- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2015

As in far too many artforms, gender parity remains a hoped-for goal of theater. However, the District’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, happening through mid-November at venues throughout the capital, aims to bring a feminine perspective center-stage.

The festival will present premieres of new works written by women at several theaters around Washington. David Muse, artistic director at the District’s Studio Theatre, says he and six of his colleagues from other area theaters first came up with the notion of such a citywide festival.

“It’s something that had been on a number of people’s minds for a while — mine included,” Mr. Muse said. “The idea of having plays by women be the theme really struck a chord with us. And that was, in large part, responding to a sort of an industrywide conversation that has been happening in recent years about the surprisingly low percentage of American plays produced by women.”

The breadth and subject matter of the new works ranges far and wide, as do the background and ages of their creators.

In “The Point,” D.C. native Marilyn Ansevin Austin, herself a trained psychotherapist , explores issues of personal meaning and coming to terms with one’s place in the world. The show, which runs through October 10 at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church in Southeast, follows Fran (Margeaux Martine) a physician who is dealing with the early stages of dementia. As she attempts to cope with her own failing mind, Fran receives the advise of a colleague, who helps her navigate the existential terror of losing one’s identity.

“Because of the experiences that I’ve had with patients … I [have learned] what the human mind is capable of,” Ms. Austin told The Washington Times.

Ms. Austin, a lifelong writer, said when she first saw rehearsals by the Arcturus Theater Company, she felt many of the details of the set were “backwards” and in conflict with her own mental image of what it should be.

“In my mind I had the same set with the house set up differently, so the kitchen was on the left side and the living area was on the right side. They had set it up just the other way around,” she said. “And it looked so strange to try to see it from their point of view.

“But to hear the words that I had written down actually said by people, it just was very strange. I don’t know how to describe it,” Ms. Austin said. “Did I write that? It sounds familiar, but they’re saying what I said,” she added with a laugh.

A little farther north, “The Long Way Around” will bow October 9 at the Highwood Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland. Running through October 25, the play follows a young woman named Addie, an out lesbian who moves to Chicago to live more openly. In Chicago she reunites with childhood friend Luce. “The Long Way Around” explores the boundaries between friendship and more between Addie and Luce.

Most amazing of all, the play’s author, Julia Starr, is just 22.

“Thematically it’s about scenes that I’m going though now — sort of about growing up and deciding whether you want to follow the conventional path or whether you want to sort of break out of your comfort zone and go do something exciting,” Ms. Starr, a senior at Stanford University majoring in communications, told The Times.

Suburbia looms large in Ms. Starr’s work. Away from the bigger cities, she says she finds the suburban lifestyle to be “stifling,” although a decent place to create one’s bedrock of familial values and come of age. But she needed a larger palette for her play.

“Chicago seemed like the perfect” setting, she said. “I feel like the suburbs are far enough away that that feeling is very valid, but Chicago is distant enough and different enough that it made sense for the play.”

Themes of sexual identity are of prime concern in “The Long Way Around.” Ms. Starr said that, societally, one’s orientation becomes such a great part of how she is defined by her peers.

“But not being comfortable with that is terrifying, so I wanted to sort of just talk about ‘questioning’ and talk about that uncertainty,” she said. “I think that one thing that was missing in my exposure to these narratives is the narrative of coming out to yourself and coming to terms with your own identity. And I think that’s almost the scariest part, and I wanted to show that on stage, make that narrative that I personally was missing.”

Ms. Starr, who says she may go into arts administration after college, echoed what Ms. Austin said about the uncanny feeling of observing professional actors speak aloud words she wrote, even if it not precisely how she imagined them to be.

“In our minds the characters are a certain way, and to have it portrayed differently can be very frustrating, so it’s about balancing your own view of the character with how an actor interprets it.

“As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve done more plays, I’ve realized that’s what the beauty of theater is,” Ms. Starr said. “The creative sort of magic of theater is so collaborative, and the play really grows in a production, and having the experiences of actors really shapes the play.”

Furthermore, college productions of her shows have featured young adults playing characters of all ages. D.C.’s professional corps of thespians, however, can play the roles as written.

“The actors are able to bring their own experience to really bolster the play that you really can’t get with students,” she said. “Not a fault of them, just life experience.”

Ms. Starr has a history with the Highwood. Her previous full-length play, “Crazy Runs in the Family,” was staged there in July 2014. Although she grew up — and now attends college — in California, Ms. Starr’s family lived in the District during her high school years, and it is here that she got her professional start as a playwright.

“I just think it’s so exciting and amazing that D.C. is really taking this on,” she said. “There’s so much amazing theater going on in D.C. all the time, but I hope this really creates a unity among theaters.”

Ms. Austin hopes that Women’s Voices will open the door for more women to get involved creatively in theatrical productions.

“There’s obviously many women out there writing plays, [but] why is it that the ones you see out there being performed in theaters, 80 percent of the time are [by] men writers?” she said. “I would hope that … theater directors [become] more open to seriously considering plays written by women.”

For now, both playwrights and artistic directors of the festival are ready to enjoy the first of what they hope will become an annual rite for the nation’s capital stages.

“My hope is that it makes a big splash in the city, that we all remain as enthusiastic about it at the end as we are at the beginning,” Mr. Muse said, “and that we double down and agree to do it again.”

For information on plays at the festival, visit WomensVoicesTheaterFestival.org.

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