Less than a third of plays produced on Canadian professional stages in the 2018-2019 season were written by women. But a group of Hamilton women have been working together to defy these odds.
Feminista, a playwriting unit now in its third year is devoted exclusively to assisting women in the creation of their work. The group’s co-founder, Erika Reesor, was inspired to start the group after being part of a similar collective through Kitchener’s Pat the Dog Theatre in 2016.
“The rule was that you were there to write a play,” Reesor says of her experience with Pat the Dog. “The time- the entire year that you were there- was to be used to start a brand new play, finish a first draft of it, and then have a public reading.”
Feminista’s inaugural year saw them rent space at the Hamilton Women’s Centre- an experience Reesor thoroughly enjoyed, as playwrights were able to contribute to the Centre’s programming and immediately have an impact- something Reesor says is one of the collective’s goals.
However, the collective did not receive grants that it had applied for to assist with expenses such as rent, and Reesor and her co-founder found themselves paying out-of-pocket for Feminista’s daily expenses.
“It was going to end after our first year,” Reesor recalled. “We had a great year- there were six women who came, and all finished the first draft of a play, and then we had to say ‘We don’t know if we can do this again next year.’” Reesor’s co-founder left, leaving Reesor to move the unit forward on her own.
However, fate intervened, and in a chance meeting with Luke Brown, Theatre Aquarius’ Director of New Play Development, Feminista was offered space through the theatre company. Despite the attractive offer, Reesor admits that she wasn’t initially sold on the idea at first.
“The whole idea of having a unit that is only for women is that we didn’t want anyone telling us what we could or couldn’t do. It needed to be as organic as possible.” she explained. “But they have been very good to us. . .our main association with Theatre Aquarius is that we get space from them. . .but each playwright receives an honorarium, they include us in their playreading, and they even do our printing. The only expense I have now is to bring snacks to our meetings.”
Now in its third year, meetings of the playwriting unit occur twice a month, with each meeting lasting three hours each. Members come from as far away as Toronto and London to participate. Writers spend the first few months in the unit trying out ideas and getting a sense of the stories and characters they are interested in writing about, before bringing in scripts to work on. At each meeting, two members present their work, with the remaining members providing feedback and support. Reesor is clear that despite the collective being for women only, members are welcome to write about any topics that they choose.
Meetings of the unit also include a learning component. Reesor recalled a recent meeting where a member gave a workshop about the Fringe Festival process. Topics covered included how to apply to festivals, how it was possible to do multiple festivals in a summer, and budgeting considerations. These activities are critical to the growth of its members, in addition to the feedback and support of the writing that the group provides.
Feminista’s members are seeing success. Several plays have been performed at the HamilTEN Festival; another was performed at the MindPlay Festival. Other writers are seeing their work performed at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto and the Queer Toronto Theatre Festival.
Despite the group’s early success, Reesor admits that there is still much more work to be done. “We have some diversity in that we have queer writers in our unit, and some artists have disabilities, but that’s where our diversity ends. And as much as I love the writers in our unit, it is disappointing that we are not reaching women of colour and other diversities.”
In addition to growing the group and increasing the partners and reach of Feminista, Reesor hopes to one day have the collective stage some of their works, to provide members with experience in the steps involved in not just writing, but producing a performance as well. And while each iteration of the unit may only last a year, Reesor is quick to note that the supportive nature and friendships made in the collective have expanded outside of the walls of their meetings- one of her goals for Feminista.
“I want women to feel empowered enough to not just write the plays they want to write, but also to make empowered decisions in the rest of their life.”