Supporting creative work by women
The Hearth presents its inaugural production–the New York premiere of For Annie by Beth Hyland (right), directed by Emma Miller (left)–December 9th through January 15th at Lucid Body House in New York City. The company, founded by Miller and Julia Greer, was born after the League of Professional Theatre Women released a five-year study about women in theater, Women Count. According to the LPTW website “The 2015 study, conducted by LPTW members Martha Wade Steketee and Judith Binus, analyzes employment in 13 professional roles (including playwrights, directors, and designers) in 455 Off- and Off-Off-Broadway productions in 22 theater companies for five complete seasons, 2010-2011 through 2014-2015.” What it found is that women are very underrepresented on stage. Miller and Greer decided to change the landscape. As they put it, “We’re sick of these statistics. So we’ve set out to do something about them.”
Hyland is a Chicago-based playwright and musician. For Annie was produced earlier this year by The Sound at The Edge Theatre in the Windy City. Lauren Whalen of Chicago Theater Beat raved about For Annie: “thanks to Hyland’s genuine voice and a terrific cast, it’s as entertaining as [it] can possibly be, with an ending that’s still haunting me a day later. See it.”
Works by Women spoke with Miller and Hyland about the upcoming production of For Annie, their processes, women in theater and the best advice they’ve ever received.
WBW: Emma, tell me about For Annie, and directing it. What inspired you to work on this piece?
EM: When (The Hearth co-founder) Julia Greer and I saw an early draft of For Annie, we knew it felt like the perfect inaugural production for The Hearth. I was struck by the way it explores grief and by its depiction of what grief does to a community, to memory, and to friendships. It tackles such an important topic deftly and with so much dignity. Of course, I was and am inspired by playwright Beth Hyland’s thoughtful presentation of complex young women and of girlhood. Each rehearsal, I am more and more amazed at the way it weaves together dance and song and story, about the complexity of the characters and the way loss plays into each of their lives, and by its exploration of what it means to remember someone. As a director, I like to work very collaboratively. I’m drawn to ensemble-driven work with a lot of moving parts, and I work best when I can integrate designers and members of the creative team really fully into the rehearsal process. This play lends itself to that, and it’s a story that means a lot to everyone working on it. So it’s felt very meaningful to be working together to solve some of the puzzles it presents and to really tell this story as best we can.
WBW: For Annie premiered in Chicago and now will have a production in New York. Beth, did anything change between that production and the New York City one?
BETH HYLAND: I changed the script very little between the Chicago and the New York productions, but I’m sure the productions will be totally distinct. Every rehearsal room, cast, director, team of designers, and crew is unique, so I can’t wait to see all the ways in which the New York production is its own animal.
WBW: Tell me about working with Emma Miller on For Annie.
BH: Emma is a joy to work with in every possible way: equal parts whip-smart and highly empathetic, fun to chat with, and goal minded. In my experience she and Julia bring a combination of positivity and intense focus to a room that is very hard to find.
WBW: What is your writing process like? How do you find inspiration?
BH: I tend to follow whatever idea I can’t stop thinking about and try to see it through to its conclusion. I also love writing for specific actors. I’ve written a lot of stuff with my friends’ voices in mind. For me to actually follow through and past the fun part of starting a script to the hard part of finishing one, I generally need to ask a director to schedule a reading with a group of friends so that I have a hard deadline–one where people will be mad at me if I don’t follow through. Now that I know that about myself as a writer, I get a lot more done and blame myself for procrastinating a lot less.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Emma, your company The Hearth, has a mission to battle the abysmal statistics about women working in New York theater. Tell me more about The Hearth and turning science (statistics) into art-making (theater).
EMMA MILLER: We launched The Hearth because we’re dedicated to making room for women in the landscape of the American theater. The disgraceful statistics point to areas where we can make real change. It’s hard for women to find their footing, to get produced and hired and to be trusted. It takes many people doing a wide variety of jobs to bring a play to life – the more women we can put in those jobs, the more they start to make a name for themselves and the more they work. Soon enough, you’ve created a whole community. The statistics served as a sort of spark for us. By telling stories about and by women and by creating our work with female-driven teams, we’re aiming to use our art to shake up those stats.
WBW: What is your development process for new work? What is your pipeline?
EM: We start by finding women’s voices that excite us. We look for work by women who are energized by and engaging with the same mission as us, who care about representing women on stage in ways that challenge the status quo and feel multi-dimensional. Then, we try to be a resource and a community for those writers and to help them develop their work as best we can. Sometimes, that means we host workshops or readings. Sometimes we function as dramaturgs. Other times, we talk more casually about first drafts or ideas. Ultimately, it’s about building relationships with writers, providing resources to help them develop work, and, hopefully, ultimately, producing.
WBW: Where do you see The Hearth in five years?
EM: Mostly, we hope to have fostered a large community that many people will call The Hearth an artistic home. Hopefully, five years down the line, we’ll have built a vast network of women at all stages of their careers who collaborate, support each other, and connect. In the next several years, we are committed to continuing to produce work that meets our mission by writers we believe in and to seeking out and creating opportunities for female artists to come together. We’re looking forward to expanding our reach to include work with students and partnering emerging female artists with mentors.
WBW: What’s your dream project?
EM: I’d love to gather a bunch of kick-ass lady playwrights from all different stages of their careers in a room together and have them write on a theme for a while, and then direct what grows out of that. I want to direct more work that, like For Annie, weaves dance and music into the storytelling. There’s a long list of contemporary female playwrights who inspire me, and someday I’d love to direct plays by them – to name a few, Jaclyn Backhaus (Works by Women Interviewee), Sarah DeLappe, Clare Barron, Sarah Gubbins, Kirsten Greenidge, Madeleine George, Martyna Majok, and so many more. Sheila Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone with Salad is on my bucket list and if anyone wants to write a super feminist adaptation of The Crucible…let me know.
BH: I would love to write an interview-based piece, and would love to write another musical adaptation.
WBW: Beth, you are also a musician. How does music influence your writing and vice versa?
BH: Something that I wish I could change about myself because it would make writing so much less lonely is that I can’t really write and listen to music at the same time, but I love putting together playlists to go along with whatever show I’m writing. I then listen to the playlist to get myself excited about the play when I’m feeling stuck or to inspire me when I’m thinking through the show.
WBW: You both graduated from Kenyon College. What was the theater program there like? How has it influenced your post-college work?
BH: The theater program at Kenyon is small but mighty, full of intense feelings in every direction. My relationships with my peers and my professors were formative for me both as a person and as an artist, and I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else.
EM: The theater program at Kenyon is very strong. It’s text-based, so you come away from your four years with a deep understanding of how to read and engage with a play.
For me and Julia, Kenyon was an amazing opportunity to discover our passion for producing and, ultimately, to realize how strongly we believe in creating opportunities for women’s work in theater to be seen and heard. We started a similarly-minded company during our time at Kenyon, and, in a lot of ways, that company and its role in the Kenyon theater landscape set the stage for our launch of The Hearth. The Kenyon drama department also has really exceptional faculty and those people are still meaningful mentors and guides who are very much a part of my post-college life. I think the “Kenyon model” of in-depth analysis and dramaturgical understanding has equipped me well for post-grad work. It’s the bedrock of my approach to directing.
WBW: What’s the landscape like in Chicago for play development. The Hearth was founded to combat the fact that women’s work is produced at an appallingly low rate in New York City. What’s your read on Chicago?
BH: Women like Rebecca Gilman, Calamity West, Kristiana Rae Colón, and Caitlin Parrish are some of the most successful and exciting playwrights currently working in Chicago, which is very inspiring and encouraging. I think that the lack of parity in terms of playwrights is probably just as true in Chicago as it is in New York, unfortunately, particularly at the major houses. The great news is that there are a lot of exciting female-driven theater companies in Chicago, some of which have started within the last year: Firebrand, The Jades, and 20% Theatre, just to name a few.
WBW: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
EM: With regards to theater: during my senior year of college, I was talking to my professor, Wendy MacLeod, about life after graduation. She smartly said, “Do the thing you want to spend your life learning more about and getting better at.” My directing professor, Brant Russell, also said, “Figure out what kind of stories you want to tell.” In terms of life (but also theater-applicable) advice, my dad has always told me “No fear; have fun”– a motto I try really hard to live by.
BH: At a point when I was incredibly frustrated and down on myself about my writing, my professor, Ben Viccellio, told me that the only thing I needed to succeed was to believe that I was good. At the time I didn’t see how that could be true, but now I think it largely is.
For Annie will receive its New York premiere December 9th through January 15th at Lucid Body House. Visit The Hearth’s website for tickets and information.