Taking the Muzzle Off: WAM Theatre Invites Change Makers
By Nichole Dupont
No matter where we are in the world, the rapid-fire barrage of social media and hard news headlines finds us: Child marriage in Jordan, school girls kidnapped in Nigeria, U.S. women among nation’s poorest, no public laughter in Turkey. The stories range from horrifying to ridiculous, yet the subject (or, I should say, the object) always lands squarely on the “fairer sex.” It’s hard not to feel a solid lump of hopelessness knowing what faces women and girls across the globe, every moment of every day.
“But there are women who are standing forward, and good men who are standing forward and good things are being manifested through the energy of women,” says actor and activist Jayne Atkinson. She is talking via cellphone from the Baltimore set of House of Cards—which is packed with strong female leads—where she is in the thick of shooting the series’ third season. “Put in the hands of women, look at the amazing changes we have seen in our world.”
Atkinson is a strong supporter and advocate for the Berkshire-based WAM (Women’s Action Movement) Theatre, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary with Change Makers, a high-profile panel discussion to be held on August 24 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The event will be hosted by Marsha Norman and Sarah LaDuke and panelists include author/actor Jessica Blank, award-winning playwright Winter Miller, veteran photographer John Stanmeyer and Academy Award-winning (Berkshire-based) documentarian Cynthia Wade [above]. The panel discussion will address some of greatest challenges facing women (and men) in the world. Proceeds from the event will benefit WAM’s fall production of In Darfur, written by Miller, who was inspired by what she saw as a researcher for The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof at the start of the genocide in Darfur in 2004.
“I’m not capable of unseeing things,” says Miller [right] about the heavy content of most of her plays. “I try to figure out ‘how can I share what I’ve seen with people who may not have seen it.’ I have this goal of inciting curiosity; what they know versus what they think they know about a situation.”
Miller has written several plays (both commissioned and personal) about high-profile situations that we think we know about including the Trayvon Martin case, the Steubenville rape, gun control and sexual identity just to rattle off a few. And yet, no matter how many full-length productions or one-act workshops she writes, Miller still remains somewhat stupefied.
“It’s perplexing to me,” she says. “How is it that gay rights has rocketed ahead of women’s rights? Things have not panned out the way many people thought it would. Yes, there is sheer outrage and the desire to shout ‘everybody wake up!’”
Inciting action has been WAM’s purpose all along according to artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven, who says that at first “the whole endeavor felt like a gamble.”
“It’s so hard to raise the funds simply to produce an event, and then also we were going to donate funds? We really had no idea if it would work, and I often say it’s because we’re based in the Berkshires that it has worked. And it’s only through lots of hard work, incredible mentors, tons of support and many accomplishments that now I feel so much more comfortable in my role as ‘artistic director.’ I feel proud going into meetings to ask for support because I know WAM is a good investment.”
Certainly good enough to draw an eclectic panel of passionate champions for humanity who, as van Ginhoven puts it “all…desire to use our art for action. More specifically, to use our art to create positive change around social justice issues.”
John Stanmeyer [left, photo by Rob Becker] sees women’s issues (though he is hesitant to call them that) through an entirely (literally) different lens. Having travelled across the globe to destinations which are typically viewed as especially hostile towards women, including parts of Africa, East Asia, India and the Middle East.
“I completely ‘get’ how males get to dominate borders and cultures. And I completely understand the weight and measure [of the movement] to empower women,” he says. “But I don’t believe in gender differences. It’s the weakness of humans, what we’ve done to humanity, that’s caused this inequality. Education is paramount. We do need to support greater empowerment for women in developing countries, and in our own country.”
He pauses, shaking his head. We are sitting in his photo gallery/café in West Stockbridge, MA. Just outside the window, his daughter, dressed in bright purple and orange, is fishing in the Williams River with her two older brothers.
“I can’t even fathom the notion that some bozo in a room would actually consider not paying someone fairly because they’re female. It blows my mind,” he says. “I just want human beings to function in their greatest and most prolific way and be driven by brilliance.”