Fewer than 30 percent of submissions to the Ashland New Plays Festival came from women playwrights in 2014, and the final four plays chosen for production were all by men — even though women make up half of working playwrights across the country.
The majority of plays produced in American theater are written by men, and the Ashland New Plays Festival appeared to be going down that well-worn path.
"We started looking into the issue more carefully and learned we should make more of an effort at outreach. We reached out to women's playwright groups," says James Pagliasotti, president of the Ashland New Plays Festival board of directors.
More than 40 percent of the plays submitted for festival consideration were by women in 2015, and three of the four finalists were female. The festival also received three times as many submissions overall as it had in the past, thanks in part to the outreach efforts, Pagliasotti says.
"It was disturbing to see if we made a little effort, it would produce different results," he says.
Now the Ashland New Plays Festival is going farther to address unequal representation in theater with a Women's Invitational. Out of 50 playwrights invited to enter, the work of three prize-winning playwrights was selected for staged readings Friday through Sunday, March 25-27, in the Music Recital Hall on the Southern Oregon University campus, 405 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland.
"Women are the largest under-represented group in theater, so we decided to start there," Pagliasotti says.
But in reaching out to women, the festival also broadened its representation of other groups.
Jiehae Park immigrated to America from Korea as a child, Martyna Majok was born in Poland and Lauren Yee is a Chinese American who grew up in San Francisco. Majok's play also delves into issues facing disabled people and their caregivers.
"We thought it was interesting how that worked out," Pagliasotti said. "Just by reaching out to women, we reached other communities."
In Park's play "Hannah and the Dread Gazebo," the main character Hannah finds a suicide note from her grandmother in a FedEx box. The discovery leads her back to Korea, where her grandmother has jumped from the roof of the Sunrise Dewdrop Apartment City for Senior Living onto the wrong side of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea.
The family will need North Korea's permission to retrieve the body, but dictator Kim Jong Il has just died and things in the DMZ are even stranger than they seem.
"I write a lot about the cost of 'success' — often immigrant stories," Park says. “What from our past and old worlds do we give up in order to move more fluidly and comfortably in new worlds we aspire to? What's on the other end of that aspiration?"
She says while women are active as playwrights, audiences aren't necessarily seeing their work.
“There are — and have been for a long time — a lot of original, interesting, brilliant women writing plays. So in that sense they haven’t been ‘missing’ from storytelling," Park says. "The thing missing, the gap that needs to be closed, is less about the absence of the stories and more about audiences not getting to hear and see all these stories that are already out there, but not being produced.”
Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Terri McMahon directs the reading of "Hannah and the Dread Gazebo," which was still being cast as of press time.
Yee's "King of the Yees" is a semi-autobiographical play about a playwright named Lauren whose father is head of the Yee Family Association, a seemingly obsolescent Chinese American men's club formed 150 years ago in the wake of the Gold Rush. When Lauren's fathers disappears, she must plunge into the rabbit hole of San Francisco's Chinatown and confront a world both foreign and familiar.
Yee says she is a fan of the work of the other two playwrights at the Women's Invitational and is excited to see how her play will be brought to life during the reading.
"I love actors' ability to take text and make it their own, to bring their own point of view to it. I never have an idea of how a production should look, and I'm excited when a director comes up with something very different from what I've imagined," she says.
Holly Derr will direct "King of Yees," which features actors Leah Anderson, Joseph Anthony Foronda and Annie Yim.
Director Penny Metropulos will lead actors Armando Duran, Regan Linton, Christopher Imbrosciano and Valerie Huntington in the reading of Majok's play "Cost of Living."
Linton, an athlete and actor who uses a wheelchair because of a car accident, and Imbrosciano, who has cerebral palsy, bring authenticity to the reading of the play about two disabled people and the two people thrust into caregiving roles.
In "Cost of Living," unemployed truck driver Eddie is on the verge of divorcing his wife, Ani, when a car accident changes their lives. Meanwhile, overworked and under-qualified Jess takes on yet another job to make ends meet — acting as a personal caregiver for wealthy graduate student John, who has cerebral palsy.
Majok says her plays often focus on the experiences of immigrants, working-class people and those struggling to survive on the margins.
“People have expectations about what those stories are supposed to be,” she says. “I think women writing about those things create a different story, a different idea of who people are, without telling the same story over and over again.”
Readings of "Hannah and the Dread Gazebo" are at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 26, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 27. Readings of "King of Yees" are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 25, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 27. Readings of "Cost of Living" are at 1:30 p.m. Friday, March 25, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 26.
Tickets range from $18 to $22 depending on seating and are available by calling 541-201-8950 or online at ashlandnewplays.org.
Other events during the Women's Invitational include a playwrights' round-table discussion moderated by Lue Morgan Douthit, head of literary development at OSF, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, in the Meese Auditorium adjacent to the Schneider Museum of Art on the SOU campus, near Siskiyou Boulevard and Indiana Street. A playwright workshop will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, March 26, at the Headwaters Building, 84 Fourth St., Ashland. Tickets for each event are $10.