Tennessee Women’s Theater Project’s ninth annual “Women’s Work” festival takes place at the Looby Theater over three weekends every May. The festival concludes this weekend and includes Dance Night—featuring dance companies from Nashville and other states, and a reading of “Fairview: An American Conversation—the creative result of the exploration of post-911 attitudes in a rural Tennessee community.
Maryanna Clarke is Tennessee Women’s Theater Project’s founder and artistic director; Chris Clarke, her husband of 30 years, is TWTP’s “No. 1 fan and volunteer.” The two answered questions about TWTP that tell its uniquely and universal story.
Tell us how you came to create the Tennessee Women’s Theater Project.
Maryanna Clarke: On the morning of January 25, 2007, I bent over the sink to wash my face and my leg exploded in pain. I had my first (and, unfortunately, not my last) trip to the ER in an ambulance. For most of February and March, I lay on my back on our couch, propped all about with pillows. I’d been knocked flat by a couple of recalcitrant lumbar discs. This was my daily schedule: sleep, wake, weep, wait to take pain meds (what my husband dubbed the “Rush Limbaugh Signature Collection”), take pain meds, repeat.
TWTP had a show planned for May 2007, but as the weeks wore on I knew I wouldn’t have the stamina necessary for a full-time production/rehearsal schedule. But, the theater had been secured—I didn’t want TWTP to disappear until the following fall! Somewhere, in between the pain and the drug-induced sleep, a little faerie (my muse) planted a seed in my brain: Why not offer the stage—the opportunity to bring their work to an audience—to other women? From that seed, Women’s Work blossomed. More than 50 women responded to our initial call for submissions, and at our first festival we had singers, playwrights, and poets, visual artists and filmmakers. We gave the Looby stage to nearly 24 women that year. We’ve seen more and more works submitted every year. We’re growing, and I can’t wait to see what next year brings.
Part of TWTP’s commitment to artists is reflected in their compensation. To that end, TWTP pays actors near-union rates for rehearsals and performances, which is what makes the TWTP live up to what a true “professional” theater organization should be. Would you elaborate?
Chris Clarke: Maryanna often states her belief that artists should be paid well, but that art should be free. For the two plays produced each season by TWTP, the actors and stage manager earn $15.50 an hour for rehearsal time, and $500.00 a week when the production moves to the theater for its three-weekend run. Women’s Work will compensate presenting artists this year, thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and to our season sponsor, HCA TriStar. With this support, TWTP plans to divide 60 percent of ticket revenue among the presenters.
The Women’s Work festival is part of an annual series of productions featuring women’s work and women’s voices. You’ve spoken about the importance of giving women their due on the stage. The work and mission of Tennessee Women’s Theater Project speaks to a broader concern as well, doesn’t it?
Maryanna Clarke: 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? Women are 51 percent of the population, but we are rarely seen in those numbers on stage, or in film or on TV (or try counting the number of images of women in “general interest” magazines!). We are the majority gender, yet, there is a perception that men can speak with authority on the “human condition,” but women can speak with authority only on “women’s issues.” At 51 percent of the population, we are the human condition!
When we do not hear women’s voices, when we do not tell women’s stories, it perpetuates the notion that women’s voices are not important and our stories are not relevant. It perpetuates a culture where we are mostly invisible, except as supporting characters or love interests and sex objects. When we fail to acknowledge that “women hold up half the sky,” we do a disservice to both women and to men.
Here is the schedule for this weekend’s Women’s Work performances:
Thursday, May 21, 7:30 p.m.—Theater: Fairview: An American Conversation by Sara Sharpe
Friday May 22, 7:30 pm — Theater: Staged reading Mama’s Girls, by Marilyn Barner Anselmi
Saturday May 23, 7:30 pm — Dance Night: Performances by Jen Jen Lin and Lisa Spradley, Epiphany Dance Company, Husted Dance, Marci Murphree – Reasons Contemporary Dance Ensemble, Circus floor work by Alicia Dawn Williams, Li Chiao-Ping Dance, Cynthia Adams and Erin Law
Sunday May 24, 2:30 pm — Theater: Staged reading of the play Ptomaine Poison, by Janice Liddell
To find out more about TWTP and to reserve tickets to Women’s Work performances at the Looby Theatre (adjacent to the Looby Branch Library at 2301 Rosa L. Parks Boulevard), call 615-681-7220, or visit Tennessee Women’s Theater Project on Facebook or on the web here.