In the dusk at Smith College in Northhampton, Mass., a group of people on a small wooden dock stares out across a pond, watching a rowboat emerge from the rushes at the far end of the water carrying a curious cargo. It rocks toward them, bearing two young women in whimsical garb. They are chattering at one another about love and sex, acting a performance piece called Love Is Simply a Matter of Holes. The language is aggressively sexual, and the performance teeters on the brink of chaos. Now and then, audience members wander off, slightly embarrassed.
Two years later, at Playwrights Horizons in New York City, Love Is Simply a Matter of Holes has been transformed. The audience sits rapt. Still strongly sexual, the language has been worked to a thrilling sharpness by writer Kathy Hemingway-Jones. The performance is lively and involving.
This transformation is exactly what two young feminist directors, Marya Mazor and Jean Wagner, are hoping to foster at their three-year-old theatre company Voice and Vision. The company, which this year made the jump from producing an annual retreat at Smith to showcasing work in New York City, is dedicated to developing the work of women artists. The goal is to realize the potential of ideas, to nurture work at an early stage, to identify promising beginnings and help see that they grow to fruition. Not all Voice and Vision pieces go on to be produced elsewhere. So far, though, Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, New York’s American Place Theater and Circle Repertory Company, and the Edinburgh Fringe either have hosted or will host new works originally workshopped there.
At the retreat, actors, writers, directors and producers come to stay for a week in dorms on the Smith campus, rehearsing through the days. They are fed, largely with provisions donated by local merchants. They are supported by production assistants and dramaturgs.
At the end of the week, the artists may present some form of performance if they wish, but they are not required to do so. They play to local residents and some New York theatre observers who travel up for the occasion. Mostly, the pieces are offered as works-in-progress, rather than finished productions. They may take the form of a group of actors, scripts in hand, doing an informal read-through, or a fragment of a play which the director may interrupt from time to time to talk to the actors.
Voice and Vision’s inaugural retreat in 1991 brought together six projects: a piece written by Mabou Mines’s Terry O’Reilly and directed by Ruth Maleczech; actor Estelle Parsons’s book-in-progress titled Actors Acting Chekhov; Yale School of Drama playwright Lisa Humbertson’s Snuff Play; Chrysalis Theater’s ensemble project The Politically Correct Origins of the Universe; Randolyn Zinn and Holly Anderson’s collaboration Hewitt Jinx; and Come Down Burning, a play by young playwright Kia Corthron.
Three years later, when Mazor and Wagner felt the time was right to introduce Voice and Vision to New York, they ended up at Playwrights Horizons. The venue does not as a rule give space away to outside workshops, but artistic director Don Scardino made an exception in this case for Wagner, who assisted him on Me and Veronica, a feature film he directed last year.
Sanford suggested they might help out by offering space. The result was “If You Can’t Stand the Heat,” a three-night showcase of work culled from all three years of Voice and Vision’s existence. Each night drew a large and appreciative audience.
“Getting actors of such high quality when you’re that young a company is a good sign,” said Tim Sanford, Playwrights Horizons literary manager. The established artists who have been involved agree that Wagner and Mazor are operating from a very solid creative base.
Attention sans pressure
“The people were so substantial,” said Estelle Parsons, who used her time at Voice and Vision to work on developing a handbook for actors. “Sometimes you get into these things, and the people aren’t really functioning as creative artists.”
For the artists, the retreat is a rare experience. Their work is given the kind of support and attention it would get if it were being produced at a major theatre, but without the pressure that would entail.
Annie Evans, a playwright who attended Voice and Vision in 1992 and whose play Flappers has subsequently been workshopped at Circle Rep, came to Smith with only notes and ideas. She ended up writing the first 30 pages of Flappers, five or six pages each day, in the little room Voice and Vision provided. Every evening, she met with Wagner to talk over her progress.
“A play needs a lot of help to be born, and there’s not a lot of money available,” Evans said. “To have people take an interest in the early, gestational phases gives the artist more opportunity.”
Besides being taken seriously, the artists are given important tools for improving the work. “I had access to excellent dramaturgs,” said Tanyss Martula, a Northhampton resident who worked on her play Fresh Air at the retreat this year. “They watched rehearsals, I could chat with them. They asked the right questions.”
Each year Voice and Vision selects about five pieces from a growing number of submissions. Although they do not put out a formal call for applications, word-of-mouth about the company has grown. This year they made their selections from a pool of 60. “We agonize,” Wagner said. The idea, she added, is to get good material but also a broad cross-cultural section of work, as diverse as possible.
Mazor graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 1992 with a degree in directing. She has gone on to direct at the Long Wharf Theatre and the New York Shakespeare Festival. This year she is visiting professor in the drama department at Ramapo College, where she is preparing to direct a rock version of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, Wagner, 37, earned a graduate degree in theatre at Smith and has directed in New York at Manhattan Theatre Club, Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Playwright’s Collective at the Westbeth Theatre.
The two met while apprenticing at New York Stage and Film Company at Vassar. They decided to start Voice and Vision after taking a class together in which the teacher asked them to imagine themselves as artistic directors. What kind of company would they like to build? Both knew it would have to be a company focused on the work of women artists. Their mission, as they saw it, was to give women in the theatre a voice they just weren’t getting.
“The bottom line for me is that if you look at seasons for regional theatres, on Broadway, Off Broadway–at all major professional theatre in New York–there are a certain number of women artists represented, but proportionally it’s less than a quarter,” Mazor said.
Regarding men differently
“Most of the theatre is run by men–a lot of them young men,” confirms Ruth Maleczech, a director and performer who starred in a gender-reversed production of Lear that drew media attention in 1989. “At Voice and Vision, you find yourself regarding the men in a very different way than you do when they’re the dominant ones.”
Changing women’s status in the theatre is a slow process, as it is in Hollywood, where women are beginning to fight for better roles and more power. “The great growth in women’s theatre work is with these smaller companies,” said Julia Miles, artistic director of the Women’s Project, a 15-year-old New York City theatre company that has been in the vanguard of the movement to develop women’s theatre work. Besides Voice and Vision, she said, there are other emerging companies, like the New Georges in Manhattan, with similar goals.
Optimism and determination have kept Wagner and Mazor going, but the hard part is finding funding. A large portion of Voice and Vision’s annual budget goes to paying Smith College for living and rehearsal space. Most donations are from individuals, although the company does receive matching grants from several corporations.
Once a year, Voice and Vision holds a salon, an afternoon gathering at which tea is served and theatre pieces presented. The setting tends to be luxurious. This year socialite Ann Newman Bacall donated her apartment for the cause. The mission: to raise funds. But Wagner and Mazor pull in at least half their budget through mail solicitations to people in business and theatre. Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson on Fox TV’s cartoon The Simpsons, donated a substantial sum last year, and Marlo Thomas is another celebrity who has contributed.
Many women in theatre and the entertainment industry know there’s a problem, and believe that women are not allowed a full, strong identity–though not as many are as committed to changing the situation. But both Mazor and Wagner believe that when women are allowed to work in their own time, in their own ways, new voices emerge.
“As a woman in the theatre, you don’t even realize how much you censor yourself until you’re in a place where you don’t need to,” Wagner said. “There, you hear voices that you didn’t even know existed, because they had been silenced.”