What the Women’s Theatre Festival Did for Us

Ashley Popio founded the Women's Theatre Festival (photo by Liza Marie Photography)
Ashley Popio founded the Women's Theatre Festival (photo by Liza Marie Photography)
Ashley Popio founded the Women's Theatre Festival (photo by Liza Marie Photography)
Ashley Popio founded the Women’s Theatre Festival (photo by Liza Marie Photography)

The North Carolina Women’s Theatre Festival was formed to “create, produce, and promote extraordinary theatre by women.” Behind its design were 179 women from all over the Triangle area: writers, actors, producers, directors, designers, and technicians — all fighting for gender equality in the performing arts.

I have been speaking with the creators, collaborators, and participants of the festival since June of 2016, around the time of its inception. I planned to write this as a journalistic piece, but decided that I wanted to feature the voices of these women themselves. After all, who am I to speak for them? Lean forward with me and listen.

Maribeth McCarthy (Writer/Director, Bruisers): I first got involved because I’m a playwright who is new to the area and I wanted the chance to have my work seen. for my own play, it gave me the chance to bring these characters who have been with me for years to life in a whole new way. Not to mention two of my actors had never appeared on stage before. I love the fact that I was able to do that — to give that to them.

Tara Nicole Williams (Actor, Decision Height; Panel Leader, Body Types, Stereotypes, and Typecasting): The number of times I’ve played “fat, funny friend” or “strong, warrior woman” is staggering. Decision Height is the first time in my career I was allowed to play the full spectrum of human emotion as a woman. How can we be truly inclusive without diminishing the inherent struggle of the marginalized? These are massive questions with no simple answers. But if we open ourselves up from within, we will do ourselves and our community and our audiences a great service.

Elizabeth Anderson (Dancer/Co-Choreographer, Music and the Mirror): We told our own stories of love and loss until we finally ended with one thing together: hope. It was as if I was not only showing the imperfections I felt inside but all the ones I am faced with in the mirror each day. [Dance] allowed all the things we never said to be spoken.

Evelyn McCauley (Workshop Participant, Women’s Forms: Experiential Writing): The truth of what [Workshop leader Mia Self] taught was this: Getting out of your head is a good thing. Playing games is a good thing, too — and we’ve forgotten how to play. I hope I get to play again soon.

Katy Koop (Writer/Director, The Amazing C**t and L’il B***h Take Raleigh): I didn’t think I would get any full-length play produced in North Carolina without first spending thousands at Fringe Festivals all over the country. [I learned that] if you’re going to do your budget on a shoestring and have to throw it together — make sure to justify it artistically through the production. I also met a lot of amazing artists that identified as women or outside the binary that I hope to collaborate with in the future.


Kimmy Fiorentino (Producer/Actor, Decision Height): It was not easy. Tensions were high between many members of the production team. Strong personalities, differences of opinion, uncertainty as to who was responsible for what, and all the things that go on behind the scenes. But somehow we came out of it on the other side having produced a highly successful show.

Bronwen Mischel (Festival Producer): It is important to us to proceed in a way that feels good to the majority of our participants, but I would like to see a few well known shows in the mix in the future, maybe a musical. Plus, our classes were very successful and I’d like to see more of that. In real life, people rarely excel on their first try. The classes gave women the opportunity to try new things without the pressure of perfection.

Rowen Haigh Mahoney (Director, Thunderbodies): The Women’s Theatre Festival is a chance for women (and allies) in the theater to express something we’ve been hesitant to voice: we feel under appreciated. We feel unheard. We feel underrepresented.

Eowyn Blum (Actor, Occupy the Stage): [The show] went quite well, but I think it could be better. I would love to be involved next year as much as possible.

Robin Carmon Marshall (Workshop Participant, Paint and Power Tools): The truth is, I had never been at any time in any shop with a female technical director. Yet, I attended a workshop with three technical directors and set designers: Jenni Becker, Ami Kirk Jones, and Miyuki Su. Did you know that some gloves are not made in women’s sizes? I wonder who decided we didn’t need proper fitting gloves. Probably the same person who decided we had no business in the shop.

Ashley Popio (Festival Founder/Producer): I loved how many of our WTFers went to see our Sister Shows. Endorsing and supporting Sister Shows furthers our cause, and helps shows that need an audience to find one. We had multiple first-time directors, actors, designers, and many people taking classes in disciplines they had never before attempted. We want to continue to foster that kind of creativity, participation, and fearlessness. We are also going to focus on some previously published female literature, because we will now have the funds to pay for the rights.

Hundreds of women participated in the 2016 Women's Theatre Festival
Hundreds of women participated in the 2016 Women’s Theatre Festival

Sarah Duncan (Director/Co-Choreographer/Dancer, Music and the Mirror): Being a director has shifted my focus. Once I’m done worrying about nine other people, my body image has a very low ranking on my list of things to be stressed about. I never thought I would be learning to love and appreciate myself more.

Heather J. Strickland (Workshop Leader, Fight like a Girl: Basics of Stage Combat): I think if we can see even a slight increase in women feeling like their voices are better represented in complex, comprehensive way, we will have a very meaningful metric with which to build on next year. I’m really interested to see what happens when you increase competition among women with this sort of thing. You’re going to see a lot of companies asking “How can we embed some of these pieces into our regular season?” Change comes when things are so painful that they have to.

Ami Kirk Jones (Stage Manager, Decision Height, and Workshop Leader: Paint and Power Tools): I wish I could bottle the essence of this festival — all the moments when you could feel the strength in the room; all the a-ha moments; the moments where your mind expanded just a little bit and you saw with perfect clarity why we were doing this. Suddenly, I wasn’t fearing that I’m not good enough to play with the boys.

Courtney Christison (Actor, Thunderbodies): I learned that I can be sexy and intense and terrifying and funny and horrible and amazing all at once. That femininity has as much power as masculinity. That I don’t need to be anything for a man, just as a man does not need to be anything for me. I am of infinite worth on my own accord.

A cross-gender casting panel at Burning Coal Theatre was part of the festival
A cross-gender casting panel at Burning Coal Theatre was part of the festival

WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL (North Carolina Women’s Theatre Festival, July 30-Sept. 3 at various locations). PRESENTER: http://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/WTFNC/ (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/wtfestivalnc (Twitter page). [RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]


Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.