Playwright project promotes female leads on stage

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater has built a great reputation for staging an eclectic mix of plays and musicals using an array of talented actors to bring the subject matter to life.
One thread has run through many of the productions: The presence of men in the most dominant roles.
It’s not that THT brass have intentionally selected plays that celebrate male characters and/or themes; it’s just that a majority of the classics — from “Macbeth” to “Sweeney Todd” — have masculine protagonists.
“There needs to be more plays with young women,” said Haley Rice, THT’s operations and marketing director. “You can only do ‘Annie’ or ‘Little Women’ so many times. There’s just not a lot to refill the coffers after you’ve exhausted those traditional materials.”
She and her THT colleagues are now engaged in a fun and creative project they hope will lead to more women getting a bigger share of the stage — not only at Middlebury’s community theater, but at performing arts venues around the globe. It’s called the “Ingenious Grant for Playwriting,” an international appeal for scripts that have at their center a young female lead supported by other young women in meaningful roles.
And we’re not talking about the stereotypical girlfriend, daughter or nerdy best-friend roles to which women actors are often relegated on stage and in film. The contest stipulates “interesting roles” for young women, giving them a chance to be heroines or villainesses in whatever story the playwright wishes to advance. The lead and supporting players must be 18 years old or younger. The play must have a running time of at least 50 minutes and cannot have been produced before.
THT officials launched the contest in January and gave participating playwrights until June 1 to submit their work. As an extra inducement, they promised the winning playwright $1,000 and, at the very least, a staged reading of their work at THT. There’s also the possibility the theater will stage the play sometime this fall if it can be done affordably, according to Rice.
It’s an offer that many playwrights found too good to refuse.
Rice was thrilled to report on Monday she’d received 230 submissions, including some from Africa, Australia, England, Ireland and of course the United States. A handful of Vermonters were among those who entered, including playwright Jay Dubberly of Vergennes.
“It totally exceeded my expectations,” Rice said of the response. “I was thinking we’d get 25 or 30.”
Rice, with some help, has already completed an initial triage of the mountain of entries, which jettisoned around 50 plays right away because they didn’t meet the basic criterion of being women-centered. For example, a Saudi Arabian playwright’s submission was based on a fictional, forbidden love affair involving a former Shah of Iran and an American man.
Others had to be rejected because they had already been produced.
“It broke my heart to see some of them go,” Rice said of the quality of some of the disqualified plays.
All of this has boiled down to a group of approximately 150 plays that can now vie for the grand prize. Rice has put together a group of six people — all of them having connections to the THT and sound theater savvy — to wade through the contenders. They will narrow things down to five or six finalists, according to Rice. Organizers have given the judges a list of guidelines upon which to evaluate each play, such as “would you want to be in this show?” and “did you find the characters to be well-rounded.”
Some of the contending play themes, according to Rice, include friendship, banding together, dealing with eating disorders, cheerleaders, fairy tales, and the retelling of Shakespeare plays with a spotlight shone on some of the Bard’s peripheral female characters.
“The ones that are moving on were well-written, and the dynamics of the female characters run deep,” Rice said. “The characters grow and develop.”
Fellow members of Dubberly’s writing group encouraged him to enter his play, titled “Do Your Magic.” It’s about the aftermath of a hate crime committed on prom night. The play is told through a series of monologues from the high school students, faculty and staff, and centers around Savannah Redfield, the prom queen, according to Dubberly.
“It deals with issues of hate, love, transphobia, homophobia and youth culture,” he said.
Dubberly, a graduate of Goddard College’s MFA program, is an experienced playwright and often builds strong female characters into his plays. His creative influences include Hayao Miyazaki, Sarah Gran and Sam Shepard. His graduate thesis was a screenplay about a young girl named Jac who searches the city of Boston for her lost hamster as a means of coping with her ailing mother. He’s penned a novella (available at Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury) titled “Storm Grey & Stella d’Oro” that focuses on a street urchin/thief named Sandra Thompson who decides to follow a woman home, kill her and take over her life.
“It is important (for women) to have as much representation in art and media as possible,” Dubberly said.
THT will announce the competition winner on Sept. 1. And while only one playwright will receive $1,000 and a stage acknowledgement of his or her work, Rice said the entire theater world will emerge a winner from the collective efforts of the participating playwrights. 
“The best thing about this, to me, is that I have around 150 new plays for young women, and that’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “Those plays are out there now.”
Rice hopes THT will be able to offer the “Ingenious Grant for Playwriting” again in the future, to constantly add new acting opportunities for women.
“There’s a lot of imagination out there,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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