A day without a woman? Not at Forum Theatre.
Amid its Season 13, the Silver Spring theater presents its #NastyWomenRep, reclaiming the epithet then-candidate Donald Trump hurled at Hillary Clinton mid-debate with a pair of young-women-centric stories that are written, directed, designed and (mostly) performed by an all-female creative team.
Packing a one-two punch this Women’s History Month will be the D.C. premieres of two plays performed in repertory: Monica Byrne’s “What Every Girl Should Know,” directed by Jenna Duncan, and Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land,” directed by Amber Paige McGinnis. Each work examines female friendship and resiliency within the framework of sexuality, morality and oppression; each deals with the repercussions of societal expectations and the risks of unplanned pregnancy. They’re set a hundred years apart, the directors point out, and yet taken together, they dovetail to frame an examination of a century’s worth of progress and setbacks in the struggle for reproductive rights.
“Of course, there are political themes—in both plays,” said Duncan, a George Washington University alumna who tackles themes of female power, persecution and sexuality circa 1914 in “What Every Girl Should Know.” “But the girls are funny, and their relationships are complex and relatable.”
The four teenage girls in a New York reformatory that form the core of the play she directs? “I understand all of them on a very deep level,” she admitted. “Sometimes while watching, I forget the politics and get wrapped up in the reality of these girls who are living together. There’s so much there that’s specific to being a woman and sharing your experiences.”
For Duncan, an associate producer at Forum, directing those shared experiences is an opportunity to incorporate dance into the mix, allowing characters to nudge the story forward with movements that “range from fun to heart-wrenching and everything in between.
“There are lots of relatable secrets and fears,” she added. “These girls don’t know anything about their own bodies; they don’t have any knowledge because people have been keeping it from them.”
The inevitable result of that lack of knowledge not only forms the arc of “What Every Girl Should Know.” It also links Byrne’s 20th century reformatory tale with Spiegel’s 21st century story set in a women’s locker room.
“What we’re seeing in ‘Dry Land’ is that what was instilled in the girls in 1914 by others, we’re now instilling in ourselves. We as women feel shame about so many things—we’re oppressing in ourselves what society used to oppress.”
And so, despite the leaps made by society and feminism, Duncan said, the cycle of ignorance and shame continues. She noted that it has been easy to draw parallels between her own adolescence and the experiences of the young women in both plays—and that is part of the appeal. “I don’t see a lot of plays where girls’ voices are central and only,” she said. “It really is their perspective and their voices, in a way that I actually have yet to see fully fleshed out onstage.”
McGinnis, too, draws parallels between herself and the characters in these #NastyWomenRep plays. Their struggle to learn about their bodies and their options, their quest to be empowered as women with choices and opportunities—as a young woman from a traditional background she can relate.
“I grew up doing dramas in church,” said the director, who studied theater at Gardner Webb University, a small Baptist college in her native North Carolina, and has a master of fine arts degree from Baylor University. “I grew up in such a conservative environment that these sorts of things weren’t really talked about.
“What I’m most interested in is giving young women a voice—and both these plays really do that in a striking, compelling way.”
As a young girl, McGinnis said, “I was scared to ask people the hard questions. I didn’t know who to turn to.” Now, though, she sees herself as a bridge between communities. “Obviously, my political views have shifted over time,” she observed, “but I still have a lot of compassion for people who come from very different backgrounds and don’t see things the same way.”
Forum Theatre, she said, accommodates that openness, and she sees producing artistic director Michael Dove as “a kindred spirit.”
“As storytellers, as artists, as human beings, we are interested in exploring themes that have social relevance and also a lot of heart. We’re also interested in bringing stories to light onstage in an open minded and unbiased ways.” That works for McGinnis “because I did come from such a conservative upbringing. I feel like that allows me to have compassion for characters from a lot of different perspectives.”
The issues the #NastyWomenRep plays address may be difficult, she said, but the objective is to approach each story with an open mind so that every audience member feels welcome to engage, whatever their personal politics might be.
“We bring an open mind, an open heart and a lot of compassion to the story,” she observed. The all-female creative team is something the diversity-loving McGinnis said “feels like a celebration to me, rather than a statement. It was a very deliberate choice for this rep, but we got all our first choices regardless of gender. We were lucky to snap them up!”
Indeed, she said, the challenges of changeover when performing two physically distinct shows in such close repertory—turnaround is literally day-to-day—meant that securing the very best theater professionals was key. Even the actors are shared between shows, so finding the most talented and versatile performers was critical, too.
“It’s a lot,” said McGinnis. “They’ve come into this with 100 percent dedication; they’ve asked the hard questions and gone into the dark, difficult themes of these plays.”
Themes that she hopes audiences will realize are still relevant even after 100 years of feminism, and themes she knows are universal.
“It’s hopeful but very sobering at the same time,” she said. “At its heart, ‘Dry Land’ is a relationship play. It’s about friendship, and that’s something every audience member can relate to.”
To continue to shine a light on women’s health and wellbeing, and as part of the theatre’s ongoing effort to connect the work onstage to pressing issues within the community, Forum is partnering with the DC chapter of the National Organization for Women (DC NOW), the DC Abortion Fund (DCAF) and Whitman-Walker Health. They also will be running a drive for feminine hygiene products in support of the DC Diaper Bank.
Forum Theatre presents “What Every Girl Should Know” and “Dry Land” in repertory through April 15 at Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Performances start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $38 in advance, with pay-what-you-want tickets available one hour before the show at the box office. Call 301-588-8279 or visit www.forum-theatre.org. View these events on CultureSpotMC here.