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Courtesy of EstroGenius Festival

The EstroGenius Festival celebrates female playwrights and characters.

The legacy of the male Elizabethan actors who first performed Shakespeare's female characters lives on in the persistent idea that the theater is not a woman's sphere. Today, though, Manhattan Theatre Source's month-long EstroGenius Festival launches another year of work to remedy the underrepresentation of women writers, directors, and actors in theater.

The EstroGenius festival, which showcases short plays that feature strong female voices largely written and entirely directed by women, will return for its 15th year beginning Oct. 2. The festival has a formula for its success.

"The specific goal of the festival is to celebrate the voices of women," Melissa Riker, co-founder of EstroGenius and co-producer of Women in Motion, the dance component of the festival, said. "It was founded at a time where in the landscape of what was being presented in plays, the roles that were being written for women were one-sided and kind of flat. They were not particularly interesting characters. The goal of the festival when it was initially founded was to create a place where interesting, fantastic, and vibrant women can be celebrated. That ends up getting translated into ways the voices of women, whether it be through dance, short plays, or music, can have an art where they're focused on."

The organizers of EstroGenius strive to make sure that these women's voices are not lost by providing as much support as possible to the artists involved. "In ‘Estro,' once your short play is selected, we take it from page to stage. We find a director, we set up the auditions, we arrange for the rehearsal space, we book the performance venue," Jen Thatcher, executive producer of EstroGenius, said. "The list goes on. Some festivals feel like it's a ‘churn and burn' situation—we work really hard to make sure ours doesn't feel that way. And so that keeps people excited and coming back every year."

The festival has changed over its 15-year history. In addition to the short plays, dance productions, and solo shows, it has expanded its musical and fine art categories, as well as adding a stand-up comedy component.

"It's been an interesting evolution," Riker said. "The core of it is always celebrating women's voices. Keeping the true dynamic of what a passionate woman is at the heart of why we're making the art we're making. Who those women are has changed in the past 15 years. What we need to see and what we're interested in has changed, and I love that the festival has stayed up-to-date for a huge range of ages. We have teenagers writing work that is speaking to them right now. Their work is always changing and evolving."

To celebrate its 15th year, EstroGenius will look back at successful works from previous festivals in addition to debuting new plays.

"It seemed like a good time to take a look back and to introduce new audiences to some of our favorite pieces from years past," Thatcher said. "It was tough deciding, to be sure, but we ended up with a 60/40 split for this year: 60 percent remounts, 40 percent new works."

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The works featured in EstroGenius are not only often written by women, but also explore female characters more deeply than most plays.

The solo shows are "all women and they're all pushing the envelope," Cheryl King, curator of the festival's solo shows and head of Stage Left Studio, said. "There are depictions of womanhood, such as physical strength and perseverance in the show 'There's Iron in Your Future' by Mindy Pfeffer. There's issues of motherhood and wifehood where women are called upon to tolerate things in life that are intolerable. ... And then there are issues that a woman should not tolerate, like men making you feel bad about yourself or making less money at work."

On campus, too, the issue of gender in theater has been increasingly discussed within the student theater community, most publicly in regard to last semester's production of "The Vagina Monologues," in which only self-identified women of color were invited to audition. With such a vibrant theater scene on campus and so many able actresses, Columbia faces the issue of casting women in strong, worthy roles regularly.  

"I think there's a lot more in the [theater] market for women in terms of gender-blind casting becoming a lot more frequent," Henrietta Steventon, CC '18, said. Steventon will appear as Lady Brachnel in KCST's "The Importance of Being Earnest" and is an ensemble member of CMTS' "Merrily We Roll Along."

"It's definitely up-and-coming for girls to have major roles in theater rather than being tied into the weak-Ophelia type role," she said. "It's exciting to have something directed and written by women. There are a lot of students interested in gender and sexuality, so something like this is definitely of interest."

Steventon is optimistic about the openings for women in student theater this semester.

"I think Columbia's current productions, including 'Titus Andronicus,' which has the role of Tamara, who is one of the strongest females in Shakespeare, ... have a lot of opportunities for girls to get involved in theater on campus."

“We have always been interested in showcasing the breadth and depth of what women are writing about, as well as in encouraging male playwrights to write interesting female characters. I feel that has positioned us to stay relevant as the debate over feminism has evolved.”

In light of the "He for She" movement launched by Emma Watson in her recent speech at the UN, EstroGenius' policy of including submissions written by men feels very current.

"We've allowed men to submit from day one and we've never exclusively focused on women's issues the way that some festivals tend to do," Thatcher said. "We have always been interested in showcasing the breadth and depth of what women are writing about, as well as in encouraging male playwrights to write interesting female characters. I feel that has positioned us to stay relevant as the debate over feminism has evolved."

Male playwright Brenton Lengel submitted his work "Snow White Zombie: Apocalypse," a short play that was originally written and produced for a 24-hour play festival called "Fairy Tale Smackdown" in 2009. Lengel's political stance on gender issues meant that he felt it was important for him to contribute to the festival.

"Because I'm an anarchist that means I'm also a feminist. I'm in charge of a very large Facebook group called Guys Need Feminism," Lengel said. "It's really important for men to recognize the need for female liberation in our society. The weird thing about patriarchy's emphasis on control is that it doesn't just punish women. It also punishes men who do not measure up to the patriarchy's norms. If you are gay or trans, and you step outside of the patriarchy's lines, you lose a lot of privileges."

Though EstroGenius was founded in 2000, its goal of showcasing strong female voices remains pertinent to today's theater market.

"I think the EstroGenius festival is incredibly relevant for a number of reasons," Lengel said. "I put out an ad for a 12-character play that only had two roles specifically written for women. I received something like 700 résumés from female actresses who were all very viable candidates. I think there are a large number of women who really want to do theater and there really aren't roles for them. It's very hard to break into that world because our old-world tropes prevent women's stories from being seen. There are so many incredibly talented and smart female performers in this city, and there is not nearly enough opportunity for all of them."

The EstroGenius Festival runs through Nov. 1. General admission tickets to the majority of events cost $18.

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