Why women-only initiatives are vital for the arts

Writer Ali Smith, winner of this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

Writer Ali Smith, winner of this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

In an increasingly crowded marketplace, women-only prizes shine a much-needed light on the talent of female writers

Global chief marketing officer at Diageo

How appropriate that the title of this year’s winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is How To Be Both. The extraordinary novel by Ali Smith, which touches on the way the world sees gender and how that has changed, is a timely springboard into a controversial debate within the literary world: do we still need women-only initiatives in the arts?

As a woman who cares deeply about gender equality and has a love of books, I have followed this debate and commentary very closely. This year in particular, the Baileys Prize has generated considerable publicity, which is of course the point, since it is designed to shine a light on great writing by women. However, it has also served to stir a debate around whether these awards are necessary, or whether they are patronizing to women.

Writing in the New York Times, Zoe Heller explained her fear that that women-only prizes institutionalize women’s “second-class, junior league status”, while marking off women’s fiction as something “virtuous but fundamentally tedious.” Jan Dalley in the Financial Times also voiced concern that “gender-based special pleading could imply weakness in today’s world”.

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Educate ~ Enlighten ~ Entertain: Echoes of the Past

Stage Struck: from Kemble to Kate

A First Online With Fran Interview with Mari Lyn Henry

Photo by Paul Fox Performance at Bernstein Theater, Snapple Theater Center, December 12, 2013 Karen Eterovich as Fanny Kemble, Mari Lyn Henry as Clara Morris, Meghan Duffy as Minnie Maddern Fiske, Romy Nordlinger as Alla Nazimova, Paula Ewin as Katharine Hepburn

Photos by Paul Fox
Performance at Bernstein Theater, Snapple Theater Center, December 12, 2013
Karen Eterovich as Fanny Kemble, Mari Lyn Henry as Clara Morris, Meghan Duffy as Minnie Maddern
Fiske, Romy Nordlinger as Alla Nazimova, Paula Ewin as Katharine Hepburn

What does the perseverance of Fanny Kemble, a British born actress who comes to America, survives a scandalous divorce to become a renowned author have to do with a plucky sixteen-year-old actress Clara Morris with the playful personality of Kate Hepburn? Mari Lyn Henry, chair of The Heritage Committee for The League of Professional Theatre Women has collaborated with a team of 5 women to create Stage Struck: from Kemble to Kate, a 90-minute performance piece that aims to provide an authentic presentation of voices from the 19th and 20th centuries to remind us of the challenges that women faced during this time period: “It’s women telling their stories. . . real stories [of ] real women who lived and what they went through for their principle, their integrity.”

Melody Brooks, who serves as the director and dramaturg of the project, threads the narrative journeys of five actresses from the 19th and 20th centuries to provide audiences of all ages with a glimpse into the obstacles and triumphs that these women faced. As President of The Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History, Mari Lyn Henry is committed to showing how “the echoes of the past are being echoed again today.” Despite the accessibility of historical information through Wikipedia and other internet resources, Mari Lyn’s goal is to insure that the lessons of the past are preserved so that we can continue to appreciate and acknowledge the sacrifices that these women made through an historical lens at a time when actresses were considered to be fallen women: “No respectable church-going women,” noted Mari Lyn, “would be seen on a stage.”

Towards that end, the objective of the project has 3 goals: to educate, to enlighten and illuminate, and to entertain. Since much of theatrical history has been reduced to a chapter, at best, in today’s educational curricula, Mari Lyn feels the urgency to lay a foundation to connect our past with our present: “I like seed planting. We’re planting seeds, out of which we want to encourage people to start looking into the past, reading the books….”

Frances “Fanny” Anne Kemble (1809-1893) made her stage debut just shy of her 20th birthday in October 1829. Fanny did not care for the stage and felt that it was forced upon her because of the pressing debts of the family, which included maintaining a stake in Covent Garden. In 1834, Fanny married Pierce Butler of Philadelphia, one of the richest plantation owners in the United States. The marriage was contentious almost from the beginning; they bickered over her Journal of America, published in 1835, and then they argued over her “aberrant” idea that women and men should be equal in a marriage when, at the time, a married woman was “owned” by her husband with the rest of his property. Kemble went on to divorce her husband to become an avid abolitionist. In 1863 she published her Journal of Residence on A Georgian Plantation (1838-1839) which became an immediate sensation in England and then America. A comprehensive Study Guide that includes details such as these is provided as a supplementary resource. “Our goal,” states Mari Lyn, “is to reach out to educators, acting programs, conservatories, etc. to present this information to them so that they understand the legacy and the rich heritage of the past.”

Listening to these women, audiences benefit firsthand from their wisdom through their personal storytelling. Clara Morris (1847-1925) grew up in the shadow of poverty. Her mother’s sewing, cooking and housekeeping skills kept her employed in a number of boarding houses. Clara’s love of reading and telling stories to the boarders caught the attention of teenaged Blanche Bradshaw who felt that Clara could gain work in the ensemble at John Ellsler’s Academy of Music in Cleveland. At sixteen years of age already an accomplished actress comparable to the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, she found herself acting opposite the formidable talent Edwin Booth. He paid her a compliment about her performance and “when Edwin Booth gave you a compliment you felt like a goddess floating on a pink cloud.” Personal anecdotes such as these encourage audience members to empathize with each of the women’s struggles to succeed thereby engaging them to relate to and realize their valor. Historical sources leap from the pages of a textbook and make it come alive on the stage.

Who could deny being horrified when Alla Nazimova’s (1879-1945) father forbade her to use the family name, fearing that she would embarrass him? Despite making her debut playing the violin to enthusiastic applause, he took her home and caned her so severely that he broke her arm and said, “Just because a few provincial fools applaud you, don’t imagine you’re Paganini.” Romy Nordlinger’s performance as the Russian born Nazimova in her dressing room at Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre before she appears as Madame Ravenskaya in The Cherry Orchard, keeps the audience spellbound with an authentic story about this “soul harassed woman.” Each of the actresses researched, wrote, and devised a richly detailed perspective of the five personas: Frances “Fanny” Kemble (Karen Eterovich); Clara Morris (Mari Lyn Henry); Minnie Maddern Fiske (Meghan Duffy); Alla Nazimova (Romy Nordlinger); Katherine Hepburn (Paula Ewin). The inter-locking dialogues moderated by its director, Melody Brooks, set the tone of the performance and allow its audience to settle in for a series of stories about real women, making real history so that “people who have never had any knowledge of theater history at least get a capsulized view of what was going on.”

Ultimately, Stage Struck: from Kemble to Kate raises awareness of how these brave women forged a footprint to set the stage for all talents — both men and women and that “attention is made” to their remarkable accomplishments.

The program was presented on Thursday, December 12, 2013 from 7:30 PM to 9:30PM with post program discussion at The Anne L. Bernstein Theater, Snapple Theater Center to rave reviews. . .

“I enjoyed the program and the Study Guide was very nicely done.” Sherry Engle, Associate Professor, Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts Department, Borough of Manhattan Community College. Author, “New Women Dramatists in America 1890-1920″

“What an immense amount of information I’ve learned after tonight’s performance! I love how each actor’s story was personalized! And the Study Guide–wow! What an incredible gift that is! Congratulations and thank you for taking the time to create such a thorough and thoughtful tribute! Emily Moulton, Executive Director, Tom Todoroff Studio and Conservatory

“Really fine work ladies putting together a very illuminating and fascinating presentation.” Shellen Lubin, co-secretary League of Professional Theatre Women, co-president, Coalition of Women in the Arts and Media

“Lovely education in theatrical women’s history and the cast was quite awesome to hold the stage like they did solo.” Denise Pence Boockvor Public Relations Director, History Alive! Vice Chair, Rehearsal Club

“Congrats to those amazingly talented women: Meghan Duffy, Karen Eterovich, Romy Nordlinger, Paula Ewin, Melody Brooks and Mari Lyn Henry. Stage Struck From Kemble to Kate was fabulous!” Joan Kane, Director

“It was a terrific evening.” Joan Kendall, actor


final wam logo medium

The Women in the Arts & Media Coalition has announced the winners of the 2013 Collaboration Awards. The Collaboration Awards, which recognize women who successfully collaborate across disciplines to create new and influential work, will be presented at the Awards Gala on Thursday, October 24th at Baruch Performing Arts Center’s Engelman Auditorium in New York City. Madeleine Smithberg, Emmy and Peabody Award winning co-creator and original executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, will keynote the evening’s Gala.

The 2013 Collaboration Award winners are writer/actress Jane Edith Wilson and writer/filmmaker Grace Lee for their political mockumentary film Janeane from Des Moines. This is the first time the Collaboration Award has been awarded to a film and filmmaking team.

The Honored Finalist Award will be given to Silent Witnesses, a play by Stephanie Satie and directed by Anita Khanzadian. The Honorable Mention Award will be given to The Island of No Tomorrows, a play with music by Fengar Gael, directed by Lorca Peress.

“All three of these collaborations are groundbreaking triumphs of both content and form,” said Shellen Lubin, co-president of Women in the Arts & Media Coalition. “For the Coalition, collaboration is particularly important to acknowledge for two reasons: 1) as women are breaking down barriers in all these different disciplines, they have too often been the only woman on the creative team, and we want to honor women who choose to work with other women; and 2) we have been learning for awhile how women collaborating with other women often work together differently than men do with men, and even moreso, than men do with women. That is why the most fascinating part of the Gala is to hear these bright, talented, extremely accomplished women talk about their unique, ever-evolving collaborative processes.”

Collaboration Award winning film Janeane from Des Moines seamlessly merges documentary film with fiction in a political mockumentary shot on the actual 2012 Republican campaign trail. It follows “Janeane,” a vulnerably imagined member of the Tea Party, as her job, health insurance status, community, and family all disintegrate around her, propelling her to follow actual conservative candidates, including Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, in search of answers to her problems, and begging the candidates to save small American families like hers.

“We are so honored to be accepting this award. One of the best aspects of making this very unconventional film was working together. We are two women who brought different skills sets to the table. We got it done using our creativity, mutual respect for one another, quality Skype-time with our families back home, plain old hard work, and as much good humor as we could muster. It means the world to us to have our film embraced by an organization that celebrates women in collaboration,” said Jane Edith Wilson and Grace Lee, co-creators of Janeane from Des Moines.

Both the Honored Finalist and Honorable Mention Award winners are plays. Silent Witnesses is based on interviews and conversations with child survivors of the Holocaust. It presents a group of older women in California who, as young children, were hidden and saved from the Holocaust by various means. Finding each other, coming together, and discovering their sisterhood allows them to give voice to memories long hidden inside themselves; while all the unique women are portrayed exquisitely by one actor, the playwright Stephanie Satie.

Honorable Mention The Island of No Tomorrows is a play with music set on the fictitious island nation of “Fortuna,” a fantastical land created by one father who wants his terminally ill, motherless daughter to grow up only with women, only with the word yes, and with no words spoken, only sung. As his attempts to construct an idealized childhood for his daughter fall apart, both his daughter and her caretakers rebel in surprising ways. The play with music revolves around themes of political oppression, sexual subjugation, and gender imbalance of power.

All six winners will receive their awards at the October 24th Awards Gala, during which all three teams will discuss their collaborations and Wilson and Lee will show excerpts of Janeane from Des Moines. The Gala will also feature keynote speaker Madeleine Smithberg, the Emmy and Peabody Award winning co-creator and original executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and founder and president of Mad Cow Productions. Smithberg will share her experiences of success in collaborating with other women writers, including Lizz Winstead on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as launching a new YouTube comedy channel and her own collaborative female digital comedy entity Moo, which will showcase the work of young internet comedy content producers and comediennes.

A limited number of tickets to the Awards Gala are available to the public. Ticket prices are: $20 for members of any of the Coalition’s member organizations / $25 for non-members (early bird rate before October 10), $30 after October 10; $35 at the door. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.womenartsmediacoalition.org.

Awarded every second year, the Collaboration Awards encourage professional women in the arts and media from different specializations to work collaboratively on the creation of new work. The award recognizes the best of these collaborations and goes to a winning project and its two creators. In addition to the top honor, an Honored Finalist Award and Honorable Mention Award are also presented to two additional projects and their creator teams. 2013 marks the fourth time the Collaboration Awards have been presented. Past winners are: playwright Stefanie Zadravec and director Daniella Topol for their collaboration on the play The Electric Baby (2011); writer Jennifer Gibbs and director Kristin Marting for the play The Stranger (2008), and playwright Jennifer Maisel and director Wendy McClellan for the play Birds (2006).

Women in the Arts & Media Coalition is a non-profit organization, which represents more than 80,000 women and men in the performing arts and media through its member organizations and affiliates. The Coalition focuses the power of its member organizations and their memberships together and uses the combined strength to address issues of concern through advocacy, networking and educational events. Member organizations are: Actors’ Equity Association, Dramatists Guild of America, League of Professional Theatre Women, SAG-AFTRA New York Local, Stage Directors and Choreographers, New York Women in Film & Television, and the Writers Guild of America, East. Affiliates are: WomenArts, The Rehearsal Club, The Women’s Media Center, Women Make Movies, Dancers Over 40, and Professional Women Singers Association. For more information on Women in the Arts & Media Coalition, visit http://www.womenartsmediacoalition.org.

Bios of the Winners:

Collaboration Award Winners: Jane Edith Wilson and Grace Lee for Janeane from Des Moines:

Grace Lee (Women Make Movies) is an award-winning writer/director and producer of both fiction and non-fiction feature films. Her credits include The Grace Lee Project broadcast on the Sundance Channel, American Zombie, Janeane from Des Moines, the forthcoming American Revolutionary, and The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, which is currently on the festival circuit and will be broadcast in 2014 on PBS.

Jane Edith Wilson (SAG-AFTRA) is an acclaimed and award-winning writer, actress and producer, with works in television, film and theater. She played “Connie” on Bravo’s Significant Others and appeared on Frank TV, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld and ER. Her film credits include Catch Me If You Can, American Zombie, and Eight Legged Freaks. Wilson has received a Drama-Logue Award for Best Lead Actress in The Houseguest, and her musical, The Ultimate Man, received an acclaimed production in London’s West End.

Honored Finalists: Stephanie Satie and Anita Khanzadian for Silent Witnesses:

Stephanie Satie (AEA, SAG-AFTRA, DG) is an award-winning actress, playwright and scholar. She has appeared, first as a dancer, then an actress on and off-Broadway, in regional and L.A. theatres, internationally and on television. She received three grants from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for her solo plays Refugees and Coming to America – Transformations, both directed by Anita Khanzadian. She is a member of Interact Theatre Company in Los Angeles and is currently performing Silent Witnesses on both coasts.

Anita Khanzadian (SAG-AFTRA, AEA, SDC) is a director, a founding member of the American Renaissance Theatre in New York City, and a longtime member of Interact Theatre in Los Angeles and director of Interact Theatre’s play lab. A recipient of two Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards for direction, as well as Drama-Logue and Ovation Awards for direction and best ensemble work, she has also directed other one-person plays including Elizabeth Perry’s Sun Flower and James Gleason’s Vietnam memoir, Actor Under Fire. Silent Witnesses is her third collaboration with Stephanie Satie.

Honorable Mention: Fengar Gael and Lorca Peress for The Island of No Tomorrows

Fengar Gael (DG, LPTW) is an award-winning playwright and Sundance Playwright Lab Fellow. Her credits of produced and in-production work include: The Judas Tree (also directed by Lorca Peress), The Island of No Tomorrows (winner of the Multi-Stages New Works Award), The Portraitist, Devil Dog Six, and Soul on Vinyl. She is a recipient of the Craig Noel Award, the Playwrights First Award and has commissions from South Coast Repertory, the National New Play Network, and a playwriting fellowship from the California Arts Council.

Lorca Peress (SDC, AEA, LPTW) is an award-winning director, co-president of LPTW, and artistic director of MultiStages. Her recent credits include: Black Girl You’ve Been Gentrified at the Public Theatre; two world premiere Bruce Saylor operas, The Image Maker and My Kinsman Major Molineaux, and AIDS Quilt Songbook. Lorca’s Appetite also won the 2011 Collaboration Award Honorable Mention with playwright Arden Kass. In addition, she is the recipient of two Manhattan Community Arts Fund Awards (LMCC/DOCA), four 2012 Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) Awards, including Outstanding Production, a La MaMa Inky Award, Dramatists Guild Fund, National Opera Association- 2nd Prize (Professional Competition).

Keynote Speaker:

Madeleine Smithberg (WGA) is the Emmy and Peabody Award winning co-creator and original executive producer/show runner of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as the founder and president of Mad Cow Productions. She has created and produced comedy projects for a wide variety of networks including Showtime, History, TBS, Fox, Bloomberg, Nickelodeon, CNN, and BBC America, as well as created and launched a successful news franchise, INFOmania, for Al Gore’s Current TV. She recently earned an NAACP Image Award nomination for the BET late night show Don’t Sleep!. She is currently serving as consulting executive producer for the internet company Fullscreen helping to launch a YouTube comedy channel, as well as developing her own collaborative female digital comedy entity, called Moo.