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PlayMakers @PLAY residency initiative highlights women's representation in theater


The Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art on Wednesday, March 17, 2021.

With a focus on uplifting women in theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company recently announced its @PLAY initiative is supporting two female playwrights through the process of producing plays.

Bekah Brunstetter and Charly Evon Simpson, the two female playwrights chosen to have around a year of commission each with PlayMakers, will complete a residency with the company to write and develop plays. 

Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director at PlayMakers and director of the @PLAY program, said both local playwrights were selected because of their relationship with PlayMakers and focus on the contradictory nature of people and their ability to come together.  

“@PLAY is really formalizing a priority that has been central to my mission and vision with PlayMakers since I got here five years ago, and that is to really make PlayMakers a home for the development of new work for the American theatre — specifically to amplify womens’ voices within that work,” Benesch said. 

“Both Bekah and Charly have a humanity, a generosity and a bravery that I would like to be the foothold of what the @PLAY program is for years to come," she said. 

Benesch is the 16th female artistic director of a League of Resident Theatre. She said female leadership in the industry has more than doubled during her career, but there is still a long way to go.

Lynden Harris, the founder and artistic director of Hidden Voices whose play “Count: Stories from America's Death Row” premiered at PlayMakers in 2017, said @PLAY is an example of the theater industry’s shift towards inclusivity. 

“Women are over 50% of the population, so it seems pretty clear that they should be represented on stage and in leadership positions to that degree,” Harris said. “It is a thrilling time to be a woman in the arts.”

Playwright and actress Heidi Armbruster premiered her play “Dairyland” at PlayMakers in 2019. Armbruster said one reason @PLAY is so inspiring is because it helps bridge the gap in the lack of confidence that female playwrights often face.  

“Just have the confidence of a mediocre, middle-aged, cisgendered white man” is a joke circling Armbruster's female writing groups, but she said it’s based on an unfortunate truth.  

“There is a lot of disparity in terms of whose plays are being produced — representation is stark between men and women, and particularly women of color,” Armbruster said. “That confidence disparity is something I’ve noticed in some of my colleagues and myself.”

Harris said founding Hidden Voices 20 years ago was her way of dealing with her own underrepresentation and becoming an advocate for others. She said it is exciting to see initiatives like @PLAY foster underrepresented playwrights.  

“In artistic worlds, often, there was just an expectation that women were not quite at level, but I really don’t think that’s the feeling anymore,” Harris said. “It’s really quite astonishing how quickly — finally — the arts have shifted."

Investing in relationships is the main vehicle in shifting the industry, Benesch said. 

“What @PLAY really gives us the opportunity to do is to invest in ongoing relationships with women playwrights from the point of idea all the way through producing their work,” Benesch said. 

Armbruster noted @PLAY is particularly exciting because it will allow Brunstetter and Simpson to be supported and confident in their work as female playwrights continuously. She said @PLAY is different than a lot of female or BIPOC theater initiatives because it gives an underrepresented artist the ability to create a play with support rather than simply reproducing a play that was written by a marginalized artist. 

“Instead of being like ‘lets pick a play by a Black playwright’ it becomes ‘let’s nurture an artist through these development phases who hasn’t necessarily had that opportunity historically,” Armbruster said. 

Benesch said the long-term relationships formed between playwrights and the community during the commissions will create opportunities that benefit the University and community at large.

“I’m really proud that our audiences’ appetite for new work has grown and they seem to be on the ride with PlayMakers as we venture into the next era of storytelling for the theater,” Benesch said. 


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