By Harry Huggins
Artemisia, a theater company for female-driven plays, will host its annual Fall Festival of free staged readings in Edgewater this year at the Frontier/Jackalope Theater. In bringing its feminist and democratic play production system to the area, Artemisia joins a recent wave of socially conscious theater groups moving to Edgewater and Andersonville.
Artemisia’s Fall Festival
The six plays that actors and directors will stage on Sept. 18, 19, 25 and 26 all feature female protagonists and aim to challenge the audience’s perceptions of women. Julie Proudfoot, founder and artistic director of Artemisia, and her team picked the plays out of 350 submissions. They based their decisions on the company’s stated mission to produce plays that empower women and challenge audiences’ perception of women.
Proudfoot drew inspiration for the festival’s structure from classic Greek theater and her own experiences as a story analyst for HBO Films. “I learned that there is a lot of good material out there by unknown authors,” Proudfoot said. “We are a world driven by celebrity, so I decided to reach out to unknown writers and do this like the Greeks do: fully democratic. We never want to get above our audiences; we want them to hold our feet to the fire.”
The Fall Festival asks audiences to decide which of the six plays Artemisia will perform as a full production next season. Proudfoot said she asks every audience three questions: do you think this play empowers women? Does this play change your perception of women? Should Artemisia produce this play?
Proudfoot has received criticism for withholding her artistic expertise and taste with this process, but she defended her decision. “We’ve picked six plays, plays that are ready to be performed, not just read,” she said. “We want the audience to go along with that. If I didn’t trust my audience, why would I have started in theater? You have to invite them to have a voice with you.”
Steve Scott is directing “Visiting,” the final play of the festival. He is also directing an upcoming full performance of “Chewing on Beckett” for Artemisia. “I admire Artemisia’s mission, which is very focused on women and the female perspective on the contemporary world,” Scott said. “I think Julie [Proudfoot] is very good at sussing out plays that are very interesting right now, that offer us compelling contemporary perspectives.”
Theater in Edgeville
Proudfoot said she thinks Edgewater is the perfect place to bring Artemisia’s plays and mission. Here, she joins a growing number of theater companies based in Andersonville and Edgewater with similar missions of representing people that traditional theater often forgets.
“Space controls the future in theater,” Proudfoot said. The space available at the Jackalope Theater’s Frontier space on Thorndale initially drew Artemisia’s interest. She said she wanted to continue developing new work focusing on the community, so Proudfoot engaged Alderman Harry Osterman, 48th ward, who was interested in building Edgewater’s theater district.
Proudfoot said she sees how the socially conscious theater that Artemisia does has grown in Edgewater. “First, I think it’s the direction theater is going in general, in Chicago and nationally. There’s a focus on women’s stories and women’s theater. Second, I think with there being so many new companies, people want to focus their new work to narrow the playing field and do more compelling theater.”
For theater companies, Edgewater benefits from being a relatively new, up-and-coming neighborhood. “Old neighborhoods that had opportunities for socially conscious theater are full,” Proudfoot said. “Edgewater has room and support. Here, people love it. There’s opportunity to be a smaller theater with a socially relevant message.”
Artemisia’s theater counterparts already in Edgewater and Andersonville have similar theories of why this area has attracted so many performance arts spaces lately. David Cerda’s Hell in a Handbag Production company performs in Mary’s Attic, a space above Hamburger Mary’s in Andersonville. He said the area’s demographics are different from other theater heavy neighborhoods. “The crowd is more comfortable,” he said. “They know what they want to see and they are more than happy to come out. And we’re more than happy to perform for them.”
Joseph Schupbach, artistic director of student-focused theater company Barrel of Monkeys, has been performing in Andersonville for 15 years. ”As the neighborhood has evolved, there has been a lot of physical real estate opportunities for theater companies to grow,” Schupbach said. When he started working here, the neighborhood was full of young people working in the arts. “Now, the area has changed and there are a lot of children and families in the audience, so we changed to bring a show to kids and their families.”
About Face Theater Company moved their corporate offices to Edgewater in 2014 and Artistic Director Andrew Volkoff said they plan on moving their performance space as well. He attributes the area’s growth in theater companies to Osterman and his efforts to grow the theater district.
“When you’ve got someone who wants to have art in their ward, it makes it easy to come here and do that work,” Volkoff said. “It feels to me like Harry wants good quality cultural opportunities for the people in his ward. Because of that, you’ve got theater in this ward that is engaging and exciting and entertaining, but it is definitely trying to talk about more challenging issues. When you’re welcomed into a community like that, it makes you feel that the work that you do matters.”
Volkoff estimated that many of his audiences at About Face’s performances in Lakeview come from Edgewater and Andersonville. Aston Rep theater company stages performances in the Raven Theater. Artistic Director Robin Tobin said he sees that people here are interested in a special type of theater.
“There’s a lot of families in Edgewater that come out, so a lot of the works we do are intimate family dramas that deal with the dysfunction and intricacies of family,” Tobin said. “There’s a lot of immediacy in those plays and the way we produce them. They’re newer, more progressive families; they respond to our plays very well.”
“Somewhere in the Middle,” by Julie Proudfoot and directed by Carrie Lee Patterson, is loosely inspired by artist Jenny Saville and follows the relationship between a fiercely independent female artist and a wealthy patron. It deals with the tension between art and commerce. Friday, Sept. 18, 8 p.m.
“Converting to Bangladesh,” by Victoria Cano and directed by Jamal Howard, is Cano’s first full-length play, but she has won awards for her one act plays. Converting to Bangladesh is based on Cano’s experiences as a graduate student researching water sanitation and gender rights. Proudfoot called they play’s dialogue “unique, funny and new.” Saturday, Sept. 19, 2 p.m.
“Bohemians,” by Jaki McCarrick and directed by Grace V. Cannon, is loosely inspired by Patti Smith and follows a 50-year-old punk rocker struggling with the death of her daughter. Proudfoot said it is “darkly funny and redeeming, but goes to some dark places.” Saturday, Sept. 19, 8 p.m.
“Maize,” by Judith Pratt and directed by Mary Rose O’Connor, is inspired by scientist Barbara McClintock and her research on corn genetics. It depicts a young scientist at the height of her discoveries and later as a woman outliving her fame. Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m.
“Cuttings,” by Thomas M. Atkinson and directed by Julie Proudfoot, is about a gardener and her fractured identity. The play asks if an accident she suffered as a child left her incapable of being happy. Saturday, Sept. 26, 2 p.m.
“Visiting,” by Ed Proudfoot and directed by Steve Scott, is about a high school student on a family picnic. Her mother is in treatment for a diagnosed mental illness, which challenges the protagonist. Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m.