The new Hearth Collective spotlights women playwrights

A new play-reading festival addresses the failure of mainstream theater to include women playwrights

Diversity. Inclusion. Equity. For all of today’s theatermakers, these are pressing issues—or at least they should be, as the art form fights to maintain viability and relevance in contemporary society.

To some folks, addressing these values means shaking things up. The Kilroys, for example, describe themselves as “a gang of playwrights and producers in LA who are done talking about gender parity and are taking action.” Their motto: “We make trouble and plays.”

To others, the key is to create a comforting experience, something that makes theater feel welcoming and warm, even to those who’ve felt left out by it in the past. That’s the ethos of the Hearth Collective, a new Portland theater group formed by Courtney Freed, Megan Kate Ward and Jill Westerby, whose larger interest is the showcasing of new and under-produced plays.

The two approaches come together on Sunday in the Kilroys List: A Festival of Contemporary Plays, at Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio.

Last year, the Kilroys compiled a list of 46 plays, selected through a theater-industry survey, intended as “a tool for producers committed to ending the systemic underrepresentation of female and trans playwrights.” For its first event, the Hearth Collective presents readings of three plays from the list: I Enter the Valley by Dipika Guha at noon, Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead!) by Jami Brandli at 4 p.m., and The Oregon Trail by Bekah Brunstetter at 8 p.m.

The readings, each followed by a “talk back” with the audience, are free and serve as a sort of appetizer to Center Stage’s annual JAW play-development festival, which starts on Monday and leads up to its own set of free public readings July 23-25.
Freed, an actor, and Ward, a director, began reading through the 2014 Kilroy list shortly after it was released last year. Westerby joined the process soon afterward.

At a rehearsalk for "Bliss,"  Zoe Rudman pratices the  ukulele. The show is part of a free play reading at Portland Center Stage on Sunday.

At a rehearsalk for “Bliss,” Zoe Rudman pratices the ukulele. The show is part of a free play reading at Portland Center Stage on Sunday.

“We weren’t sure what we wanted to do with them, but we knew we wanted to read the plays,” says Westerby. “The three of us have very different strengths, so we started throw our ideas into the pot and the Hearth Collective was born. New work often has an air of mystery about it. It (gets developed) in a room and hardly anyone gets to see it. We wanted to make it very accessible to the community, and a hearth suggested home and welcome.”

The first Kilroys list, featuring such acclaimed writers as Paula Vogel and Theresa Rebeck, was whittled down from about 300 new plays. (A second list, including work by Lynn Nottage and others, has been issued for 2015.) Westerby, Ward and Freed divided the reading of the 46 among them, shared their favorites and discussed them at length, then carefully settled on the Guha, Brandli and Brunstetter pieces, in part for the strong presence and depth of their of female characters.

“All three of the authors have been very accessible and on board in terms of working with us—they’re the stars,” Westerby says. Brandli, who teaches dramatic writing at Lesley University near Boston, will attend the event.

The readings themselves will be “very bare-bones,” Westerby says. “The words are so beautiful and the stories are so good, we really want to let the language to speak for itself.”

It helps that they’ve chosen three eloquent, richly imagined plays, varied in their styles, thematic concerns and narrative approaches.

I Enter the Valley, directed here by guest artist Olga Sanchez, centers on a male character, an acclaimed but aging poet, but finds its heart and heat and narrative drive in the passions, interests and interactions of the various women in his life. “The characters have good, long histories that provide a lot of depth, and the story, ultimately, redefines family,” says Westerby. “It’s very poetic and sweeping. It feels soft to me—in a very generous, human way.”

Bliss, by contrast, is what Westerby, who directs it, describes as “a dark, snarky epic” that puts a mid-century modern spin on Aeschylus, with the eternal dramas of Clytemnestra, Medea, Cassandra and Antigone playing out in suburban, 1960 New Jersey, amid marital infidelity, racial tension and the quotidian anxieties of pill-popping housewives.

Ward, one of the city’s more accomplished young directors, leads the way on The Oregon Trail, which bounces back and forth between contemporary middle-school life and the Western frontier circa 1848, by way of an enduringly popular educational computer game. It’s “one of the most modern plays on the list,” in Westerby’s assessment, with a highly relatable character in 13-year-old Jane, “an angsty…young lady, prone to sadness.” Yet however modern its narrative toolkit, Brunstetter’s play is brisk and witty and as accessible as a good TV comedy. Plus, Westerby claims, “people have a really electric response when you bring up the Oregon Trail game.”

The next step on the trail for the Hearth Collective isn’t yet clear, though Westerby says the trio would like to choose a play, perhaps one of these three, for a more elaborate workshop production. For now, though, it’s about getting this first batch of works out to an audience to see what connects.

“We’ll wait to see what people respond to,” Westerby says. “It might not be about numbers, but rather the kind of responses we get—what moves people.”

Kilroys List: A Festival of Contemporary Plays takes place on Sunday, July 12, at the Ellen Bye Studio, Gerding Theatre at The Armory, Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave. Admission is free. Portland Center Stage has donated the Ellyn Bye Studio for the readings, JAW/WEST is supporting The Kilroys Festival, and Ronni LaCroute and Willakenzie Estates and Maribeth and Steve Warner are the show sponsors.

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