Preview: Groundswell: A Festival of Contemporary Women’s Theatre (Nightwood Theatre)

Photo of Nightwood Theatre's Groundswell Festival 2016

Nightwood Theatre will kick off their 37th season next week with the opening of the 31st annual Groundswell Festival: A Festival of Contemporary Women’s Theatre. Held at the Ernest Balmer Studio in The Historic Distillery District, Groundswell will feature a week of readings by emerging playwrights from Nightwood‘s 2015-16 Write from the Hip script development program with participation from their Young Innovators. To celebrate the opening of Groundswell 2016, we had the opportunity to ask program facilitator, dramaturge and director Andrea Donaldson some questions about this year’s festival.

Can you tell us a bit about the Write from the Hip and The Young Innovators programs?

Write from the Hip is a program for female identifying writers who consider themselves to be emerging as playwrights. We’ve had writers come through the program who have been actors for decades and are writing their first play. We’ve had people who are considered prolific in other creative writing disciplines who are totally green as dramatists. And people who’ve never written a thing.

With our dramaturgical support, the Write from the Hip playwrights spend a year developing their own full play that culminates in the readings at Groundswell next week! The Young Innovators are up and comers who get to observe, share skill-building sessions and will be reading the stage directions.

Is there a theme that runs through the works presented at this year’s festival? What fascinates new Canadian women playwrights in 2016?

I’m really excited by each writer’s distinct voice and perspective and to see where their points of view clash with each other and where they echo. But as I think about all five plays, I would say these playwrights are fascinated by systems that have lacked compassion and rigor, and are examining how people cope and find justice or transformation.

I think they’re also fascinated by how we tell stories. We live in a very exciting time where people are really scrutinizing the notion of identity and I think that includes undoing the idea that women have a uniform creative output, style or taste – that there is a “female play” – and that a “female play” would only resonate with a female audience.

Were there any surprising discoveries uncovered by you and the playwrights during the development period? What can audiences look forward to?

It’s no surprise really, but I think the power of the contemporary playwright is to speak to us from this time about this time – and each play in Groundswell really does that. I’d also say, do not underestimate the power of those younger in craft – their plays are potent, raw, unhampered.

Nightwood Theatre is “the oldest professional women’s theatre company in Canada” and well-known for its advocacy for gender equity and female artists. As a female theatre creator who has worked extensively across Canada, has the Canadian theatre landscape become a friendlier place for women?

Though my first big professional leaps of faith have all been by female artistic directors and playwrights, some of my most recent and very significant leaps of faith were by male artistic directors. In fact, some of the most feminist workspaces I’ve been employed in have been run by male leaders — the ethos of a space definitely is from the top down.

The fact is you build your craft by doing. Not just watching or supporting — that’s part of how we build our craft — but doing is the thing. So mentorship and championing and leaps of faith are key. And it’s always a leap of faith in this field because opportunity is so scarce.

I think we are more aware of the need to examine and adjust systemic issues of power. Check our biases. I always encourage playwrights, directors and our artistic directors to consider how they are casting and what historical narratives we have the power to reinforce or dismantle through our work and workplaces.

I became a mother eight years ago. Breast-feeding and parenting create this major adjustment to even the most balanced partnerships: who gets to work and how and where and when. My partner and I have had to assert our needs and also be hugely generous with each other in order to maintain and demonstrate equality at home. I mention this because I think home-life has a huge impact on women’s ability to work (perhaps especially in the arts) – when there is a primacy on one partner’s career vs. the other. Economics can pose a really interesting cover for inequality at home.

But ya I think things are changing – there are so many powerful, talented females out there working. I think most women I know who are maintaining careers in theatre are constantly mentoring other females coming up. I feel like I always have like a dozen mentees on the go!

How can audiences continue to support the artists and the works in Groundswell?

1. Come out for a PWYC reading at 7pm (4pm on Saturday) and bring a budding female writer so she can see what’s possible.

2. Donate to the program that gets female playwrights writing.

3. Spread the word about the readings (the more the merrier!)

4. Fall in love with new play development – help nurture the people  and plays that will grow bigger and fuller over time.

5. Be a supportive friend, spouse, community mate and offer yourself in ways that support the wholeness of our artists and the arts in our city

This interview has been condensed and edited for length.