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Women and Their Worlds 

Women's Work

click to enlarge stage-9808.jpg

Michael Amsler

... Is Never Done: Studio Be founder Lennie Dean honors women playwrights.

Series showcases female playwrights

By Daedalus Howell

IN HIS BOOK A Brief History of Time, physicist Stephen J. Hawking relates an apocryphal story about a lecturer heckled by an elderly woman during an address on cosmology. Apparently the dowager decried the lecturer's observations on the physical universe and the earth's place in it as "rubbish" and then offered her own vivid philosophy: "The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise."

When the bemused speaker queried, "What supports the tortoise?" the woman sagely replied, "It's turtles all the way down."

Likewise, inspired by national observation of Women's History Month, in March, the worlds of two local theater companies--Actors' Theatre and Studio Be--will collide in a collaboration that, cosmologically speaking, is women all the way down.

Next month, the troupes present their staged-reading series Women and Their Worlds --five plays written, directed, performed, and sponsored by local women. The series is one of several prospective partnerships between Actors' Theatre and Studio Be--and the latter's first production since relinquishing its cramped quarters in Santa Rosa's Lincoln Arts Center (Studio Be is refuged at AT's Luther Burbank Performing Arts Center digs).

Among sundry points of concordance between the two is their decision to preserve Studio Be's long-established staged-reading program at the new Actors' Theatre location. With the March observance of women's contributions imminent, the series' theme was an apropos selection, as the observance (originally Women's History week) was created by Sonoma County progressives 20 years ago.

Devising the lineup of Women and Their Worlds proved revelatory for Actors' Theatre director Lennie Dean, as she foraged through the annals of plays by women long suppressed by a constituency of male critics and historians. She cites influential early-20th-century critic Brander Matthews' comments as indicative of the once prevailing perception of women dramatists: "[Women] lack the inexhaustible fund of information about life which is the common property of men," he states. "Female storytellers not only lack largesse in topic but also lack a strictness in treatment. Deficient in scientific imagination, women are constitutionally unable to draw plans and execute them."

Throughout the series, such attitudes will be explicated during pre-show talks conducted by Dean and further explored in post-show discussions led by the directors.

"At [a theater bookstore] in San Francisco, I picked up a collection of plays written by women I had never heard of before," recalls Dean. "I began to read these plays and felt so ignorant. In 30 years of doing theater, I had never heard of some of these women."

Roused and inspired, Dean molded the series to reflect women's contributions to theater throughout the 20th century. Included in the production is a play by the all-but-canonized Lillian Hellman (Children's Hour, 1934), as well as historically overlooked dramatists Amelia Rosselli (Her Soul, 1898) and Elizabeth Robins (Votes for Women, 1907).

"These plays are really stunning, they're incredible. There are so many that I didn't choose that I can't wait to do for next year. I'm just thrilled at how many plays there are that are so good," Dean avers.

Behind the scenes, Dean and Thompson have enlisted local stagecraft veterans to helm each reading. Mary Gannon, Danielle Cain, Maureen Studer, and Sheri Lee Miller each direct, as does Dean with playwright Tina Howe's Birth and After Birth.

"She's an absurdist at heart. She was trained in Paris, she knew Ionesco--that's where her love and life live," Dean says of the prolific Howe, often maligned by a predominantly male theater establishment for her experimental forays. "The first plays that she did were accepted off-off Broadway, but as she moved closer to Broadway she got slammed because 'it's not OK for a pretty woman from Boston to write this absurdist stuff.'"

ACTOR'S THEATRE alumna Miller closes the series with her interpretation of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, a seriocomic portrait of a woman's persistent memory of sexual abuse and driver's ed. The play was a bombshell for Dean.

"I read that play and it affected me so much I wept," Dean says. "I was so moved by how well constructed it is and how [Vogel] deals with these very sensitive subjects in the most profound way."

Dean has every intention of parlaying Women and Their Worlds into an annual affair. Dean and Thompson have even bandied the possibility of bringing distinguished female playwrights to next year's event as well as showcasing more talented women from the county. "Several other people have said, 'I'd like to contribute.' I said, 'Wait--we've got big plans for next year,'" says Dean. "This is an appetizer to a great feast. It's just going to grow and grow and grow."

Women and Their Worlds

EACH EVENT in this month-long series of Sunday evening staged readings (there are no costumes or sets) begins at 6 p.m. with a director's discussion of the featured playwright. A post-play discussion follows.

March 1: Her Soul by Amelia Rosselli (1898); directed by Mary Gannon
March 8: Votes for Women by Elizabeth Robin (1907); directed by Danielle Cain
March 15: The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman (1934); directed by Maureen Studer
March 22: Birth and After Birth by Tina Howe (1974); directed by Lennie Dean
March 29: How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel (1996); directed by Sheri Lee Miller

All shows at Actors' Theatre, at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Suggested donations are $3-$5. Call 523-3544.

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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