somebody … Else! One Woman’s Coming of Age Story” (TW)

7 — “Sisters of the Cloth” (CP)

7 — “Angelique Watt: My Release” by Brenda Bell Brown (TW)

9 — Spoken Word Cafe hosted by Tiffany Mishe (CP)

Seminars and Workshops

9 a.m. — Business of Acting (CP)

9 — Jazz Dance with Kirstin Hurston (POTS)

10 — Salsa Dance Workshop with Amanda Gonzales (POTS)

11 — African Dance Workshop with Concetta V. Harris (POTS)

Noon — Ballet Workshop with Dimitri Roundnev (POTS)

12:15 — Spoken Word Workshop with Tiffany Mishe (CP)

1:30 — Costuming Workshop with Rebecca Y. Powell (CP)

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