Tuesday, March 29, 2016 | by GEMMA WILSON
There’s a new female-led theatre company in town.
Mark Chrisler’s play Worse Than Tigers has been burning a hole in director Emily Penick’s artistic pocket since the two were 2013 MFA candidates together at Ohio University. To get it done, she formed her own theatre company. On March 23, Penick not only celebrated the world premiere of Worse Than Tigers at ACT, she did so in her role as artistic director of the brand-new, female-led theatre company RED STAGE.
“It’s a play about choosing to connect or to disconnect,” says Penick, who is the literary and artistic manager at ACT Theatre and first came to Seattle in 2014 to assist ACT artistic director John Langs on a production of Bethany. In Tigers, Kirsten Potter and Bradford Farwell star as Olivia and Humphry, a couple with a comfortable life and a miserable marriage. “You will walk in the theatre and see a couple, each on their own smartphones. They’re not connecting, they’re not communicating, they’re not engaging with the world. So how do we restart the conversation about the human experience in a world where we’re all addicted to Facebook?”
And why form a company, why not just produce the play? For Penick, it was a combination of factors: a passion for this piece of theatre, inspiration from her new Pacific Northwest home and a nagging frustration with the national theatre community at large.
“We need more women and people of color in arts leadership positions,” Penick says. “I’ve assistant or associate directed on the professional level probably 20 times over the last decade, and one time I was assisting a female director. Once. And it took a lot of effort just to get in the room with a successful female director to learn from. I want to be able to provide a community and mentorship for up-and-coming female theatre artists.”
The dearth of female leadership in the theatre is well-documented. A 2013 study by San Francisco’s A.C.T. Theatre and the Wellesley Centers for Women found that only 27 percent of leadership roles in League of Resident Theatres are held by women, and only 19 percent of those are artistic directors.
“It’s a problem that’s been identified on a national level, and in Seattle we’ve got some wonderful female directors but overall it still feels like the model is mostly a male artistic director putting up some ‘classic’ American play because they think those are the stories that Seattle wants to see,” says RED STAGE artistic producer Julia Nardin. “And in our experience those aren’t the stories that Seattle wants to see. We have a lot of women and people of color, and it’s time we start telling those stories so people can experience them and vocalize that that’s what they want to see, not necessarily what’s popular on a national or even a local level.”
The founding members of RED STAGE are all experienced, versatile members of the local arts community. Nardin is a talented playwright who works in marketing positions with both Seattle Immersive Theatre and Seattle Public Theater. Literary manager Stephanie Haire, a director and producer, also founded New Constellations Theatre Group last year. Keiko Green, a playwright and actress who is both a member of the Seattle Rep Writers Group and ACT’s new Core Company, is the RED STAGE community and artist liaison.
“We just started spitballing: What does good theatre do?” says Penick. “It makes you take a risk. It engages you in some way, you discover something about being human. Risk. Engage. Discover. That spells RED. And it was kind of titillating to reclaim this gendered color, this color of extreme emotions like love and passion and hate.”
The group raised more than $15,000 via Kickstarter last fall to produce Worse Than Tigers, but while they’re reading plays tirelessly right now, they’re in no hurry to pick their next show. “There’s no point in producing theatre just to produce theatre,” Nardin says. “There has to be a reason behind the play you’re doing. Why did you choose the play you chose? What do you think it’s contributing to the conversation?”
“It’s all about women curating the conversation,” Penick says, “whether it’s a female playwright or an amazing female protagonist, it’s about female-centric stories and having the feminine perspective.”
“And it’s about the range of female experience,” adds Nardin. “The female experience isn’t just one thing.”
Worse Than Tigers runs through April 17 at ACT Theatre.