The Company of (Historical) Women, Part 1
In this first of this two-part introduction to The 365 Women A Year: A Playwriting Project, Devon Ellington gives a glimpse into this unique program that cultivates writers to pay homage to nearly forgotten historical female figures
It all started with Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and The Childhood of Favorite Americans series. In the second grade, I found this series in my elementary school library. I checked out the books on Alcott and Stowe so often my grandmother bought them. I still have them.
They were flawed, with tempers and frustrations, but they created while juggling family responsibilities. They made me believe I could, too. They achieved remembrance, but I kept asking myself, how many women have done extraordinary things and are forgotten?
Random reading in 2015 about female detectives brought Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton, to my attention. She walked into Allan Pinkerton’s Chicago office in 1856 and convinced Pinkerton to hire her. She went on to be one of his most trusted operatives, a dramatic group of undercover detectives who staged elaborate stings to bring down their targets. A friend forwarded a call for submissions in 2016 from a site called 365 Women A Year: A Playwriting Project, looking for plays about forgotten women. The website stated, “our plays are loosely based on these remarkable historical figures.” I submitted a pitch, and they let me “claim” Kate.
The Project was founded by Jess Eisenberg, a co-founder of Chicago’s Prologue Theatre, who was frustrated by the dearth of information on female painters she wanted to build a season around. She was joined by her friend Gina Scanlon, and Beatriz Cabur, who became European Managing Director.
Rover Dramawerks in Plano, Texas now has an annual 365 Women A Year Festival. Carol Rice, the theatre’s artistic director, heard about the project on Facebook and submitted a play about Anne of Austria (wife of King Louis XIII). “Once the first year’s plays had been written, Jess put us in touch with other playwrights from our region, and those of us from Texas discussed putting together several festivals throughout the state that we all brought our plays to. Unfortunately, Rover Dramawerks was the only one that actually happened. Most of our patrons say our 365 Women a Year Festival is their favorite thing we do all year because they love learning about the accomplishments of these amazing women.”
The project has grown to include and encourage teen playwrights and female directors and serves as a clearinghouse for plays written about historical women, some well-known, many forgotten. It fills a void so many women playwrights, actresses, directors, producers, historians, and audience members feel.
“Doesn’t it seem simply illogical that the majority of the world’s population is treated as second-class?” said DS Magid, a fellow 365 Women playwright, actress, director, and poet. “That barely 5% of produced plays have been by or about women? Unlike graphic art (e.g., the paintings by women of other centuries which are being discovered every day now), even produced plays languish in the mists of history unless they or their playwright were hugely famous, and as one cannot truly ‘get’ a play just by reading it, even historical plays of some acclaim continue to languish unseen. So why not attempt to tip the balance of 7000 years of history-so-far toward telling women’s stories, and not via the male gaze? (I could get political here, but won’t).”
“Making things up is more natural for me as a screenwriter/playwright, so I like to create characters and stories,” said writer/director/producer/actress Danielle Winston. “At the same time, it’s important for women to have role models, so we can continuously look to other women for inspiration. One way to do that is to honor our filmmaker/artist sisters who paved the way for us today.”
Actress Elizabeth Ross, who played Kate in the Post-Meridian Radio Players’ production of Confidence Confidant said, “The minute I heard about Kate Warne’s story I was fascinated by this amazing woman and simultaneously frustrated that I had never heard of her. That made me more determined to bring her story to life. I’ve always been attracted to offbeat roles – characters that go against the conventions of society in one way or another. Partially because of this interest I play a lot of gender-swapped or gender-neutral characters. Something extremely interesting about playing Kate was that she uses her femininity and her society’s pre-conceived notions of what a woman does and is to sneak behind the guard of criminals. She presents herself as harmless, but she’s always watching and waiting. That level of calculation was extremely interesting to play. Another thing that really drew me to her character was how much mastery she has over herself and how she exerts will without ever raising her voice.”
That was one of my fascinations with Kate – she knew how to be anonymous and powerful at the same time.
My first 365 acceptance set off a year’s worth of research, resulting in Confidence Confidant. I adapted it for radio and produced it in Boston, and it spawned more Kate projects.
One year’s involvement wasn’t enough. I’ve written plays inspired by the 14th-century pirate Jeanne de Clisson, the 17th-century herbalist and poisoner Giulia Tofana, the Renaissance painter Lavinia Fontana, the painter Canaletto’s three sisters, 18th-century playwright Susanna Centlivre, and NYPD’s first female detective Isabella Goodwin. It’s become a passion, a habit, a ritual. Carol Rice agreed. “I’ve written at least one play every year 365 has been in existence.”
Each of these plays required substantial research. Each of these women-led lives filled with fascinating stories. Choosing what to build each play around was a challenge. How much is too much? Is there enough conflict in a single incident?
“As a playwright/screenwriter, I’d rather zero in on personal moments that resonate than an expansive time period,” said Danielle Winston. “That way, I can linger there, add colors, and build layers.”
DS Magid expanded, “Every work of theatre depends on the irrevocable transformation of at least one character’s relationship with their world. Not just a realization of a ‘D'oh!’ moment, but a change of such magnitude that the character is irretrievably altered and, in a good play, so is the world.”
“I think storytellers see the drama – or maybe they ‘find’ the drama – in whatever moment they’re examining,” said playwright and director Marty Bongfeldt. “And when I say ‘storyteller,” I’m including actors, directors, and designers, too – because they are all part of the storytelling process. I’m fascinated by ‘turning points.’ When I look at a historical event (which of course ultimately means: a person), I’m always questioning, what led them here? What drove them to this point? And I find that those ‘turning points’ – even when they are subtle – can often be the most dramatic element. In my writing – and my research – I’m often searching for that little piece of unremembered drama.”
Playwright, novelist and director Carol Verburg added, “Once I identify the play’s territory, I start writing everything that fascinates me, and then (reluctantly, ruthlessly) whittle away the parts that don’t contribute anything valuable to the emerging drama.”
Unremembered drama. Turning points. Territory. Altering the world. And, importantly, paying homage to the women who cut the path it’s now up to us to widen.