It's not every day that audiences can have a direct say in what plays are produced by a theater company. But that's exactly what the women-focused Artemisia is doing with its Fall Festival 2017.
"We do new work, so I really wanted a situation where the audience participated in experiencing the new work directlyto focus on the text," said Artemisia founder and executive artistic director Julie Proudfoot. She added that Artemisia, which takes its name from the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, launched in 2011 with a festival of staged readings.
Proudfoot also went with the festival format so audiences could be directly engaged and have conversations about whether or not the works empower women. And then audiences get to vote on which work Artemisia will fully produce in a future season. For instance, the spring 2018 production of Traci Godfrey's lesbian drama Sweet Texas Reckoning is on Artemisia's season roster because it received the most audience votes from Fall Festival 2016.
"They vote and they choose the play they feel best suits our mission," said Proudfoot, adding that this year audiences must have seen four out of the six plays in Fall Festival 2017 in order to vote. That's up from three out of six last year, and Proudfoot hopes someday to bump the eligibility to vote for those who have attended all six shows.
Each of the six Fall Festival plays receives a professional, one-night-only reading over the course of two weeks at The Edge Theater in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood. And each one is guaranteed to feature dynamic and leading female characters.
Artemisia used to solicit plays for its Fall Festival on an open submission basis, but that proved to be too cumbersome ( the company received more than 700 submissions in 2014 ). Also, too many plays didn't feature strong female leading characters to suit the mission of Artemisia, so there was a lot of time and effort spent on weeding out works.
Now Artemisia takes submissions from playwright agents, while still retaining open submissions from Chicago-based playwrights. For Fall Festival 2017, 65 plays were considered for the six coveted spots.
One of those was The Rug Dealer by queer-identified South Asian playwright Riti Sachdeva. The Rug Dealer had the distinction of being one of 32 works on the esteemed 2016 Kilroy List of unproduced plays written by women. The list is chosen by a self-described "gang" of Los Angeles-based playwrights and producers out to bring gender parity to professional theater.
The Rug Dealer is inspired by Sachdeva's time 20 years ago working in a fine carpets store run by Iranian immigrants to came to America after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The play explores what happens when a daughter must take over her late father's carpet business, and the complications that ensue when she starts to become attracted to another woman.
"One of the things I was really interested in exploring in this play is the idea of two women that should on the outside should have a lot in commonthey find each other attractive and interesting and intelligent and sexy," Sachdeva said. "What I also wanted to challenge was the homonormativity in the U.S. and how we export the idea of what we consider visibility as LGBTQ people… Same-sex relationships are really expressed differently in different places."
Sachdeva is excited to have Chicago actors working on The Rug Dealer, even if she is slightly apprehensive about the competition aspect of Artemisia's Fall Festival.
"I appreciate that it gives the audience a kind of buy-in into a full production," Sachdeva said. "The audience really has a say in what play this theater produces."
Proudfoot also feels some regret about the five plays that won't receive a full Artemisia production. Yet Proudfoot also hopes that the heads of other Chicago theater companiesespecially those that want to redress well-documented gender imbalances in theaterwill attend Fall Festival 2017 with an eye on maybe producing on the plays.
"I think that theaters are really starting to seriously say that we don't have enough female playwrights on our slate and we don't have enough stories that are truly women-driven," Proudfoot said. "I think that Chicago has some incredible theater companies doing beautiful work in a lot of places, so I'm always flattered when my colleagues show up in the audience or looking for projects."
Proudfoot also says that Artemisia's mission to empower women through theater can be beneficial for everyone.
"The more equality there is in the worldespecially right now and the more ways that we see each other as equals, the better the community, the culturethe better people we all become," Proudfoot said. "I'm really working hard to think of ways to market and to get that message out there."
Artemisia Fall Festival 2017 is at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway St. Riti Sachdeva's The Rug Dealer is 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25; Eileen Campbell's Jarred is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26; Callie Kimball's Rush is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27; Kirsten Ebsen's The Malta Play is 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2; Caity-Shea Violette's Reap the Grove is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3; Janet Burroway's Parts of Speech is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4. Admission is free to each reading, but reservations and donations are encouraged. There is a $25 VIP pass for all performances of Artemisia Fall Festival 2017 plus the upcoming production of Traci Godfrey's Sweet Texas Reckoning in March 2018. Call 312-725-3780 or visit ArtemisiaTheatre.org .