The American theater is still a long way away from gender parity when it comes to play production, but companies like Chicago’s Artemisia Theatre are turning an enduring crisis into an emerging celebration.
The whole purpose of Artemisia Theatre, which was founded back in 2011, is to address the gender gap in the theater. They produce emotional, relatable and, hopefully, timeless new plays all featuring female lead characters; plays that explore the notion of the feminine explicitly; plays that show on stage the full humanity of women to then empower women in life. The bio of their namesake, Artemisia Gentileschi, explains much of their drive and inspiration:
….a Baroque artist whose paintings depicted violence with fierce honesty and elegance. For centuries after her death, her art was attributed to men. Feminist curators in the late 1970’s rediscovered Artemisia, who is now considered the greatest female painter prior to the modern period. We promise you emotional, relatable stories told from a woman’s point-of-view.
Her Story Is Our Story is the name of Artemisia’s annual fall festival, running this year from Sept. 22 to Oct. 1. It consists of free staged readings of six new plays, with post-performance talkbacks. According to the company’s founder and executive artistic director, Julie Proudfoot, the talkbacks aim to confront two questions:
Did the play empower women? Did the play make you see women differently?
This being an election year, perhaps it is fitting that Artemisia aims not only to produce plays that will empower women, but to literally rock the vote as audience members who attend at least three of the six staged readings are invited to cast ballots that will choose the company’s next world premiere, usually produced each spring. “The talkback questions,” explains Proudfoot, “guide their voting process and it’s amazing to see how seriously they take their vote and how empowered the audience feels.”
The company purposely wants the balloting to be challenging, owing to the high quality of the plays. “They’re terrific stories,” says Proudfoot, who explains that all six plays for this year were selected in an open admissions process featuring local, state and international entries. And while two of the six plays in this year’s festival are by Chicago writers, next year only Chicago playwrights, agented writers, and writers with whom Artemisia has a standing relationship eligible to submit for the festival.
Artemisia has stuck to its voter-driven programming ideal for good reason: an impressive track record of three world premieres —Something Blue (2012), Gambit (2013) and Chewing on Beckett (2016) — and one American premiere in Belfast Girls, which won the audience vote at the 2013 fall festival and was fully mounted in 2015. Jaki McCarrick, who wrote Belfast Girls, offered unconditional praise for Proudfoot’s company:
With a barebones set, Julie managed to brilliantly evoke the journey the girls take to Australia in 1850. And the actresses playing the Belfast girls were all absolutely outstanding. The Chicago production was exactly as I hoped it would be: a powerful ensemble piece for five amazingly talented young women.
Samuel French also published McCarrick’s script in conjunction with the opening, a turning point in the life of any script and any playwright. (Regina Buccola, Artemisia’s audience engagement director, also wrote a frontispiece for the publication.) “I was thrilled that Belfast Girls got its American premiere in Chicago,” McCarrick added. “The city’s appetite for the new and cutting-edge is legendary.”
It is worth noting that Artemisia stands far from alone in terms of its commitment to new work and new audiences and new ways of telling dramatic stories. The company is a proud member of the Edgewater Theatre District, a collective of 20 award-winning performing arts groups, including the well-known NeoFuturists. Their performance space, the Edge Theater, is a beautiful 119-seat proscenium with state-of-the-art equipment, and the district itself is a growing attraction for theatergoers from Edgewater, Rodgers Park, Uptown and various other neighborhoods. The audience-development model is built on loyalty, with frequent patrons encouraged to pick up a “passport” at any district venue and using it for a “buy five, get the sixth play for free” deal — especially worthwhile if you’re attending all six Artemisia shows.
Much like its painterly namesake, Artemisia Theatre will continue to focus on the female story and to use its resources to create compelling art. Their audiences — their voters — wouldn’t have it any other way.