Women take the stage: Easthampton and Northampton feature all-female theater productions this weekend


Staff Writer

Published: 04-27-2023 10:27 AM

If you’ve been thinking there aren’t enough good roles or opportunities for women in theater, this weekend offers a good antidote to that in Easthampton and Northampton, where several productions have been created entirely by women. Here’s what on tap.

First Person Fresh in Easthampton — Story slams have become hugely popular in the last decade, but they come with strict time limits. So why not tell a personal story in a somewhat longer format?

Today (Friday, April 28) through Sunday, at the Blue Room in CitySpace, Pauline Productions is offering seven one-woman plays, with stories that range from the comic to the more serious, and with themes that include mental health, love and loss, family history, working as a safari guide, and more.

Among the performers are a number of women who have made their mark in different performance settings and styles, from music clubs to the long-running Ko Festival (KoFest) at Amherst College to portraying historical figures. The production has been put together in cooperation with KoFest.

Jeannine Haas, producing artistic director of Pauline Productions, says the plays, which run between 20 and 45 minutes, are the product of a general casting call she made last fall after she had attended a first-person storytelling workshop herself last summer at the Ko Festival. She wanted to talk to women actors who might consider expanding on the story slam format.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more interested in exploring different ways of presenting theater,” said Haas, a longtime actor, director, and theater producer and teacher in the Valley.

“I’ve done some one-person shows, though not about my own life experience,” she added. “But I was curious if other women would be interested in doing that.”

Haas reached out to some former students and performers she knew and got an encouraging response: “I heard back from a bunch of people who said ‘I’d love to do that,’ ” she said.

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So she convened a series of workshops for 13 women to begin developing their individual works by sharing their ideas with each other.

From there the women began developing more of the material on their own and working one-on-one with Haas and two other theater and film veterans, Sabrina Hamilton and Liesel de Boor, who have all served as directors for the pieces.

From that initial work, seven plays have emerged, including “An ADHD Girl’s Guide to … Whoa!” by Sue Tracy, who recently was in a production of the Irish family drama “Dancing at Lughnasa” in Ashfield.

Tracy takes a more humorous approach in her solo performance: Program notes describe her play as a tale in which “Sue and her life’s cast of characters” take a journey “from high school English class to mid life. It turns out everything she needed to know was in her high school textbook. Too bad she never read it.”

Another production, “Love, Death & Warthogs,” features a performer who’s no stranger to one-woman shows, though of a very different style.

In her first theater performance, folksinger and singer-songwriter Laura Wetzler has produced a story that touches on family memories, her first “crazy gig in the Catskills,” and a number of other chapters from her life, in six vignettes during which she’ll also perform some of her songs.

Last year, Wetzler wrote and directed her first film, “What Happened at the Veterans Home?” a drama inspired in part by the rash of COVID-related deaths in 2020 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. She said Haas reached out to her about doing a one-woman play after that.

“I said yes because it terrifies me,” Wetzler wrote in an email. That said, she still welcomed the challenge of performing in a play: “I’m very excited to try a new form as I’ve always loved the theater.”

“Even good writers can be stumped by having to write for different forums,” noted Haas. “But I’m really impressed with how all these different stories have come together.”

Some of the performers are also relatively new to theater but have made big strides since entering the field. Jo-Anne Hart, who will present “Friendship, A Love Story,” teaches in the social sciences field in Lesley University but also won the top prize at last year’s Ko Festival Story Slam.

The seven plays, which will use some basic sets and a few materials specific to each performance, are being offered in two separate blocks. Four are part of Program A and will be staged April 28 at 7:30 p.m. and April 29 at 3 p.m. The three plays in Program B take place April 29 at 7:30 p.m. and April 30 at 3 p.m.

Tickets can be purchased by visiting kofest.com and following the link for “First Person Fresh.”

Riven in Northampton — At the A.P.E. Gallery, a residency program designed to help young performers, theater directors, multidisciplinary artists and others develop new work is set to debut a play that reaches deep into a largely unknown community in Brazil.

“Riven,” which will be staged April 29 at 7:30 p.m. and April 30 at 2:30 p.m., is centered on the relationship between two black Brazilian catadoras (waste pickers), Melina and Alessandra, who sort through a scrapyard in São Paulo to find items for reuse.

On one hand, the two women, living on the margins of Brazilian society, are trying to find ways to make enough money to get by. But in doing so they’re also making an important contribution to conservation of natural resources — and they’re part of a supportive community of fellow waste pickers as well.

Marina Zurita, director of “Riven,” is a native of São Paulo who now lives in New York City. She created an earlier version of the play, “Mother Tongue,” while a student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), and she’s based both productions in part on interviews she did with waste pickers in São Paulo.

“We tend to think people do this out of necessity, but what I learned is that [waste pickers] take care of each other, and they also organize for their rights, they petition the government,” Zurita said. “I discovered that for the people who stay, it all comes back to community.”

Zurita made the connection to A.P.E. through Mollye Maxner, one of the organization’s two co-directors, who formerly taught theater at UNCSA and worked with Zurita there.

“Mollye has been a huge mentor to me,” she said.

Earlier this week, Zurita settled into A.P.E. with three New York-based actors who will be part of “Riven.” Josanna Vaz, a native of Brazil, and Alecsys Proctor, who’s originally from Miami, play the two waste pickers, Alessandra and Melina. Isabelle Bushue, a Chinese-American actor, plays Little Girl, a Chinese child and waste picker who weaves “ghost-like” through the play.

The four women went over the script, which Zurita created over the last several months, based on feedback from the actors and a lot of dialogue crafted during improv sessions. How some parts of the play will shake out is still being determined, Bushue said with a laugh: “We’ll know this weekend!”

But a larger goal of “Riven,” the women say, is to draw connections to the millions of people around the globe who also work as waste pickers, both to help illuminate the extreme margins of society and the way in which that throwaway society has created a huge environmental problem.

A suggested donation for “Riven” is $5 to $20 at the door, There will be a post-play discussion following the April 30 performance.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.