WAM featured in SCENE, ISTA’s Magazine for International Theatre Educators

SCENE Magazine, September Issue, 2011

The Story of WAM Theatre

By Kristen van Ginhoven

I am a freelance director, actor and educator, coordinator for a local arts center and since 2005 I’ve been an ISTA staff member. My main passion outside of ISTA is being Artistic Director of WAM Theatre.

Inspired by the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, I co-founded WAM Theatre (Women’s Action Movement) in 2009 with Leigh Strimbeck, a fellow theatre professional. Our primary two objectives in founding WAM Theatre were to address the lack of gender parity in theatre and, as inspired by ‘Half the Sky’, to take action for women and girls worldwide.

“Half the Sky” invites people to ‘join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts’. The book’s thesis is that oppression against women is the seminal moral issue of our time, as slavery was in the 19th century. The agenda laid out in ‘Half the Sky’ focuses on Kristof and WuDunn’s belief that change can occur if we address three major issues: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence including honor killings and mass rape and maternal mortality. They lay out a solution that includes girls’ education and microfinance. Reading that book happened at exactly the right time in my life. I put the book down and knew instantly that I wanted to use theatre as my philanthropy.

I called Leigh, a like-minded colleague, and said ‘Do you want to start a theatre company that benefits women and girls’. Immediately she said yes. Not only did we want to take action for women’s issues in general, we also wanted to take action for women theatre artists. Between Leigh and I we have over 50 years of working professionally in the theatre! Like many other theatre artists, we remain concerned about the lack of gender parity in the theatre.

American playwright Theresa Rebeck quoted the following statistics during her Laura Pels Keynote Address in March 2010: “Over the last 25 years the number of plays produced in the United States that were written by women seems to have vacillated between 12 and 17 percent.” [The complete speech can be found at: http://womenandhollywood.com/2010/03/16/text-of-theresa-rebeck-laura-pels-keynote-address/] In my own region of Western Massachusetts, 39 of the plays produced in 2010 were written by men, 13 were written by women.

Interestingly a recent study conducted by Emily Glassburg Sands, currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Economics at Harvard University, showed that plays and musicals by women on Broadway (where women write fewer than 1 in 8 shows) sold 16 percent more tickets a week and were 18 percent more profitable over all. [To download the study: http://www.emilysands.com/emilysands.com/Media.html]

WAM Theatre’s mission focuses on what we call a ‘double philanthropic model’, which addresses two seminal issues.

1) To produce theatrical events for everyone, with a focus on women theatre artists and/or stories of women and girls

2) To donate a portion of proceeds from those theatrical events to organizations that work to benefit the lives of women and girls in our communities and worldwide.

Since launching in early 2010 WAM Theatre has produced three events, each with it’s own beneficiary, and we are planning our fourth. So far we have collaborated with over 40 theatre artists from our two regions, over 80% of which are female and we have donated over $3000 to our beneficiaries.

Our goal is to produce two professional theatrical events a year, one with an international beneficiary and one with a local beneficiary. That way we are able to do a little bit for both our local and global communities.

For our local beneficiaries, we compile relevant local data about organizations doing work that suits our mission and choose one as a beneficiary for a WAM production based on the issue we would like to help to address and the ability of our donation to make a difference. For example, the beneficiary for our November 2010 production was The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts. Their mission is to advance social change philanthropy to create economic and social equality for women and girls in Western Massachusetts through grantmaking and strategic initiatives. Due to the success of that production, ‘Melancholy Play’ by Sarah Ruhl, we were able to donate $1500 to the Women’s Fund. The Women’s Fund then used that $1500 to fund another project focusing on empowering women and girls. Our mission in action!

For our international beneficiaries we begin with the organizations vetted in ‘Half the Sky’ and do our own further research. For example, in Spring 2011 we wanted to help address maternal mortality. Our research led us to Edna’s Hospital in Somaliland (Edna is also featured in ‘Half the Sky’), a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. We contacted the hospital and learned that for $980, we could train one community midwife. So, we produced the ‘O Solo Mama Mia Festival’, a festival of solo works written and performed by women. We were able to raise enough funds to employ six solo female theatre artists and a stage manager plus donate $650 to Edna’s Hospital towards the training of one community midwife.

A feature of WAM Theatre is that it straddles two artistic communities. Leigh is a resident of the Capital Region of New York State and I live in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Although these communities are only about 45 miles apart, collaboration is scarce. Leigh and I wanted to try to help bridge that gap by hiring theatre artists from the two regions and producing our events in both regions. With our recent O Solo Mama Mia Festival we collaborated with a local Art Gallery in the Berkshires, The Storefront Artist Project, to transform part of the art gallery into a pop-up theatre and had an art exhibit of the same name accompany the theatre festival. In the Capital Region of NY we collaborated with Russell Sage College in Troy, NY, where Leigh is assistant professor, to present the festival in one of their theatres.

Another way we attempt to bridge the gap between state lines is by holding collaborative events. In March 2011 WAM was a co-producer for the first Capital Region/Berkshires 24hr Theatre project. Together with two other organizations, the Mop & Bucket Improvisation Theatre Company and the Arts Center of the Capital Region, we created an ensemble of five female playwrights, five directors, five stage managers, twenty actors, three sound designers, one lighting designer and one scenic designer who worked for twenty-four hours to create five original short plays. Over fifty professional theatre artists from both regions crossed that invisible state line to gather for what we hope will become an annual event. The event sold out quickly and the feedback from the artists, the audience and the press showed that more events like this in the future would be welcome. I’m delighted to say that plans are already in the works for a second 24hr Theatre project in 2012.

WAM Theatre has been an incredible journey thus far. Our successes have been many, as have our challenges. I always tell people that I feel like I’m in continual 101 classes; Non-Profit Organizations 101, Strategic Planning 101, Fundraising and Development 101, Marketing and Social Media 101, to name a few. The learning curve continues to be steep and we have learned valuable lessons along the way.  For example, we realize that while we do want to continue to be part of bridging the gap across state lines, we do not yet have a large enough infrastructure to support presenting our main productions in both regions. Therefore we will focus on producing our main events in the Berkshires while continuing to co-produce collaborative smaller events, like the 24hr Theatre Project, in both regions.

We keep going thanks to our own deep passion for the project and the enormous amount of support from those around us who believe in the project.  We have an extensive network of helpful friends and family, including husbands who are our resident lighting and sound designers and in my case, also serve as President of the WAM Theatre board! We also know professionals in the fields of theatre, non-profit and philanthropy who are happy, and indeed eager, to help. All we have to do is have the courage to ask.

The overwhelming times are balanced by the knowledge that by creating these theatrical events we are providing opportunities for at least one woman or girl somewhere in the world. I often remind myself of the starfish fable Kristof and WuDunn quote in ‘Half the Sky’:

A man goes out on the beach and sees that it is covered with starfish that have washed up on the tide. A little boy is walking along, picking them up and throwing them back into the water.

“What are you doing, son?” the man asks. “You see how many starfish there are? You’ll never make a difference.”

The boy paused thoughtfully, and picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean.

“It sure made a difference to that one,” He said.

To learn more about WAM Theatre and to support our 2011 Fundraising campaign, the 100×100 Campaign, go to www.WAMTheatre.comJ Please also fan us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/WAMTheatre) and follow us on Twitter (www.twitter.com/WAMTheatre).

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