Sunday, January 24, 1999
Women take center stage
They're writing, producing and directing some of the season's most intriguing local theater
BY JACKIE DEMALINE
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Women are all over area stages for the next two months, working on some of the most interesting projects of the theater season.
Eleven productions written and/or produced by women have either opened or are waiting in the wings.
Even better, in a time and place where the only two women playwrights most people can name quickly Lillian Hellman and Lorraine Hansberry are deceased, most of this work is by living women. Some are local.
If it's a fluke, it's a great fluke, says Ensemble Theatre producing artistic director D. Lynn Meyers. Don't you think everyone's time comes? We're more than 50 percent of the population. It only seems fair.
Last year was considered a breakthrough in New York, where, for the first time in 52 years, Broadway's directing Tonys (musical and play) were won by women. Art, by Yasmina Reza, was named best play, and Paula Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive.
In Cincinnati, a series of coincidences led to this.
Ms. Meyers arrived at Ensemble in 1995, and the theater pulled itself onto more stable financial ground.
University of Cincinnati professor Norma Jenckes formed Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative three years ago. (Mary Tensing's Ice Floes had an early reading by CPI.)
Stage director Gyllian Raby arrived in Cincinnati in fall 1997.
These women talk. They get involved in each other's projects. They build relationships.
We have quite a sisterhood going, Xavier University's Cathy Springfield says.
The timing, Ms. Meyers suspects, is no accident. Local theater is on its biggest journey, she says, and that depends on a lot of people and a lot of those people are women. Women work hard, and they survive.
Gyllian Raby, director
Canadian Gyllian Raby was a longtime artistic director in Nova Scotia when her husband's transfer brought them both to Cincinnati in October 1997.
I thought that was it, Ms. Raby says. I thought I was committing professional suicide.
Ms. Raby, not one to sit around waiting for the bullet, started making phone calls while in Halifax. One of her first was to Cathy Springfield at Xavier University.
I've been incredibly fortunate, Ms. Raby says. I give her all the credit.
With the list of connections provided by Mrs. Springfield, Ms. Raby picked up a temporary teaching gig at UC, directed one of the touring intern shows for Playhouse in the Park last year and guest-directed a memorable, technically complex (lots of video) Trojan Women for Xavier.
Then she was off to the renowned Shaw Festival in Ontario for the summer where she's had an ongoing gig.
Back in Cincinnati this season, it's been pretty slim pickings, but she's teaching a class at Xavier, directing for Ensemble's Off-Center and will return to Xavier for The Rovers in February. Then she's off to Toronto in March to direct Eastern European and angst-ridden Don Juan Comes Back from the Wars.
She's enjoying her first working experience with ETC.
It's this link of grass-roots energy and professional theater that draws her. Artist-driven projects and the people trying to produce new work, she believes, will become the art heart of Cincinnati.
Ms. Raby's slim pickings is more work than most newcomers see and a testament to her personal drive.
I'm feeling my way, she says. My circle's still expanding, I'm getting cranking. She has the potential to make a major impact on the small professional theater scene.
She's back from Toronto in April if anybody wants to phone up...
Liz Presley Fields, playwright
Liz Presley Fields has always been a writer, but it wasn't until 1983 that she started writing for theater.
I was coming upon midlife, I had just lost my sister and there were things I wanted to say.
A small group of crazy and artistic friends came together to form Jasmine Productions. Ms. Fields became the in-house playwright, delivering about one play a year for six years that were presented at Gabriel's Corner.
I didn't realize some of those mountains were so hard to climb, she says in retrospect.
One of the steepest mountains was funding. Theater is expensive, and the dollars just weren't there. Trying to do theater as an African-American is very difficult, she says. By now we should have a building, a theater.
Jasmine is no more, but Ms. Fields kept writing. Two years ago she met Anthony Chisholm, who was in Cincinnati performing in Keith Glover's In Walks Ed.
Ms. Fields was inspired to write a play for him. The result was Strength for Home, about a young man with AIDS who returns to his family to try to make his peace with them.
The play had its first production in July 1997 by Amethyst, an African-American company attempting to go back into production after several years. Mr. Chisholm returned to star, but unfortunately he was available only the Fourth of July weekend. More audiences were interested in picnicking than play-going.
This season, Second Chance moved into the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan with five plays, four of them locally written. Artistic director Dale Kelly says that as long as there is a Second Chance season, Ms. Fields' work will have a place on its schedule.
I admire Dale's chutzpah, she says.
He hasn't chosen an easy road, she says, but it's a necessary one. If you want to know what people are about, she says, you listen to what they have to say.
We have something to say that's deserving to be heard by the entire community. We want the opportunity to put the lives we create for the stage in an arena where that can be seen and heard.
Strength for Home is a departure for Ms. Fields, who usually writes for female characters. For her next play, she suspects she'll return to her favorite milieu.
I'm always writing and there are always two or three things I'm thinking about, but I really want to write further about the impact of AIDS on the African-American community in terms of women.
For Ms. Fields, it's about more than writing a play.
For those of us from the '80s African-American theater movement, it's about trying to pass some things on. It's about bringing along another generation.
Cathy Springfield, producer
I love collaboration, Cathy Springfield says.
Spark, spark. Her fingers flash out. It makes performers and productions tremendously exciting.
Ms. Springfield is spark, spark, sparking activity at Xavier University and beyond.
She made a successful case for a theater minor with the university administration and now has a good core group of about 50 students. She persuaded alum John Grissmer to endow a performing arts fund this year. That's so that all the arts on campus from electronic media to gospel choir to swing band can find ways to work together.
Lately she's been showing architects around town, the ones who will be building the new university center that will contain a small theater.
None of it, she says, would be possible without the support and encouragement of Xavier administration.
In the past she has approached community theaters with the idea of consolidating prop and costume storage so that there could be an inventory they could all draw from.
These days she's exchanging voice mails with Michael Shooner, who's trying to get the New Edgecliff Theatre up and running.
She's getting ready to welcome a new dance department to campus in the fall led by Linda Crumme. (We started our dance program around West Side Story, Mrs. Springfield says happily.)
Dolly Levi could learn a few things from Cathy Springfield.
People get tunnel vision, she says. They pull in the reins when what they have to do is loosen them. You have to gallop and see what's out there.
She gave local actresses Dale Hodges and Pam Myers their first directing opportunities and finds work for local jobless professionals under the category guest artist.
I'm very big on guest artists, she says. When you have a staff of one, you don't have a choice.
Of course she has a choice, and among her current choices is finding teaching and directing gigs for women including gifted new-kid-in-town Gyllian Raby.
I love supporting local artists and encouraging them to be professionals and bring that expertise and knowledge back to us.
She started a summer theater institute for high school students. (That's more free-lance work for professionals.)
She's also point-person for an informal play-reading group, a sort of theatrical version of a quilting bee where a loosely knit company of women in theater catch up and make connections.
Mrs. Springfield comes from an acting background, doing stints with regional and children's theater. She came back to hometown Cincinnati in 1980 to do the mom thing and came to Xavier in 1988.
She's been connecting projects and people ever since.
Added to her list of Things to Do: radio plays (Radio Repertory Theatre, she says, is soliciting scripts) and w-e-l-l-l, I'm probably going to do our first collaboration thing next year with the music department, probably a Gilbert and Sullivan.
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