Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's still a struggle for women in theatre, onstage and off

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Almost every week it seems there is another magazine cover declaring that women are taking over the world and leaving contemporary men in their dust.

A bastion of maledom that has yet to be overrun by the rise in matriarchy is theatre, where today female playwrights write as few as 30 per cent of the plays seen on our stages. Fewer than 17 per cent of all plays produced in the United States are written by females. Only 11 per cent of all plays produced on Broadway are penned by women. Those numbers especially rankle women in light of the fact that the typical theatre audience is 65-70 per cent female.

Such disparity has given rise recently to a movement of several women's groups demanding 50/50 by 2020. They are organizing speakouts south of the border about the continued and unacceptable exclusion of women from the main stages of global theatre.

In Canada, organizers of events like FemFest rarely have to field questions about their raison d'etre.

"I would love nothing more than for FemFest not to be needed anymore, but it is," says Hope McIntyre, artistic director of Sarasàvti Productions which produces the annual showcase celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

"When you look at the whole country, we're obviously not where we'd like to be," she says during an interview this week. "For us, it's about making sure women playwrights have the same opportunities, 50/50 would mean they have at least half a chance."

And it's not just female playwrights suffering gender inequality. If there were more female dramatists telling their stories onstage, there would be more female characters and more actresses needed to play them.

"A higher percentage of theatre students are female, but it doesn't translate into employment after school," says McIntyre, who teaches at the University of Winnipeg. "They are being trained, but they are graduating and finding there aren't enough roles for them."

FemFest is a case of women doing it for themselves with 65 female theatre artists working this week.

There is reason for McIntyre to be optimistic, as all the new plays in professional Winnipeg theatre this season are written by women. The Brink, by Winnipegger Ellen Peterson, opens the Prairie Theatre Exchange season, which also includes the première of This Is War by Toronto's Hannah Moscovitch. Another Torontonian, Niki Landau, is penning the script of the highly anticipated new version of Gone With the Wind at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, while Rewritten, by Winnipeg's Alix Sobler, closes the WJT season.

FemFest debuts two new titles: Empty by McIntyre and Immigration Stories, which was created in partnership with the Immigrant Women's Association of Manitoba. Empty -- which will be presented Friday at 7 p.m. and next Saturday at 2 p.m. -- focuses on food banks and the wide range of people who use them. Immigration Stories -- Thursday and Saturday at 7 p.m. -- looks at the hopes, dreams and trials of newcomers to Canada.

One of the new features this year is called Bake-Off, in which five local playwrights have been given identical ingredients and two weeks to whip up a play. The results will be read Monday at 7 p.m. Marcia Johnson, Muriel Hogue, Jessy Ardern, Tyler White and Hannah Foulger cooked up their scripts, which had to involve an ice rink, a cake, a surprise visit and a slap. The winner, as judged by audience votes, will be slotted into FemFest 2013.

"It's about inspiring new work by women," says McIntyre. "We are giving them the inspiration and the deadline. It forces them to do the writing."

FemFest is also hosting three touring productions, including Sonofabitch Stew: The Drunken Life of Calamity Jane, presented by Vancouver's Shameless Hussy Productions. It tells the story of a gender studies professor who takes on the personality of a whip-wielding Calamity Jane.

Also coming from Vancouver is Women in Fish, a multimedia performance that weaves the tragedy of fishing boat lost in a storm with the devastation of the global fishing industry. My Pregnant Brother by Montreal's Joanna Nutter is the true story of her younger sister, who was is the midst of a gender change when she became pregnant.

In honour of its 10th anniversary, FemFest is bringing in leading Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, a two-time winner of the Governor General's Award for drama for a reading at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

"I wanted someone who could come and share her successes and tell us how she became one of the great Canadian playwrights," McIntyre says. "For me, the first person that came to mind was Judith Thompson."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 G6

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