Seven would-be Cinderellas had a ball during a recent photo shoot on the 20th floor of a Portage Avenue skyscraper.
The septet had spent the morning being professionally styled, their hair perfectly coiffed and their makeup expertly applied as part of their transformation into glamorous, alluring subjects for the camera. The untrained models, in splashy outfits personally chosen from an Academy Road clothing store, posed for the photographer like fashion icons. They raised flutes of champagne in celebration.
The focus of all that VIP attention was an unlikely group of seven female playwrights -- Jessy Ardern, Ginny Collins, Trish Cooper, Carolyn Gray, Cairn Moore, Debbie Patterson and Alix Sobler -- each debuting a new play during the 2013-14 theatre season. Attention must be paid to such an unusual convergence of local premières.
"The theatres came together to pamper us and make this a big deal, because it is a big deal," says Collins, whose new play, Good Intentions, debuts Oct. 9 at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. "Seven local female playwrights opening new plays in one season -- I'm not sure that will ever happen again. It's kind of a historical moment."
New locally written plays by women are not a rarity. A couple debuted last season, which is still noteworthy, but seven is off the charts. The pool of working female dramatists is probably no more than a dozen to 15, so to have half of them debuting new scripts is unprecedented.
"I really look forward to the day when tons of female playwrights being produced in the city is not special," says Sobler, the pen behind The Secret Annex, which opens at the RMTC Warehouse Feb. 20. "In the meantime I think it is important to celebrate these victories."
It's never been an easy go for female playwrights, whether in Winnipeg, the rest of Canada, the United States or the Western world. The latest Canadian statistics reveal that only 23 per cent of plays were penned solely by women and 61 per cent solely by men.
"That sucks," says Patterson, on hearing how under-represented women are in Canadian theatre. "The demographics of the theatre is probably the opposite of that, 61 per cent female. If most of the plays are written by men and the majority of the audience is female there is a disconnect. I want to balance that."
Younger female theatre students are shocked by the gender divide, because in their classes they are surrounded by as many females as males. Something seems to happen once they graduate into the theatre world, where the male writer still reigns. Is that because there a gender bias?
"Of course," says Sobler. "I think it's everywhere. I think it's a subtle, ingrained bias."
No one is saying that women can't write as well as men, she says. It has to do with the common perception that men's stories are universal, while women's stories are for women. That thinking is rooted in the culture.
"It's really hard to overturn that paradigm," says Sobler.
Michael Nathanson, artistic director of WJT, recognizes the continuing imbalance created by the primacy of male playwrights and that a change is overdue.
For 11 years, FemFest, organized by artistic director Hope McIntyre, has been the only venue to see a wide spectrum of female writing for the stage. Moore, who co-wrote Jail Baby with McIntyre for Sarasvti Productions last season, is unveiling her first full-length solo, Shiksa, for WJT in April. It was first read at FemFest.
"Hope McIntyre has mentored so many female writers and continues to do so quietly and with great modesty," says Moore. "She truly is the Nellie McClung of theatre. She gives voice also to women/people that are marginalized and aren't often heard."
The photo session was a rare opportunity for the group of seven to spend time with each other and share common insecurities. That sisterhood was in evidence when it became apparent that Arden, who recently moved to Edmonton to study acting at the University of Alberta, wasn't going to be able to afford to return to Winnipeg for the Sept. 15 première of Harold and Vivien Entertain Guests. That was unacceptable to her fellow dramatists, who took a up a collection and, with a contribution from the Manitoba Association of Playwrights, sent her the money for a plane ticket home. They all remember being in her position.
"I always regretted not seeing my first show," recalls Gray, who was away at school when Sophie and the Wiener Man opened at Theatre Projects in 1995. "I wanted Jessy to have that experience."
Most of the women are cautiously optimistic that the dramatic boost in the female playwriting this year is not just a one-off but an evolving trend that will allow women their rightful portion of the theatrical pie. Four of the seven are seeing their first professional full-length plays produced.
Collins picked up the pen after realizing as an acting student at the University of Winnipeg that there were few interesting scene for budding actresses.
"In my playwriting class, I wrote The Good Daughter, which I did later at the fringe," says Collins. "The aim was just to have juicy, fun roles for women. Now the girls at U of W do these scenes all the time."
The seven are still talking about their moment in the spotlight, and although there weren't any glass slippers, there was footwear that could have passed for Henry Moore sculptures.
All the hoopla, however, couldn't shake the thought that they had all somehow crashed the ball.
Says Ardern: "You could tell we were all playwrights, because we all felt like we didn't quite deserve it."
The Sweet taste of success
Last year's Bake-Off at FemFest was a piece of cake for budding playwright Jessy Arden.
Her comedy Harold and Vivian Entertain Guests won the inaugural Bake-Off, in which five local writers are given identical plot ingredients (the play must include a slap, a cake, a rink and a surprise visitor) and two weeks to cook up a play. The 23-year-old was the top vote-getter and won a full production of her script at this year's FemFest, opening Saturday, Sept. 14.
"Harold and Vivian was very easy to write," says Arden. "I spent the first 11 days of my two-week time limit trying to write a different play. It was dark, it was edgy -- it was really bad. So I just tossed it out and let myself have fun. Fun things are always easier to work on."
Arden is the youngest of the seven playwrights debuting new plays this season. She is the first to have her work seen, on Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. and again at 9 p.m. Sept. 16, and 4 p.m. Sept. 21 at the University of Winnipeg's Asper Centre for Theatre and Film.
"I realize I'm their token emerging playwright but I'm very happy to be so," says Arden, who is a first-year acting student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "You have to start somewhere."
Harold and Vivien introduces an agoraphobic couple who live in St. Boniface; when their new yuppie neighbours come over, chaos ensues.
Since last September, she has worked to enhance the clowning.
"There's a lot more food-fighting in it now," says the 2008 Vincent Massey Collegiate graduate, who has co-written a couple of fringe festival productions, including this year's The Hound of Ulster.
She didn't realize how serious the Bake-Off was until it was over. That's why the work is as light-hearted as it is. But that doesn't leave her wishing she had conceived something more weighty and significant.
"I don't believe I ought to go into anything with the idea that I have something to prove, that I have to write Hamlet," she says. "I love making people laugh. I love making people think. I do more of the former in this play. I think if I had sat down trying to impress, my play would have come out as a pretentious wankfest."
FemFest opens Sept. 14 at 1 p.m. with a reading of Perfect Love by Winnipeg's Talia Pura. Former Winnipegger and 2006 Governor General's Award nominee Lisa Codrington returns to perform her play The Aftermath, being staged Sept. 20 and 21 at 7 p.m. Another ex-local, Bahai Watson, has co-written Pomme is French for Apple, which bows 9 p.m. Sept. 18.
For FemFest's complete lineup and ticket information go to http://sarasvati.ca/
-- Kevin Prokosh