Detours and Aspirations Create Theater Opportunity

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Creative team of Voices of Nashville. Photo courtesy of author.

If theater holds a mirror up to nature, why are there not as many women’s faces in that reflection as I see around me? As an actor, I wondered if I was the only person who recognized this.

In 2002, the New York State Council on the Arts published a report on a 3-year research project.  The report said what women in theater already knew: Women playwrights have a harder time getting their shows produced. Women are less represented in design and management areas of theater than their male counterparts. Women actors have fewer roles available to them. In the report, playwright Lisa Kron said, “Men are perceived as universal; women are specific.” Put differently, men are perceived as being able to speak with authority on the human condition, while women are perceived as speaking with authority only on women’s issues.

Maryanna with husband, Chris. Photo courtesy of author.
Maryanna with husband, Chris. Photo courtesy of author.

I didn’t start my creative life as an advocate or a pioneer for gender parity.  I started it as a singer. I wanted a record deal and I wanted to tour the country, singing and playing my guitar. My demos attracted interest from a couple of record labels, so my husband (and pedal steel player) Chris and I moved from New Jersey to Nashville. That was nearly 30 years ago. It didn’t work out the way I thought it would.

In describing how losing the use of his right hand nearly ended his career, the concert pianist Leon Fleisher said, “the gods know where to strike you.” Almost as soon as we got here my voice problems began. Songs that I’d sung forever, with difficult passages I’d navigated for years, became alien territory. The bridges over the tricky transitions became unstable, and I could no longer get safely across them. My voice had abandoned me. The gods knew where to strike me.

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A doctor finally put a name to my strained, strangled-sounding voice. The uncontrollable spasms in my vocal folds were caused by spasmodic dysphonia – SD – a neuro-motor disorder. The treatment is Botox injections through the front of the neck directly into the vocal folds. It is uncomfortable, the results are temporary and for me they were always inconsistent. There is no cure.

My voice coach, Phoebe Binkley, suggested I give myself a break and do something creative that didn’t involve singing. “Take an acting class,” she said, and I did. It became immediately obvious that my true creative home was the theater. Eventually SD ended my acting career, too.

Before spasmodic dysphonia pushed me off the stage, my day job was as a legal secretary and went out on auditions. Our 7 year old daughter Kate came with me to an audition one night. It was an audition like so many I’d been on before: dozens of women up for a couple of roles; more roles for men than there were actors to fill them.

The drive home was quiet, and in the darkness Kate spoke the words that changed my life. She said, “when I grow up I want to be just like you,” then finished that sweet thought with, “I want to act — and I want to type.” I was stopped cold. In that instant, I knew that I had to give her something more to aspire to!  Not only did I need to do something different with my life – I needed to do something that made a difference.

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[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]TWTP had to change perceptions.[/pullquote] The idea Kate had planted took a few years to bloom, and when it did, it was not a gentle blossoming. One day, while folding towels warm from the dryer–often a contemplative experience for me–the idea for Tennessee Women’s Theater Project exploded in my brain almost fully formed: a company that would give voice to women through theater arts; tell stories of the human condition in the female voice; create opportunities for women in professional theater; where you’d see as many women on stage as you saw around you. I ran the idea past my husband, my friends and theater colleagues. The response was a resounding, “yes, yes, yes!!”

It seemed a nearly impossible undertaking. I had a “Wizard of Oz” Scarecrow moment: I needed a credential that would tell the world (and me!) that I was qualified to do what I was planning. So, as an older, wiser learner (they really did call us OWLs), I went back to college to finish an undergraduate degree abandoned years earlier. After one part-time and three very intense full-time semesters, in 2001 I graduated with a degree in Theatre and a minor in Entrepreneurship (and the highest grade in my accounting class!)–the first person in my family to graduate college. With the money I received as graduation gifts, I filed the 501(c)(3) paperwork, and TWTP was born.

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Janey Jones at Tennessee Women's Theatre Project
Director and Cast at TWTP. Photo courtesy of author.

I remember talking to talented female actors who didn’t realize the reason they struggled to get work was because there were so few roles for them (the patriarchal paradigm is deeply rooted!).  I knew that it would not be enough for TWTP simply to be the company in town that produced plays written by women. TWTP had to change the perception of men as the primary storytellers and women as perpetual sidekicks. From our inaugural production of A Single Woman, in 2005, about the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress, in 1916 (can you name her?) we worked to shift the paradigm. We produced the regional premiere of Nickel and Dimed by Joan Holden, based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s galvanizing book about women working crappy minimum wage jobs. We created the Women’s Work festival, now in its 10th edition, celebrating all kinds of works created by women. We produced and toured a critically acclaimed and popular production of Warriors Don’t Cry (based on the memoir of Little Rock 9 student, Melba Patillo Beals). We commissioned Voices of Nashville, which tells the stories of Nashville’s immigration experience from the point of view of its new Americans, many of them women.

As we plan our upcoming 10th anniversary season, I admit to a little envy when I see news coverage of companies discussing gender parity. Long before parity was the issue of the moment, it lived in TWTP’s mission. By the time “gender parity” had become a buzzword, TWTP had been working at it for years. TWTP has always put women’s voices and women’s stories center stage. Women and men appreciate that. After A Single Woman, a male audience member approached me and said, “My parents are both feminists. Why didn’t I know about her??” Women audience members, as well as actors, tell me how much they appreciate what the company does. While the work of running the company has never been easy (paying artists a living wage while making sure the price of a ticket is never be a barrier to attending live theater is no easy feat), it has always been gratifying.

In every production playbill, I thank my daughter and refer to her as “the founder of the feast.” Had it not been for her and spasmodic dysphonia, I don’t believe TWTP would exist today.  The gods know where to strike you – they also know how to bless you!