"What's really important to me is that this does not become a men-bashing festival," says Jones of the month-long program of women-penned plays, which runs at Manhattan Theater Source through September. "There are roles for men, and we're not doing a whole series of plays about how men are horrible creatures and they suck."
Estrogenius co-producer Tiffany Card agrees, adding that even the plays we won't see didn't exhibit any particular anti-dude bias. "Out of 200 plays submitted," she says, "I don't think we read many that were male-bashing at all." Adds Jones, "We didn't thematically limit [the festival] to women's issues, either. One of our plays is about three Nascar drivers. It doesn't have a single woman in it."
Along with the race car play (Turn Four, penned by Brooklynite Crystal Skillman), the second annual Estrogenius Festival contains 17 other original works, including Liz Duffy Adams' end-of-the-world sci-fi piece The Last Woman on Earth; Barbie und Ken, in which author Sandra Dempsey wonders how America's favorite plastic couple would fare with a baby to look after; and the festival's only full-length work, Sharon Fogarty's musical adaptation of The Bride of Frankenstein. There is even one play, She Finds Her, by "honorary chick" David DeWitt. In other words, don't go to Estrogenius expecting a program of treacly, Lifetime Network-ready paeans to sisterhood, nor a month of high-pitched screeds against The Man.
This fact comes as a relief to the indisputably male journalist who has just sat down with several of the prime movers behind Estrogenius. Gathered around a table in the homey confines of Manhattan Theater Source--the beautiful two-story storefront space just off Washington Square Park where the festival will hold court--we discuss the origins of Estrogenius and what a women's theater festival can accomplish.
"The festival was an extension of Theater Source's mission, which was to create opportunities for development, for the creation of plays," says Jones, who is a founding member of the not-for-profit collective. "We built this place so that people could have a chance on the stage to create things, and I was really just noticing that I knew so many talented women who weren't working where and when they should be." Estrogenius offers opportunities galore, and not just for the theatrical types who write, direct, produce, and perform in the plays; the festival also includes an art gallery, comedy showcases, musical acts, and a panel discussion.
Organizing and implementing last year's debut effort and this year's expanded version required more than Jones' brainstorm; Estrogenius is the result of a lot of input from many dedicated volunteers. "One of the important things about the festival is that it was a very organic formation," says Card. "Fiona sent out an e-mail to several women saying, 'So, I have this idea, but I'm not really sure what exactly it's going to entail.' We all met together and started coming up with different ideas, and it created this energy." Set designer and actress Bekka Lindstrom says that what impressed her most about last year's festival was the quality of the plays. "The writing was just astounding, one after another," she enthuses. "And it wasn't because, 'Oh, that was written by a woman.' It was like, 'Oh god, that was good!'"
It seems inevitable that certain males will object to, or at least roll their eyes, at the very concept of a celebration of women's theater; others might innocently suggest a festival for gents. The answer to this is all too obvious: If the women's festival is September, then the men's counterpart takes place throughout the rest of the year. The general dominance of men in so many areas of theater is a fact of which the Estrogenius crew is well aware.
"That's a whole other article," says Card, laughing, when I bring up the subject. "Most producers are men, most playwrights are men..." Jones says, and Lindstrom picks up the thought: "I think men hold the purse strings and always have, for centuries." Card is quick to add that male playwrights aren't necessarily anti-women; "They're just going to write from a male perspective," she clarifies. "It's kind of everywhere you look." But correcting this gender imbalance is a slow process and not something that can happen overnight. "I figure you don't see [the change] on a mass level," offers co-producer and actress Jennifer Monaco. "You see it on the level that we're at, the grassroots."
Monaco notes that some people have wondered whether a festival such as the Estrogenius might be counterproductive in that it helps create a sort of cultural ghetto into which women's work can be stuffed and, possibly, ignored. "But it's like any other issue, whether it be racism, sexism, or whatever it is," she responds. "There has to be a big bang before you can just blend in."
"That was one of the things that really caught me by surprise when I walked in here, not being a MTS regular," says Dian Landers, who performed in last year's festival and returns this year. "I just thought [Estrogenius] was an incredible opportunity to be surrounded by so many professionals. There's a lot of artistic integrity here, and it's really exciting." Says Jones, "Once we started talking about doing a women's project, it just magnetized the chicks. People were so excited about it! They worked hard, and there was an incredible amount of support for everybody's work. There wasn't any diva-ism."
The fact that Estrogenius provides its audiences with the relatively rare opportunity to witness, in one or two sittings, the work of a wide variety of female writers raises a tricky question: Is there a fundamental difference between the work of men and women playwrights? "That's like asking if there's a difference between Sam Shepard and Wendy Wasserstein," says Card. "They're both contemporary playwrights. Are they different because she's a woman and he's a man? They're different because they're completely different people."
Monaco adds that one thing male and female writers do have in common is "the social norms that people have in their heads. We think we're liberated women who don't have socialized ideas of male and female stereotypes; yet we all still have them. Festivals like this thrive on people figuring that out."