Spotlight on Strong Voice Project — A Womanly Word to the Wise?
|April 29, 2014||Posted by Eleanor Svaton under Spotlight|
Eleanor Svaton is Features Editor for Hitting the Stage. She has been acting, writing, and directing in Honolulu since 2008.
Lurana Donnels O’Malley, the head of Western theatre at The University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, has put together Strong Voice Project, a weekend-long production featuring the works of female playwrights with two shows only: Friday, May 2, and Saturday, May 3, at 8 pm in the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre. With limited information on the flyer and Facebook page, I turned to Dr. O’Malley for a few more details.
Eleanor Svaton: Can you describe the production?
Lurana Donnels O’Malley: I want to be clear that this production is a final class showing for an educational project at UH Mānoa. It’s not a “regular” Kennedy Theatre presentation, but a sharing of a work created in a class environment, with no budget beyond what it’s cost us to duplicate a few posters and the programs. The focus is on the acting and on the writing, and on the women who created them. That said, I think the production quality will be good.
ES: How did you get the idea to do this?
LDO: We were settling our season for 2013-2014, and for Western Theatre, our faculty was only able to present one Mainstage production: Chuck Mee’s Big Love. That play has some great roles for women, but it seemed a long time since we’d featured anything by women writers. I myself had done Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom in 2005, and on our Late Night stages we’d had a Paula Vogel play recently, but these were few and far between. So I had the idea to enroll students in a course that would focus on creating a production drawing only on plays by women. The idea also partly came about because I’d spent a year developing a new course. Well, new to me; it was on the books, but I’d never taught it: THEA/WS 414 Women in Drama and Theatre. I thought, what if I teach that in Fall and then keep the momentum going and do the production course in Spring 2014. The idea was that the students in the Fall course would suggest scenes and writers to be in the spring production. That did work to some extent: we are using a handful of scenes given to me directly by those 414 students. And two of the students carried over into the production course (which is THEA 490 Experimental Theatre Studio). Each semester students have also been contributing to a research wiki on women playwrights.
ES: What surprised you most about the process?
LDO: I had a lot of preconceived notions about what scenes we might include. I knew I wanted to begin with Hrotvitha of Gandersheim’s preface to her plays, in which she talks about being the “strong voice” of Gandersheim: her words gave the project its title almost a year ago. And the bawdy comedy writer Aphra Behn had to be in there: she was the first professional woman playwright. We’re doing a sexy scene from The Rover. And since I spent so many years researching Catherine the Great of Russia, I included a scene from one of her comedies. But beyond that, I had a lot of ideas that turned out not to work for one reason or another. Mostly because I learned that the project would work best if I suited the material to the talents and interests of the students. Several were enthusiastic to do a musical number, so we’ve included two songs. Some brought in monologues I wasn’t familiar with and fell in love with. And some scenes I loved simply didn’t work with the particular group of eight actors we had. Choosing the pieces took a lot longer than I had predicted—I had thought we’d be able to do it in the first 5 weeks of classes, but it took us 9 weeks to finalize the choices. I tried to give the class opportunity to give feedback on each scene, what it might contribute to the show. At one point, they voted on their top three favorites. Ultimately, though, the decision of what to include was mine. I gave my dramaturg Matthew Kelty the responsibility of deciding an order, and he did a very fine job in balancing the styles and rhythms of various pieces and making connections between them.
ES: Are there any men in the showing?
We have five women and three men. For a while there, all we were reading were very dark scenes, and one of the male students commented, “Looks like I’ll only be playing bad guys, huh?” So I made a conscious effort to find some more sympathetic male roles, such as a worried father, concerned about his daughter’s sexual awakening, or a brother in love with his sister-in-law.
LDO: What are some of your favorite scenes?
I’m so pleased we’ve included a section from a 1909 play called How the Vote was Won, by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John (also a woman). It’s one of the few suffrage comedies, and it’s unabashedly farcical. The premise is that all the women in Great Britain decide that until they get the vote, they will each move in with their nearest male relative. I’m also thrilled to include three local writers in the mix: we have scenes from Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl’s The Conversion of Ka`ahumanu, from Tammy Haili`ōpua Baker’s Kupua, and from Lee Cataluna’s Folks You Meet in Longs. These are plays the theatre students read in various classes, so are familar with, but I think it will be helpful to see them come alive.
ES: What has it been like working with the students?
LDO: They’ve all blown me away. One student, Taylor Purvis, told me a few days ago that this is her first play. If I had known that, maybe I wouldn’t have asked her to do the following: sing and dance a Broadway-style song, learn a British accent, do a Pidgin monologue, portray an expressionist stenographer, and chant a mele ma`i while dancing an original hula. The showing is definitely stretching them all!
ES: What are you most looking forward to?
LDO: For many of these students, this is their first real experience in the Department of Theatre and Dance beyond the beginning acting class. In some ways, this is their debut, and I think our audience will be very impressed. I look forward to seeing these students in future productions and thinking, I found them first!