by Cheryl King · October 2, 2014
Cheryl King, curator of the Sola Voce segment of the EstroGenius Festival, talks to nytheater now about this year's happenings.
Q. Can you talk a bit about the Estrogenius festival: what are its goals, how long has it been going on, and how did you come to be involved with it?
A. I first performed my solo show in Manhattan Theatre Source’s EstroGenius Festival, an annual celebration of female voices, in the early 2000’s. It’s one of New York City’s largest women’s arts festivals and I was thrilled to be a part of it. It’s got a great reputation and the competition for performance slots is fierce.
Founded by Fiona Jones, a majorly talented theatre entrepreneur, in 2000, the festival debuted with a program of 10 short plays and music. Since then, it has grown into a multi-week event including short plays, solo shows, teen performances, visual art, and dance. In past years, we’ve also had stand-up comedy, live music, fundraisers for African girls’ education, and full-day networking events with panels and workshops.
Almost completely volunteer-run, the EstroGenius Festival has provided thousands of artists the chance to shine; showcased award-winning playwrights Sheila Callaghan, Robin Rice Lichtig, T.D. Mitchell and Melissa Maxwell and solo artists Cheryl Smallman and Adelaide Mestre, presented Bessie Award-winning choreographers Marta Renzi and Jennifer Nugent; and provided scholarships for girls to attend school in Niger, ranked the poorest country in the world by the United Nations.
I took on the role of artistic director for Sola Voce in 2007, taking over from Hilda Guttormsen. I had been producing a showcase in cooperation with John Chatterton called NY Solo Play Lab, and had coproduced the Funny Women Fest, and done my own solo show, and opened my own theater, producing countless solo shows there, so I had the requisite skills. And I was certainly interested in promoting the work of women. Over the years, I have marveled at the quality of the work by our artists and by our volunteers. We all donate our time so that the most amount of money can go to our beneficiaries.
Q. It looks like there are 11 shows as part of the SOLA VOCE section of the festival this year—all of which will be at Stage Left Studio. Can you introduce us to each of the shows and their writer/performers?
A. It was a joy to go through the submissions for this year’s festival. We had a large selection of shorter shows, so I paired up quite a few of them. I’ll offer you titles and credits, plus a bit about why I chose them and what they have to offer.
The Wildflower Garden - An Acquired Taste, written and performed by Jane Bennett, directed by Barb Katz Disraeli. Our protagonist was diagnosed with MS almost eight years ago, and her approach to managing the disease is humor, mixed with facts. Here’s a segment that demonstrates why it hit my funny bone:
In people with MS, the body's own immune system attacks the tissue surrounding the nerve fibers in the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. When myelin is destroyed, scar tissue forms and nerve messages are not transmitted properly.
This damage slows down or blocks messages between your brain and your body, leading to:
Trouble with coordination and balance
Fact: This is not the reason I dance the way I dance.
She’s performing on the same bill with Mindy Pfeffer, who wrote There's Iron in Your Future. Aimee Todoroff directs this story about the wild world of triathlon training. Mindy discovers her “inner athlete” in this world of hard, unrelenting effort, and serves as a fine example of the kind of female strength and purpose that is changing the world of professional sports.
Some of the shows I paired up had similar themes, but some are radically different. The following two shows are an example of that. Downtown Mermaid, written and performed by Cathie Boruch, directed by Shawn Belpano, is a New Jersey Girl’s journey through Manhattan’s rock and roll scene and public relations life to find what it’s all really about. It’s quirky, funny, fast and innovative. As Cathie says, “New York City never sleeps-- it just gets drunk and passes out sometimes..”
Oddly enough, when Katherine O’Sullivan came to Stage Left today to tech her show, she said she had been paired up with Cathie at another venue. Katherine is performing Paula Meehan’s Music for Dogs. Siobhan Dunne directs her in this unflinching piece about a woman who receives a bad prognosis from her doctor, and reveals a special legacy. Katherine delivers this great and lyrical writing with wit and delicacy, with beautiful sound and light design. She brought a fine team to the festival, and we are always grateful to see that kind of dedication.
When I read Chore Boots, written by Janet Schlapkohl, from Iowa, I was blown away. This beautiful play, directed by Tim Budd, is about a girl who grows up in rural Iowa with a dream of life on the farm. It is a powerful piece of writing, grounded and full of good humor. Here’s an excerpt from that 60-minute show:
Stretch pants under a dress don’t do diddly squat when the wind chill is sixty below. But, we aren’t allowed into school until the bell rings. We press against the glass and steel door, huddling like baby chicks under a heat lamp.
“I can’t feel my nose or toes.”
“I can’t feel my fingers.”
“Squeeze against the doorframe.” A girl named Nancy has found a warm spot.
At last the bell rings and the big principal comes; it makes him happy to let freezing children into his warm school. We jostle like panicked sheep to get inside. Nancy’s mitten remains in the closing door.
Kids hustle off to classrooms, Nancy is in front of me. She stops suddenly, looks at her hand and holds it up to the principal.
“I lost my finger.” And it’s true. The door has severed her pointer finger at the first joint.
“Haaa” -The principal steps backwards and falls down. Teachers rush over.
“Lord love a duck, dat dere’s a heart attack!”
“Na, he’s just fainted.”
Nancy waits. It’s a while before teachers understand. When they do,
“Okay kids, back outside and find that finger.”
And we search for Nancy’s finger in the snow.
It’s what you do for a friend.
And when someone finds her mitten; a TREASURE with the lump of finger inside, we don’t faint. We take off our snow boots and go to class.
Her show is preceded by the brief but insightful Dear Susan, written and directed by Roxann MtJoy, and performed by Shay Roman. This play about health, women, and politics gets right to the heart of the Susan G. Komen story, when our protagonist, in a series of short letters addressed to Ms. Komen, makes observations like this:
About those scams… listen, I’ve been known to do a shady thing or two in my life. My mom put $200 on my Sarah Lawrence OneCard this semester and then today for lunch at Bates, I paid for two lunches and my friend Tammy gave me cash. So I am trying not to judge. But this thing with Yoplait? Come on.
As is common in Sola Voce, the various ways women lead their lives lead to some very effective storytelling, both lighthearted and in-your-face.
Cat Migliaccio shows up as Victoria, the Queen of Tinder, Goddess of Scrapbooking and a Love Guru to woman, helping them find the right mate with some backups to bless this earth with BABIES!! It’s tongue-in-cheek and oh, so cheeky.
This 15-minute gem comes before The 'Hoodwink', written and performed by Melanee Murray, and directed by Nicole Zylstra. Melanee is from Calgary, our only non-USA performer in Sola Voce this year. She plays Albie Davis, a singer with a heart of soul. But the world doesn't seem to be ready for Albie's blend of outspoken word, creative freedom and righteous take on pop culture, hip-hop and hairweaves. I was, and I am sure the audience will enjoy this superbly well-written solo show with her first-rate characters.
I met Wolf C.R today. Her name makes me think of Louis CK, except in her case Wolf is the last name. And her writing makes me think of Louis CK too. It’s sharp and smart. She wrote and performs It's Not My Decision, a 30-minute tour-de-force in which she plays four characters, living in the only universe, New York City. Sharon is in group therapy at a psychiatric hospital. Mark is in individual therapy. Betsy is on the train. Aurea, Sharon’s younger sister, is in an audition. She’s dealing with big issues here - sexuality, feminism, and food and body control, queerness, race, religion, and manhood.
Her show is paired up with OVERHEARD, written and performed by Kirya Traber, and directed by Sara Lyons. It’s another solo show where one actress shows her chops with multiple characters. In this combination of character monologue, personal narrative, dance, and song, Traber asks how minute moments of personal choice can define our experience in a world of predetermined roles. Her writing style is lyrical and poetic, and cuts close to the bone, as in the following passage:
Can I ask you a question?
I ain't tryna be offensive or nothing
Ey, what’s your name?
Where are you from?
No, I mean,
what’s your nationality?
I'm just wondering
Are you a guy or a girl?
Like a REAL girl?
Excuse me young lady
I just have to tell you
You are very pretty
Attractive, I mean
Barbara Suter delivers an amusing and heartfelt examination of the life of a retail bookseller in The Big Giant Bookstore, directed by Terence Mintern. Barbara wrote and performs the piece, which brims with fabulous tales of nannies, parents and their privileged progeny that she copes with while waiting for her first novel to be published. The piece is about writing and reading and the stories we need to tell.
Q. How did you curate this grouping of shows?
A. I am a writer by inclination and my first look at a show is the writing. I seek a good throughline, a solid beginning/middle/end, originality in style and format, well-articulated thought and concept, novelty, and leading-edge thought. My second look is the performance (often this is not possible, as much work submitted to festivals is brand-new and no record of the performance has yet been made). I check to see if the performer has chops, if they know how to command a stage, if they have the requisite skills to embody their work. I research their production team – their director and designers. Though I am willing to take a chance on a new writer/actor, it’s important to consider the audience. I want to ensure that the product is stage-worthy, and that the audience will be glad they came. I do not welcome self-indulgent or undercooked performances on my stage. I believe in a performer/audience contract – entertainment value is not the only value in theater, but it’s an important value.
Q. Why is it important to spotlight works by, about, for women?
A. Women have yet to achieve parity in the performing arts. In writing, acting and directing we make up less than 20% of those being paid for their craft. And we get paid less. All across the globe, women are oppressed, undervalued, exploited, and taken for granted. As long as this gender disparity exists, women have to stand together, and we have to continue to work as a bloc to make our needs known and to address the inequality that is so pervasive all around the world.
Q. How can people see these shows? Tell us about the schedule, double bills, and ticketing.
These shows run from Oct 2 through 11 at Stage Left Studio, 214 W 30th Street, 6th floor. Each set of shows or single show has two performances and the $18 tickets can be purchased through Ovation Tix. Full information is available on the Estrogenius website, www.estrogenius.org, under the Sola Voce tab.