Script #56: lessons from doing

Cast of Garbage Kids: Jay Hardee, Deborah Randall, and Amy Belschner

In one week Venus Theatre will go into production with the 56th woman-empowering script.

It’s a lot to take in. We produce four new plays a year, usually by living playwrights, each play receives two intensive months, one for rehearsal and one for production. It’s a structure that made itself known over time. 

Each year we take play submissions in November/December. Then, we choose four plays. Then, we produce them. Two months at a time through the calendar year. 

This has afforded us worlds of exploration. Our small theatre changes shape and form with each production. It’s a storefront that was formerly a Chinese Restaurant. It seats 28 people.

Here’s why I think small theater and black box theatre are very important, especially for women in theatrical arts: they afford us an in depth and unapologetic exploration. By building a theatre that is more green friendly and economically accessible than most we have so much permission to play and explore. And for a silenced voice, this is so incredibly important. We are able to take the advice of Virginia Woolf and create because we have this “room of ones own”. Because we have kept overhead so low, we’ve also been able to keep ticket prices at $20. Our “little bit of money” allows us to do so much while still keeping our costs down.

I believe strongly that theatre can be very good business. We can keep overhead low and reach out to a huge cross section of audience with material that’s never been seen. Our production to publication rate for premiere plays is somewhere around 25%. I believe this is the future.

This model is something I’ve been working towards for 30 years. We’ve been at our storefront location for ten years and we were renegade in the years prior to that. 

I remember this moment in time where I wasn’t in my 20’s anymore. I was funding plays by having yard sales for people and waiting tables. I was tired. Many of the people working with me had seemingly moved on with their lives but I just couldn’t shake my theatre habit.

This is because theatre has done three very specific things for me.

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First, it saved my life. Literally. Not having an idyllic childhood, I would sometimes be locked in my room alone. The worlds of theatre allowed for time and space travel without ever leaving my room. Plays I would read and music I would play unleashed my imagination and allowed me to do anything. To go anywhere. I honestly would not be here if not for the form, and I take pride in housing my company in the county I grew up in with the school systems that exposed me to theatre. I want that for all of our kids today.

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Second, it gave me my career, my professional life. Whatever else was going on in the world I always found myself back in the lobby or the aisle or sitting behind a board or standing on the boards of a theatre. Learning the practicals gave me my independence. I came to understand that the places my imagination took me could be conveyed and staged and seen by others.  This led to many adventures. Four solo shows, publication as a playwright, tours with full casts, just a ton of adventure and lots of practical experience.

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The third thing theatre has given me is my tribe. Because it’s so collaborative by nature, theatre requires working together with other people. This is always a risk. For any human being. But, it’s completely transforming when it lands with the right people. Once the vision of other artists alchemizes in with the initial vision of the piece there is a transformative growth. The main ingredient for this growth is trust. Surrounded by people trusting one another to create an alternate world together is completely liberating. And, as life would have it, people started coming back into the fold.  

There have, as I said, been many adventures. I think when you are a woman in your 20’s and doing theatre you’re an edgy renegade, a hopeful Broadway star, an all-night caffeinated fiend. When you are in your 30’s and doing theatre, you are becoming a little eccentric. You must not have done that thing you should have done so you got stuck. You are both a little old and a little young. You say less and do more and start coloring your hair and drawing cartoon sketches of the people who try to take your world hostage. If they really step out of line you create a jingle for them in your mind that you can play whenever they disregard your direction. When you are in your 40’s and STILL doing theatre as a woman, you must have failed. You must not know what you are doing. You missed the boat or a bus or a class on how you should be doing what you have been doing for 20 years. You must either be dressed like Sarah Bernhardt with scarves dand gloves and finesse. With spa days and mani pedi’s and expendable income and organizational meetings at 7am. Or, you must be lost. You certainly wouldn’t still be a trained performer or a published playwright or an admired director. You are finally and wholly invisible.

I found myself eating a vegetarian special that had gone cold in a coffee shop that didn’t seem very clean. I dug into a stack of grid paper with a sharp pencil on top of an upcycled coffee table next to a pillow stained with I don’t know what. I broke through layers of paper with that razor tipped number 2, digging deep for my own vision.

IF, in theatre there is this thing called the magic-if, IF I could design any theatre I wanted, what would it look like? I still have that sketch. And, thank the GodDesS that from that sketch came the room that became the House-That-Love-Built. #VenusTheatre

All these years later, in this ever-changing world, I can look back and make a few observations:

1.   Women playwrights deserve to be produced, not just read and workshopped and festivaled to death.

2.   Even if you have an expensive space between three different subway lines, the medium of theatre when placed in the hands of women seems to scare people.

3.   Lots of types of people will sometimes shy away from work that is vulnerable because they don’t want to be perceived as weak. There is so much strength in vulnerability.

4.   When good artists are hands-on, respected, and paid, they can create any world imaginable. And they do. I see it first hand, four times a year.

5.   Most things in life are cyclical. Many of the people that helped to start Venus Theatre have returned a decade later to make it strong.

6.   The audience is the final important great step in discovering a new work. Without audience, we can only develop a script to a certain point.

7.   If you reach one audience member, you have won.

8.   In a tiny space actors cannot hide or fake it. The work becomes so powerful because the actors breath with the audience and the connections made are sometimes profound. Sometimes life-altering.

9.   What Venus Theatre lacks in muscle as marketing presence, she makes up for in agility in artistic exploration.

10.  Everyone should have access to theatre.  All kinds of theatre. Without censor. Every day. There just can’t be enough of it. Everyone.

So, as we begin production on script 56 I want to extend extreme gratitude out to our team for making it so. To all 55 teams that have landed us here at script #56 as well. To Laura Schraven for the marketing and design. To Amy Belschner Rhodes for the set, the carpentry, the construction, and all of the character work. To Jay Hardee for taking on a Venus play. To Neil McFadden for creating sound that brings our world to life. To Kris Thompson who is lighting up our lives with her led designs. To Mallory Shear who has choreographed stage fighting an invisible giant. And to Lydia Howard, Stage Manager extraordinaire. Also to Lisa Clark for stepping in this weekend.

Kris Thompson, Neil McFadden, Amy Belschner

Kris Thompson, Neil McFadden, Amy Belschner

Venus stands among the longest running women’s theatres in the world today.

Lydia will be gone for a few days. She’ll be attending her graduation at Drew University where she was recently awarded for the highest GPA of a double major.

Lydia represents so many young women that we’ve worked with at Venus. She is vibrant, smart, and hard working. Completely reliable, respectful, appreciative, and solid as a rock. Multi-talented she fits right into our structure. Having Lydia on these past two shows has been such a gift to Venus Theatre. We hope you will join us in congratulating her on graduating, (she worked two jobs while she held down a full course load and scored highest GPA!) such a great achievement.


Happy Graduation, Lydia!

You are a GodDesS and we LOVE YOU!