'You've got this sexy woman, who wants to sleep with the main male character—and he just HAPPENS to be a writer—but then she's brutally murdered.' This is what actresses typically encounter when auditioning for plays written/directed by 'guys using theater to realize their fantasies,' says Jaclyn Biskup, founder of Experimental Theatre Chicago. And while literary classics may often spring from an author's wishful thinking, it's easy to see why many female artists strike out on their own.
What is this nebulous 'Women's Theater,' anyway? 'Women's theater is theater that represents, promotes and/or advances women.' says Lori Howard of Stockyards Theatre, a view echoed by The Women's Theatre Alliance of Chicago, a networking group whose goal is to 'support women by providing them with opportunities, resources and guidance.'
Martie Sanders, of The Sweat Girls, elaborates, 'When a collective presents plays centering on the female point of view, it usually ends up being called 'Women's Theater'. Unfortunately, this designation has the effect of telling men, 'Hey, you don't want to see this!'. And for our company, that is definitely not the case.' Fellow Sweat Girl Clare Nolan takes this notion a step further, saying, ' [ Our ] material is based in the autobiographical approach, so you'd think if the term 'women's theater' applied to ANYONE, it would be US. But from our first performance, men have told us that our work is NOT gender-exclusive. I've been enriched by the increased focus on the female perspective in the past 30 years, but there's a part of me that finds the term limiting.'
Meg Graves, of The Box Theatre Group, concurs, 'We are an entirely female ensemble, so our business and artistic administration comes from a unified group of women. The power is in the hands of women, though we work with male actors or designers—we even have men on our board of directors. In other words, the decision to work with somebody isn't based on gender—why cut yourself off to half the population?' Adds Dawn Alden, founder of the Babes With Blades, ' [ Women's Theater ] is created and produced primarily by women, directed toward women audiences and/or focused on particular issues that concern women. It is not JUST for women, however.'
' [ An interviewer from Time Out ] once asked me if I thought that the Chicago theater scene was a 'boys club',' shrugs Biskup, 'but LIFE is a boys' club. Supply and demand dictate that this is a tough business for actresses.'
Chicago Women's companies
The Sweat Girls date their history from a 1993 performance, entitled I'm Sweating Under My Breasts, opening at the Annoyance Theatre and later transferring to the Café Voltaire. Originally christened Pretzelrod Productions, the eight-member ensemble acquired its present name from 'a fan at the Voltaire who said he'd been sent to 'That Sweating Show—ya know, the one about the sweaty girls'. Ever since then, we've been the Sweat Girls,' recounts Sanders. 'Everything we write is personal, but personal truths, when shared in an authentic and fearless manner, can be universal in their resonance. We've had a lot of women—and MEN, too—say that they want to be a Sweat Girl. If you've ever got up and exposed your truth before a bunch of faces you don't know, then you're already one.'
Babes With Blades mounted its first production in 1997, in conjunction with Footsteps Theatre, whose all-female Shakespeare productions offered its stage combat-trained members the rare opportunity, reports Alden, to 'swash and buckle onstage'. Following the maxim, 'If you can't find it, found it', they put together their first showcase. Since then, the troupe has become an international presence, attracting artists and instructors from all over the world. 'We offer a safe and protective environment for women with experience in stage combat, martial arts, fencing or other related arts. And since we're the only group of our kind in Chicago, we have launched many of our own initiatives—for example, our recent playwrighting competition—in order to find good, solid, fully scripted programs.'
The Stockyards Theatre Project was founded in 1999 'as an homage to the forgotten women working in Chicago's Union Stockyards and as a symbol of what the city was, and could be, if women were given a voice in the performing arts.' The Stockyards Project initial production was its Women's Performance Art Festival, now an annual event. ' [ We ] are devoted to advancing women, both artists and audience members, through theater arts that challenge ourselves and those who see our work.'
Teatro Luna made its debut in 2000 under the leadership of Coya Paz and Tanya Saracho, an ensemble of 10 Latina/Hispana performing artists weary of the offensive stereotypes dominating the roles written for Latina actresses ( and as often, given to non-Latina players ) . 'Our stories matter, our histories matter. [ They ] represent experiences beyond our individual lives [ that ] are not being heard,' says Paz.
The Box Theatre Group marked its inception in 2002. 'We wanted to say something and [ after graduating from Columbia College ] we knew people with whom we enjoyed saying it, so that we felt ourselves to be a supportive community,' recalls Graves. 'Our focus was never on traditional 'empowerment' but mainly on presenting distinctive female voices. [ Box Theatre ] created a safe haven for us to grow and explore.'
Experimental Theatre Chicago began on a dare. In 2002, while interviewing for The International Theater of Chicago, Biskup included on her resumé her goal of 'starting a theater company'. When ITC artistic director Pat Accera asked about it, remembers Biskup, 'I was like 'yeah, sure, one day', but she said, 'why don't you start a company right now?' So I did.' And the results? 'People expect 'experimental theater' to be obtuse, esoteric and/or vulgar. But I think it can also be subtle, and the company is now an outlet for artists to work collaboratively and organically.'